“Open up and let me get to you, take you to another side,” sings Lianne La Havas on “Midnight,” a song that appears midway through last year’s excellent sophomore release, Blood. “Come to my own world, we’ll get lost in another time.” It’s easy to hear strains of that other time in La Havas’s music as she blends soft, ambient vocals with sporadic powerful highs and an array of instrumentals that would feel as at home in a speakeasy as they do on a festival stage.
“In songs, I love when I think it’s all about the rhythm and the melody. Melody comes in the form of the chords that you choose and the melody that you’re actually singing with your voice and all of the counter-rhythms and syncopation and everything that is pleasing,” she tells the Voice, waxing poetic about “Midnight.” The song includes many of the characteristics she wishes to infuse in any piece of music, a quality she calls “indulgent.” But it only echoes the lyrical sentiment, luring listeners into a world fraught with delights of La Havas’s own desires — crazy or not.
“At the time, when that song came, it was very welcome, because I hadn’t written anything for a while that I really, really loved,” she says. “I remember being really, really proud of it when I came up with it, because I wanted it to feel like it came from me — like it was something I would really enjoy.”
La Havas is regularly mentioned alongside her collaborators and champions — not a bad deal when your fans include the likes of Prince (who she performed with on Saturday Night Live in 2014) and Stevie Wonder — but with Blood, La Havas found not only a sense of her heritage but a heightened assertiveness in her own talents.
“I feel like the music I made displays that, it displays this kind of confidence that I found,” she says. “I pushed myself a lot with my singing, but also to recognize a good feeling, and to follow that when you’re writing a song. That will lead you to a really nice piece of music.”
The renewed sense of self La Havas boasts on Blood found its roots outside the South London community where she cut her teeth — an ocean away, in fact, on a vacation to Jamaica with her mother. La Havas had visited Greece, her father’s home country, as a child, but the trip to Jamaica was the then-24-year-old’s first glimpse into her heritage on her mother’s side. La Havas is effusive about the influence Jamaican music has had on the world, an admiration that drifts more and more into focus as she talks about her time working with renowned reggae producer Stephen McGregor at the studio in his family home.
“I got back to England with a newfound appreciation of rhythm. I had a new sense of myself, I guess,” she says. She would ultimately return to Jamaica specifically to work on the record with McGregor, and “I learned a lot about my own style, musically and with how I dress myself and my own personal uniform.”
There’s an attention to detail on Blood that reveals itself everywhere, from the bright aesthetics to the delicate guitar and driving verses, and she credits the trip to her mother’s country of origin for the inspiration and the comfortable atmosphere to create. Standout track “Green and Gold,” perhaps the Blood number most transparently influenced by her time in Jamaica, was actually the one song she recorded in New York City. “That one is the most sentimental for me,” she says. “It’s for my parents. It’s about coming from a mixed heritage — my father is Greek, and I went to Greece when I was a child and had a different experience, obviously, because I was a child. But going to Jamaica kind of completed the puzzle for me.”
Looking back at the song, which she declares one of her favorites, La Havas is as glowing about the familial significance of its lyrical content (the chorus: “Those eyes you gave to me/That let me see/Where I come from”) as she is about the independent way she created the recording.
“Probably one of my other fondest memories was making that song because I was producer. For the first time, I was able to actually really explore that side of what I do,” she says. “I felt so creatively in control, and I think for artists that’s probably the most important part of it — feeling like you’re getting what you want to hear.”
She wrote and recorded “Green and Gold” almost immediately upon arriving back in New York, and the work yielded something beyond the recording: an affinity for producing that seems to be growing. La Havas has long-term aspirations of writing and producing for other artists, and it’s increasingly clear — particularly when considering the versatility of Blood — that her understanding of the role a producer takes has already been applied in the extent to which she’s taken the reins on her own music.
“I just am interested in the purity in getting what’s in your brain out into real life, and how that’s done. I think that’s what production is,” she says. “If your surroundings and your company are to your liking, I think you can express yourself literally anywhere.”
Lianne La Havas plays Rough Trade NYC on February 5. The show has sold out, but check secondary markets for tickets.