Play It Forward: Lianne La Havas Stretches To New Heights

Aug 25, 2020
Originally published on August 27, 2020 8:00 am

On the last episode of Play It Forward, All Things Considered's chain of musical gratitude, British spoken word artist Kae Tempest spoke about singer-songwriter and fellow South Londoner Lianne La Havas. In particular, they described being transfixed by La Havas' command of melody after witnessing her perform at the Royal Albert Hall.

"There is something that happens when I hear her sing, which is so uplifting," Tempest said. "I feel like the way that she selects melody and the way that she embodies those melodies — her guitar playing, the placement of the breath in the lines that she sings — I just find it extremely uplifting and healing."

La Havas wasn't ready for the praise. "Somebody as insightful and deep as Kae saying something like that about me? I just think I'm a goofball walking around," she joked. "I'm really, really touched." Joining us from a car in bustling traffic in London, Lianne La Havas spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro about her new, self-titled album, which finds her in a loose, live environment and traces a rocky relationship from start to finish and about an artist she's grateful for: Brooklyn soul polymath Nick Hakim. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of their conversation.

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Interview Highlights

On how "Paper Thin" was the genesis of her album

It's the closest to very pure expression for me, which was very important for me to do. I feel like I got close before but never quite hit the nail on the head. So when I was making this one, I remember playing the demo to a very dear, close friend of mine. She was like, "This just sounds like you." And no one had really said that to me before! I was like, "Oh my god, that's what I need. I want something to sound like me."

I think maybe my sound — I like to leave in a few mistakes, in a good way. I feel like if it's too perfect, it takes something away; and equally, if it's too messy. I think I'm somewhere in the middle of very neat, but a bit rough around the edges. Neat, but with atmosphere.

On the meaning and process behind "Bittersweet"

The verses are very literal. That is about my relationship and how I needed to get out of it and get to know myself again. Then the chorus is a bit more like, metaphorical, using the analogy of being cleansed by the rain of a new season, that was perhaps me entering a new phase of my own life and making a big change and no matter how painful it was. That's where the bittersweet thing comes in: It was the right thing to do.

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I'm very proud of this vocal. I feel like I was able to sing in a way that I felt like I [always] could, inside of me. I knew that was there somewhere, but I don't think I had ever got it on record before. It was like something that I can do live when you have a certain adrenaline and there's a certain feeling going on. And I remember when I first made that melody, I couldn't get that high note; something in me was nervous to go there. And then everything was in its right place when I recorded that. I was able to express myself. You know that song by Jill Scott called "A Long Walk"? One of my favorite songs of all time. You know how she does the chorus low, and then at the end of the song she belts out the same melody just an octave up? I always wanted to do that, and this was my opportunity in a song.

On someone she considers one of the greatest musical minds and producers, Nick Hakim

His music is like some sort of drug. It makes my heart beat faster. It's just pure pleasure, basically. He makes anything into something beautiful — any situation. And I think there's a real catharsis when I listen to his music.

I would like to say that I just really appreciate your music and your talent and your craft. The sound of your voice is heavenly, and the sound of your world takes me to a place; that could only be described as witchcraft. It's spellbinding.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're back with another episode of Play It Forward, where artists tell us about their music and the music that inspires them. Last week the spoken word poet Kae Tempest told us why they're thankful for Lianne La Havas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAE TEMPEST: There is something that happens when I hear her sing which is so uplifting. I feel like the way that she selects melody and the way that she embodies those melodies and her guitar playing, the placement of the breath in the lines that she sings - I just find it extremely uplifting and healing. And I think she's one of these people that have put all of this effort into making it appear effortless.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "READ MY MIND")

LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) Those eyes caught by surprise...

SHAPIRO: And Lianne La Havas joins us now from a car in London. Thank you for being here. Welcome.

LA HAVAS: Oh, my God. What a lovely way to start a conversation.

SHAPIRO: What's your reaction...

LA HAVAS: With somebody...

SHAPIRO: ...To what you just heard from Kae Tempest?

LA HAVAS: Somebody as, you know, insightful and deep as Kae saying something like that about me - and I just think I'm a kind of goofball.

(LAUGHTER)

LA HAVAS: It's like - yeah. I'm really, really touched.

SHAPIRO: Well, you've just released this new self-titled full-length album, and I'd love to listen to one of the tracks from it. How about "Paper Thin"?

LA HAVAS: Go for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER THIN")

LA HAVAS: (Singing) Paper-thin - God only knows the pain you're in. The future's bright. You've got God on your side. He's listening. Love yourself, or else you can't love no one else. I know your pain is real, but you won't let it heal.

SHAPIRO: You've said that this track sparked the album. What did you mean by that?

LA HAVAS: I remember playing the demo to a very dear, close friend of mine. She was like, this just sounds like you. And no one had said that to me before. I was like...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

LA HAVAS: Oh, my God. That's what I need. I want something to sound like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER THIN")

LA HAVAS: (Singing) I know you're made of better stuff. Baby, you got to roam free. Please don't forget about me.

SHAPIRO: Can you put your finger on what it is that makes a song sound like you? I mean, what are the words you would use to describe that?

LA HAVAS: I think maybe my sound - there's a couple of - I like to leave in a few mistakes in a good way. You know, I feel like if it's too perfect, it takes something away. And equally, if it's too messy, it's - I think I'm sort of somewhere in the middle of very neat but a bit rough around the edges - neat but with atmosphere, I would say.

SHAPIRO: Nice. I like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIANNE LA HAVAS SONG, "BITTERSWEET")

SHAPIRO: Where you end up at the end of the album is where we begin the album. I mean, the track that I have been playing over and over again...

LA HAVAS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Is the bookend song, "Bittersweet." And I feel like this summer, everyone is kind of trying to do their best to just keep it together. And when the chorus of this track hits, it's like you're not even pretending anymore. Like, the mask drops, and it just feels very real.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BITTERSWEET")

LA HAVAS: (Singing) All my broken pieces - bittersweet summer rain, I'm born again. Oh, no more hanging around...

SHAPIRO: Will you tell us what you're singing about here?

LA HAVAS: Yeah. The verses, I think, are very literal. That is, like, about my relationship and, like, how I needed to get out of it and kind of get to know myself again. And so then the chorus is a bit more, like, metaphorical, you know, using the analogy of being cleansed by the rain of a new season. You know, that was perhaps me entering a new phase of my own life and, you know, making a big change. And no matter how painful it was - that's where the bittersweet thing comes in - it was the right thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BITTERSWEET")

LA HAVAS: (Singing) Bittersweet summer rain, I'm born again. All my broken pieces - bittersweet summer rain, I'm born again.

I'm very proud of this vocal. I feel like I was able to sing in a way that I felt like I could inside of me. I knew that that was there somewhere, but I don't think I'd ever got it on record before.

SHAPIRO: Well, Lianne La Havas, it is your turn to keep this chain moving forward and tell us about somebody whose music you are grateful for. Who would you like to introduce us to?

LA HAVAS: I want to introduce you to - not that he needs any introduction, but this person is one of the greatest musical minds and producers and singers and most sensitive musician ever. His name is Nick Hakim.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QADIR")

NICK HAKIM: (Singing) Oh, we have fallen.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about a song of his that we can play to give us a sense of what his music is like.

LA HAVAS: I have picked a song from his latest album. This song is called "Qadir."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QADIR")

HAKIM: (Singing) And we're sinking down a hole without thinking about our loved ones who might be shrinking into a sunken space with glass surrounding the powers that are pounding in the temple in the mind. There seems to be a complexity to being kind...

LA HAVAS: My heart is, like - it makes my heart beat faster. It's just pure pleasure, basically.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Nick Hakim next. What would you like to say to him?

LA HAVAS: I would like to say that I just really appreciate your music and your talent and your craft. The sound of your voice is heavenly, and the sound of your world takes me to a place that can only be described as witchcraft (laughter). It's spellbinding.

SHAPIRO: Lianne La Havas, congratulations on your new third album, and thank you so much for talking with us.

LA HAVAS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Her self-titled album is out now. And we'll talk with Nick Hakim on the next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK HAKIM SONG, "GOD'S DIRTY WORK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.