Lianne La Havas finds herself, in Philadelphia

At SXSW Music Festival last month. She's touring her album so listeners can "experience the songs as I did, when they were fresh."
At SXSW Music Festival last month. She's touring her album so listeners can "experience the songs as I did, when they were fresh." (DAN KING)
Posted: April 04, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas - On a sunny afternoon at her first South by Southwest music festival, Lianne La Havas is singing about the used guitar she's accompanying herself on at that very moment.

"Found myself in a second," sings the 23-year-old songwriter, fresh off the plane from the Tooting section of southwest London. "Found myself in a secondhand guitar."

The song is "Is Your Love Big Enough?", the title track to the debut album by La Havas, who plays World Cafe Live on Sunday. It's also the tune Stevie Wonder sang to her when he left her a voicemail message. (More on that in a minute.)

Her debut album, produced by Matt Hales (better known as Aqualung), puts the singer of Greek and Jamaican heritage on a bohemian jazz-pop-R&B continuum with the likes of such other fresh faces as Michael Kiwanuka and Esperanza Spalding. Like the other 11 songs on the album, "Is Your Love Big Enough?" tells an autobiographical tale.

"It's metaphorical, and sort of literal as well," says the singer. Her distinctive fashion sense on this day was showcased with a button-up shirt/dress by London designer Lazy Oaf featuring smiling pigs exclaiming "Oh Boy!"

"The guitar I'm talking about is my Danelectro, the black-and-white one. And when I found that one, the sound of it, it felt like it was my sound. It had a sort of roundness and bluesiness to it I had been searching for. It just felt very delicate and nice.

"And when you connect the singing and guitar-playing and writing all together, there's a certain synchronicity that happens. And once I found the right guitar, it all kind of clicked for me."

La Havas has played piano since she was 7, the age she also became "obsessed" with Lauryn Hill and the Fugees. When she was 13, a choir teacher at school turned her on to Ella Fitzgerald, still her favorite singer, by teaching her "It's Only a Paper Moon."

She didn't pick up the instrument she now plays so adeptly, though, until she was 18, and stumbled upon the American jazz guitarist Emily Remler, who died in 1990 at age 32.

"I discovered her on YouTube," La Havas says, sitting on a white leather couch with a case of the sniffles after her performance at a party thrown by her label, Warner Bros. Records. (She wound up curtailing her Austin performance schedule due to a bad cold.)

"She loved Wes Montgomery, and she was playing a piece called 'Red Blouse Bossa Nova.' I'm really into bossa nova and I just loved the way her hands looked and it showed exactly what they were doing on the guitar. So I just decided to learn from her, just from watching her."

In Austin, La Havas opened her set solo with the subtly heartbreaking "No Room for Doubt." She also closed the set without assistance from her five-piece band, with the sly, mischievous "Age," about a (now-ended) affair with an older man. ("So is it such a problem if he's old?", the song asks. "As long as he does whatever he's told.")

In October 2011, La Havas played those same two songs solo on an episode of the British music TV show Later . . . With Jools Holland that also featured Bon Iver, Feist, Mastodon, and Buddy Greco. La Havas pooh-poohs the suggestion that she slayed the competition, but says, "It felt really, really right." She walked out with an offer by Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon to open for the band on its American tour.

A few months later Stevie Wonder, with whom she shares an agent at the powerful Creative Artists talent agency, came to a show in Los Angeles. "After the show, we spent some time together," she says. "It was amazing and kind of surreal. I don't know what I was expecting but he had a very vibrant . . . soul. You can feel it."

Wonder said he would stay in touch, but when he called she happened to be in an underground dressing room. "He wished me the best of everything," she recalls, starting to blush. "Then he started singing the title track to my album and added my name to the line. It was wonderful."

A follow-up album is in the planning stages, but La Havas is still focused on putting across Is Your Love Big Enough? live. "There are so many people who haven't heard the album," she says. "I want them to experience the songs as I did, when they were fresh."

"I am writing," she adds. "But I haven't recorded anything yet. We're looking to start on that in May. I'm not sure what direction it will go in, but I'm very excited about the possibilities."


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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