Lianne La Havas’s concert at the Barbican on February 28, two years in the planning, was always going to be a special one, but she didn’t realise exactly how special until later on. A collaboration with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jules Buckley, recorded for Radio 3, it featured her already sumptuous songs arranged in even more elaborate style. Five years since her last album, the 30-year-old Londoner had sneaked under the wire with a live comeback just before the rest of her year’s touring plans would become impossible.
“Thank God it happened! It was such a lovely thing,” she says, calling from the Streatham home where she’s locked down with a relatively new boyfriend and, imminently, one or possibly two new kittens. She would have been touring France around now, with another London show and an appearance at Hackney’s All Points East festival on the way. All the same, she’s pushing on with the release of her third album, self-titled and now coming in July.
“Obviously it’s a weird time and I had reservations about putting it out. I felt a bit uncomfortable but if it’s just out then it’s out, and people can choose to get it or not. I’m very aware that my album is not the most important thing in the world right now. It’s just been a really long time for me, so I want to get it out there.”
She wasn’t planning on being absent for quite this long. Despite her second LP, Blood, securing a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album, she wanted to get straight into making a follow-up that rectified some perceived mistakes with that release. “I wanted to get it all done in 2016. Just do it,” she says. “And I knew then that I wanted the title to be my own name. The last album, I love it, I’m very proud of it, but there were aspects of it that I would have done differently. That spurred me on.”
She had witnessed pop success first hand as a backing singer for Paloma Faith, and been Mercury nominated in 2012 for her debut album, Is Your Love Big Enough?, but didn’t feel confident enough to take full control of her own music previously. “I was still quite new to it all and a bit naïve. I was making songs and putting them on the album if the record label thought they were good enough, instead of me thinking they were good enough.” I mention that I had expected her 2015 single, What You Don’t Do, to be a hit as probably her catchiest, sunniest moment, and she bristles. “I didn’t write that one. It’s fine, it’s a nice song, but my relationship with it has been different because I was just asked to put a vocal on it because the label felt it could be a good single for me. I can’t listen to it now without thinking, ‘That’s not my song.’”
Personal matters also knocked her self-assurance around this time. Her grandmother passed away in 2015, and then her great-grandmother, who she had lived with growing up, followed in 2016. A relationship with a boyfriend in LA also ended. “It’s been a lot of change, getting used to my family getting smaller,” she says. “It was a transitional period of my life. I learned so much in the last five years, and from that relationship. It all eventually went into this album.”
Then there was the death of Prince in 2016. A creative mentor to La Havas, their friendship led to the unlikely sight of the funk legend announcing his “Hit and Run” tour of small London venues in early 2014 at a press conference held in her living room. “That time in my life, knowing him, was so surreal and special. It didn’t hit me for a long time, the reality of his passing. He’s very missed. I also wish that I could have sent him this new album, because I feel like that’s what he was always wanting me to do: make something that I was really proud of.”
The two new songs released so far – rich, complex Bittersweet and the intricately picked guitar ballad Paper Thin – see her avoiding soul-pop in favour of something more distinctively her own. Her guitar and her warm, expressive voice dominate. “If I’m at the centre of it, and all these songs can be played just by me, then I think I’m onto something very true to who I am,” she explains. “This is the album that I feel is most true to my identity.”
With a Jamaican mother and a Greek father, hers is a genetic blend that doesn’t come around too often, which is one reason she’s uncomfortable with her music being swiftly pigeonholed as soul. “I wanted to figure out a genre for myself. It’s just so easy to say someone is ‘soul’ if they’re black. It kind of implies the colour of my skin before you actually listen to the music. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very influenced by a lot of traditional soul, but at the same time, I grew up listening to a wide variety of things.”
Hence perhaps the most surprising song on the new album: a half-speed cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes. Her band first covered the track, from the In Rainbows album, at Glastonbury in 2013. “I just really enjoy singing it,” she says, simply. “If there’s a song you really like singing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do your own version.”
It’s the clearest indication that today she’s in full control of her music, in charge of the production as well as the songwriting, and uninterested in bending her style in hope of a hit (maybe she’d have covered Creep if that was the plan). “It felt important to me to make an album that was really who I am. It’s all my doing – the purest version of my expression,” she says. “It had to be called my name.”
Lianne La Havas’s new single Paper Thin is out now on Warner Records. Her album Lianne La Havas is released on July 17.