Lianne La Havas: 'It's hard to fit in when you have two heritages'

The London soul sensation, about to release her first album in five years, talks about identity, her friendship with Prince and her political awakening

Lianne La Havas arrives on her bike, a sturdy looking affair with a wicker front basket. It’s a June morning in Brockwell Park, south London, and the sun is out and the flowers are bright and the world is delicious. There are six of us here, all women; this is the first time, post-corona crisis, that any of us have been involved in an interview and photo shoot where everyone is outside their own house. A new beginning… And also an end, for in just a few days, the beaches will be packed, the park as full as a festival, parties will get rowdy and be broken up by police, and lockdown will be done. For now, though, we’re in a dreamy, singular moment.

Up the hill to do the photos in a walled garden. La Havas parks her bike and sits on a bench to apply her makeup. She spends some time on her eyebrows, holds earrings up to see if they suit. A designer friend sent her some clothes to wear, but they were all a bit too hot and stiff, so she’s in a cotton dress that ties at the waist and airs her midriff. She’s calm but friendly. Centred. If you told me she was a yoga teacher, I wouldn’t be surprised.

A dad moseys over with his toddler and says he saw La Havas play her recent gig at the Barbican, and how brilliant he thought it was. “That never really happens,” she says to me after he goes. “No one ever recognises me.”

She’s sort of famous, La Havas: plenty of people won’t have heard of her; she hasn’t had a this-is-who-I-am smash hit. But within music, she’s seen as the real deal. Her first album, Is Your Love Big Enough?, went to No 4 in 2012 and was nominated for the Mercury prize. Her second, Blood, written in Jamaica (her mum is Jamaican, her dad, Greek) came out in 2015 and went to No 2. Big stars noticed her from the start. Stevie Wonder called her after going to see her play live and sang “Is Your Love Big Enough” on to her answer machine. After her debut appearance on BBC’s Later…, Bon Iver asked her to support them on tour, and after that, she supported Alicia Keys and Coldplay. Now, Erykah Badu responds to all her Instagram messages. Most notably, Prince became her friend after he saw her songs on the internet; in 2014, he decided to host a press conference and play live in La Havas’s actual house! (She made him tea. He took it with honey, no milk.)

But she also attracted less positive attention, in 2016, when she was 25, for a tweet she put out about the Brits. There was a hashtag, BritsSoWhite, objecting to the lack of nominations that year for artists of colour, and La Havas, with her mixed racial heritage, didn’t really agree with it. She tweeted: “Do not include me with this horrible horrible hashtag”, and then, when people questioned this, replied that she thought the hashtag was “racist and unfounded”. This caused a huge upset, and La Havas apologised and retreated.

La Havas as a toddler with her mum.
La Havas as a toddler with her mum. Photograph: Courtesy Lianne La Havas

Four-and-a-half years later – a couple of weeks ago – she issued a lengthy statement on Twitter and Instagram supporting the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement: “For those who had doubts about what side I’m on, no need to doubt, and for those who always knew… BLACK LIVES MATTER.” (“You love to see the growth” was one response.) She also mentioned that she’s reading Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish). When we talk about this, she says: “I was crying within the first few pages, and I’ve never cried at a book.” (Actually, I notice that she talks about crying quite a lot. One of her new songs is called Please Don’t Make Me Cry. La Havas might seem calm, but she’s brimful of emotion.)

La Havas is 30 now, and her third album, while not exactly world-weary, is not innocent. It’s called Lianne La Havas, and has more of a live feel than her previous two LPs. Her guitar is light and picky, tropicalia-style summery. The subject matter is, mostly, love (falling in it, falling out of it, finding love for yourself). Among the 10 tracks is an interesting cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes, which she’s been playing live; and one that, unusually for her, came all in a rush, in two days, Seven Times. (“That song just sounds like me, like what I want to sound like, and I love the chords and the sass and the attitude of it. It’s my favourite.”) Overall, it’s a gorgeous summer listen, a warm-night-with-the-windows-open mood with songs that tuck themselves inside you like almost-remembered dreams.

When she writes, whether on guitar by herself, or with others, using piano, the songs she keeps are those that don’t come too easily. “It’s like there’s something about a song that I can’t remember,” she says. “And I really want to remember, so I want to hear it more… You could write a song and you know the logical chords to go to, but it’s the ones where you think: ‘Oh, what was that thing I just did?’ Those are the ones I’m looking for.”

The album has taken her some time to make. The first release from the album, Bittersweet, was actually started in 2014, at the end of writing Blood (it’s a cool assessment of a previous relationship); and the second, Paper Thin, was begun in 2016. It was sparked by a FaceTime conversation she had with a different boyfriend (then new, now ex).

“It was a difficult conversation and I was just falling in love,” she says. “At the beginning, you definitely want to do it, but you’re getting to know the other person a bit more and then you see what gives them pain for the first time. And that basically happened on FaceTime. There are certain types of people that tend to keep their pain to themselves and try to defuse it with something else, like humour.”

We’re sitting under a tree on the grass, two metres apart. La Havas has her legs crossed. She pulls at grass stalks. She wants to talk and as she does, it becomes clear that, actually, this album has been hard-won. “I really wanted to have the whole album done by 2017,” she says, and her record company were keen for this, too. But life got in the way. She kept going to Los Angeles, to be with her new boyfriend; she had to finish off touring with Coldplay; then Prince died, as did her great grandmother and her granny, both of whom she’d lived with when she was growing up. When it got to 2017, she was still travelling, still promoting Blood. She ended up “getting really stressed because I had given myself deadlines for things that shouldn’t have deadlines”.

There was another factor, too. Her boyfriend, the LA FaceTime one, was also in the music business, and she found that, after a while, they were competing with each other. But neither of them would admit it, “and it was just really toxic”. This unspoken competitiveness made her feel “really shit about myself, like thinking: ‘I can’t play, I’m not good enough, my voice isn’t good enough, I’m not good-looking enough.’ It was really hard.”

This seems so bananas to me – La Havas is very talented, and ridiculously beautiful – that I tell her if she ever feels like this again, she should just call me up and I’ll tell her the truth. But your relationships are so intense in your 20s, so all-consuming and identity-forming, and La Havas is the type who likes to share a home with whoever she’s with. She’d genuinely thought that, by 28, she’d be having a baby. But it was not to be. She and her boyfriend burned each other out. “It just went completely, unpredictably, all-over-the-place bad, and I was really shocked and blamed myself… and I’m not going to say I wasn’t partly to blame, but I just think you never know what you’re going to get.” Once the relationship was done, she moved back to south London, where she’d grown up.

It was here that she found the time and space to make Lianne La Havas. She hooked up with old friends, “super local” ones, who’d she’d known years ago when they were at the Brit School, and she was doing A-levels. They were hanging out, and after a while her friends would say: ‘So what are you working on?’ And La Havas would “play them something, at two in the morning, and I’d look at their reaction, and I’d be like: ‘OK, I feel like that’s a good one.’ They did my A&R! This album was made by me and my friends.”

But let’s go back a bit, to the time when things weren’t going so well. To 2016, her disaster year. To #BritsSoWhite. What happened?

La Havas with her father.
La Havas with her father. Photograph: Courtesy Lianne La Havas

“I said that the hashtag was racist, basically,” she says. “I didn’t know about the concept of reverse racism. I didn’t know that was a thing. And I didn’t know that there was a school of thought that you can’t be racist if you are black.”

She’d been asked if she was upset because she hadn’t been included in the 2016 Brits nominations. But she hadn’t been upset, really, because, she’d reasoned, she hadn’t sold as many records as other artists. “I didn’t know what I was saying. I didn’t know what was bad or what was good. I wasn’t looking at it like: ‘Oh they’ve not nominated enough black people.’ But I was ripped a new one.”

“It was one of the worst things that’s ever happened in my life,” she continues. “I had no idea, number one, that so many people were listening to anything I had to say. I just didn’t think I was important. And also that so many people assumed what I would think, because of my race. I thought that I was saying something that included people and that was nicer to say. I wanted to be inclusive of everyone. But because I said something different to the general majority, I experienced so much hate from that majority.

“Now, it’s like: ‘Oh, I see. I absolutely understand.’ But at the time, I was just trying to be nice. People were acting like I agreed with racism. But shouldn’t it be obvious that racism is horrendous and totally pointless and the worst thing ever? I was surprised that people didn’t understand.”

La Havas was also feeling, as a woman of mixed heritage, that she wanted to acknowledge both of her parents.

“It felt personal,” she says. “I get called black – which is true, I am black – but also, that’s not acknowledging my dad. And I take that really personally, because I can’t be this without my dad. I’d be something completely different. So, I guess it triggered me. Like: ‘Well, no. I am what I am. Which is mixed.’ It can be confusing for people who have two heritages, or two distinct ones that are very different from one another. It’s hard to feel like you fit in…

“I remember another tweet where I said I’d come home from somewhere. I said: ‘I’m back and I’m proud.’ And someone said: ‘You mean black.’ And I was like: ‘I’m mixed.’ And then they were like: ‘Lol.’ I thought: ‘Why are you laughing? I am mixed.’ I just always maintained that my experience would never be the exact same as my mother’s at this age. That’s all I was saying. I was just, like: ‘It’s not going to be exactly the same for me because I have a white dad.’”

La Havas performing with Prince on Saturday Night Live in 2014.
La Havas performing with Prince on Saturday Night Live in 2014. Photograph: SNL

Anyhow, she knows she got it wrong, and was badly burnt by the experience. “It was a dark period.” She deleted Twitter and Instagram from her phone and decided to educate herself. “In the last four years, I’ve learned so much about myself, and my blackness, and about racism and colourism and so many things,” she says. And much of this initially came from her LA boyfriend, who is black. He saw the whole Twitter storm blow up and was very understanding.

“He was very kind,” she says. “He was like: ‘Oh, Li. It’s fine. You messed up, you didn’t know, you’re British.’ Because he’s from America. And then he just showed me loads and loads of documentaries and films.”

They watched documentaries about the killing of Rodney King, lots of Spike Lee movies and films by other African American directors, “loads of just funny black movies, but also serious ones about real life in Los Angeles, Compton, where people of colour generally live. And then of course, he told me a lot about the police.”

La Havas says that living in the US was the first time she ever felt really black – everyone there labelled her as such – and she found that living an everyday life could be fraught with difficulty because of this. She gives me an example. One time, she, her boyfriend and his brother were all in an Uber. The driver was also black.

“I was trying to hug and kiss my boyfriend at the time,” she says. “And his brother was like: ‘You better stop, because we are four black people in a car…’ If you’re black and there’s more than one of you, and you’re behaving in any way that might be seen as rowdy, then you’re drawing attention to yourselves and you’re more likely to be pulled over.”

Watch the video for Paper Thin by Lianne La Havas.

There were a couple of times that she and her boyfriend had an argument in the street. And he would calm things down immediately “because he was like: ‘If you and me are arguing really loud, the police are going to come and shoot me’. It’s real. It’s totally real. It’s so traumatic and stressful.”

She looks around us at the park. “We take this for granted,” she says. “We just walk around in the park. We’re fine, mostly, here. It’s really different in America. And I totally understand, and I’ve lived it now and I’m grateful for what he taught me because it’s not easy. And accepting my own blackness… I remember the first time I went with him to church together, and it was an all-black church. And I started crying because it reminded me of my family and being at a wedding or a function with all my Jamaican family. It was just, like: ‘Oh, shit. Yes, I’m black.’”

In the UK, as La Havas was growing up, things were different. Less defined, less acknowledged. She grew up as Lianne Barnes (La Havas is a version of her dad’s surname) and her mum, a postal worker, and dad, a bus driver, split up when she was two. Her mum was working early shifts and La Havas went to live round the corner with her mum’s parents in Balham. She went to the local primary, then to Norbury Manor, a girl’s secondary school. She was happy enough, not particularly popular or unpopular.

At school, her group of friends “was a bit of a mixture. There were Indian girls, Jamaicans, Africans, white girls. We had a crew that was not quite anything. I was the only mixed one, interestingly. Also, they acknowledged me as mixed. And my mum was like: ‘You’re mixed.’ My mum is a dark-skinned black woman, so she was like: ‘You’re mixed because your dad is white.’ I was like: ‘OK, cool. Fact.’”

She did have a bit of trouble with her hair, she says: “It was a big old problem in my life.” Her mum’s family, being Jamaican, always wanted to straighten it; her dad had no idea how to look after it. Without siblings, La Havas herself didn’t know either, until she met another mixed-race girl, who explained what techniques and products to use. “And then I found YouTube,” she says. “God bless YouTube.”

She also learned guitar from YouTube, when she was 18. Before then, at seven, her dad bought her a keyboard and she started singing to herself and enjoying it. But it was a private joy, not for others. At 13, she sang in public and started acknowledging music as a force in her life. She had posters of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Eminem on her bedroom wall. She loved Jill Scott, India Arie. When she was 18, her dad introduced her to the guitar. He was a musician himself – his instrument was the accordion – and his brother was a classical guitarist. Her “cool jazz” friends from the Brit School showed her some chords. La Havas found the guitar opened up a new way for her to write songs.

La Havas in Brockwell Park, south London.
La Havas in Brockwell Park, south London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Soon after, she started putting tunes up on Myspace and was quickly signed to Warners. And everything seemed to happen, one opportunity after another, and she would just say yes and try to enjoy herself. (Interestingly, she says she wasn’t treated as a black act by her record label. She worked with white people; the black label execs only worked on R&B or grime or UK rap. So when the #BritsSoWhite storm happened, there was nobody at her label she could turn to, no person of colour who could have taken her to one side and educated her or given advice.)

Anyway, she had a mad time in her 20s. Which is how she met Prince. He’d got in touch with her, she’d been to Paisley Park, and when he was in London they’d hung out at a private members’ club and he’d come back to her house for an after party. “I think he liked that I just spoke to him normally,” she says. After that they would email each other, “like pen pals”, talking about music. “He’d give me pep talks, ‘Just do what you’re doing. Don’t need to do that trendy shit.’ He didn’t swear, he’d just show me videos of Esperanza Spalding and Bill Withers. And then I’d talk about Joni Mitchell. He smelt amazing, not masculine or feminine, like the most beautiful scented candles that don’t give you a headache.”

When he died, she was on the tube to see her great-grandmother, who was dying herself. She came off the tube and had loads of missed calls. “I was like: ‘What’s going on? Prince must be coming to London.’ And then I heard and I was totally… I couldn’t make sense of it. Totally in shock. I didn’t understand, because I had spoken to him. It was recent. He was young and it was not right…” She tells me later: “I hope he didn’t see what I said on Twitter.”

These days, La Havas lives in a home where she has three guitars on the wall, though she only uses two. She’s living with a new boyfriend, who is calm and nice and doesn’t mind animals. Which is lucky, as a kitten is arriving soon: there are a couple of potential kitty names, one of which is Marge, after Marge Simpson. During lockdown, she and her boyfriend have been watching Grand Designs and MasterChef, though their home cooking has become less enthusiastic and now they’re back to Deliveroo. They watched This Is England, which neither of them had seen before, and after that they burned through all three of the spin-off TV series.

They’ve been on a few Black Lives Matter marches. They joined the one in early June, walked to Parliament Square. They listened to the female speakers, and, yes, La Havas started crying.

“Thousands of Londoners from every race were there,” she says, “We went to the Home Office and we sat in silence for a good 20 minutes, really peaceful. All wearing masks. I was with friends. And it was really… It felt important. It felt really historic. It mattered and I was like, ‘This is a real thing. Something might actually change.’” An end to something. A beginning. Out we go, into a bright, new world.

Lianne La Havas is out on 17 July on Nonesuch. La Havas plays a live show streaming worldwide from London’s Roundhouse, 15 July. Tickets can be booked here – all proceeds to Black Lives Matter-related orgainsations.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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