The photographer and I are waiting for Lianne La Havas in a Primrose Hill pub, tapping our toes, having a fruit juice. “Oh. My. God,” she says as the singer finally becomes visible through the window, tottering down the far end of the street in vivid red all over, in the kind of heels you need a Masters degree in Structural Engineering to handle. Here comes a real star.
“I probably would be wearing this anyway, to be honest,” she says of her eye-popping ensemble. The 25-year-old from Streatham isn’t a household name just yet, but a second album coming this summer ought to send her the way of her old mate Paloma Faith – towards near-permanent occupancy of the top end of the charts and, all being well and the reappearance of Adele notwithstanding, towards next year’s Best Female award at the BRITs.
“I hope so!” she exclaims as I outline the reasons why Blood, coming at the end of July, should be very big indeed. Her debut, Is Your Love Big Enough?, was a classy, edgy slice of modern soul that was Mercury nominated in 2012. It was clever and impressive, but with a slight air of despair to its tales of a broken relationship with an older man. This time she sounds happy and inspired on the comeback single, Unstoppable. Its swirling strings and rich piano chords were produced by Paul Epworth, who has also done great work with Adele and Florence + the Machine. Even better, there’s What You Don’t Do, an instantly hummable relative of Sly & the Family Stone’s Hot Fun in the Summertime that seems to emanate warmth and sunshine. It sounds like a certain hit to come.
“I’ve been really appreciating how life is for me at the moment,” she says as she meanders around a quinoa salad, photographs all done. “It all felt really nice and I wanted to express being on a nice journey.” It does sound nice. We’re meeting in Primrose Hill because she’s just moved to a flat round the corner, having previously been in rather less leafy Leyton. Early last year she experienced a strange flash of proper fame when Prince announced his series of small, short notice gigs around London – and did so from a press conference in her living room.
She’s plainly sick to death of talking about this, and me bringing it up prompts a rare show of mild tetchiness in an otherwise pleasant hour. I expect everybody she ever meets, not just journalists, says, “What’s Prince like?” within about 30 seconds of saying hello. No doubt it’s maddening.
“I don’t wanna be like, rude about it, but I feel like I’ve said it now, and people know that I think he’s a nice guy,” she sighs. She sang on his recent album, Art Official Age, and performed with him on Saturday Night Live last autumn, but he isn’t on her album so there isn’t anything new to report. For this she seems thankful. “It’s not like our friendship is over. He’s not on my record but that’s okay. He’s really encouraging about my stuff in general. He’s always there. I mean, he’s amazing, and he’s one of the best musicians who ever lived, so I’m very proud, but I’m also proud of all my other friends. He just happens to be Prince.”
Subject closed. The real inspiration for her new music was a trip to Jamaica to discover her roots, taken with her mum in late 2013 after she’d finished touring for her first album. Her mum is Jamaican, her father is Greek. She went to Athens with him as an eight-year-old but amazingly, had never been to Jamaica.
“My grandad always said, ‘I’ll take you when you’re nine,’ ‘I’ll take you when you’re 11,’ ‘I’ll take you when you’re 14,’ and never got round to it,” she says. She was mostly raised by her Jamaican grandparents, who lived around the corner, while her mum worked as a postlady. Her parents split when she was just two, but her dad was around as well. When she got to Christiana, in the centre of the island, she discovered relatives she never knew she had.
“I grew up feeling like a Londoner, but then I had this other thing. So when I went to Jamaica, I immediately felt connected. It was kind of familiar but also like nothing I’d ever seen. Incredible countryside, everyone has animals and grows their own food. I absolutely loved it, relished it. It was more emotional than I expected it to be.”
After that trip she went back again, this time to Kingston in a work capacity. She did some recording with Stephen McGregor, the producer son of reggae veteran Freddie. She didn’t make a reggae song – that would be too obvious – but the gentle nostalgia of her new song Green & Gold is a beautiful exploration of her family history.
“It felt like family,” she says of working with McGregor. “The Jamican people have a way about them I guess. We had this understanding, and of course a musical connection, which I think led to the sound – the easy feeling of the music. There’s a kind of summery feel to the record that I associate with being in Jamaica.”
It’s another layer to an expansive sound that continues to defy easy categorisation. She doesn’t like being called a soul singer. “I just say I’m a singer. It annoys me, being described as ‘soul’ based on what you look like.” She plays guitar on stage and is more of an indie kid than you might think. In the past she has sung a duet with US folk singer Willy Mason and covered Radiohead at Glastonbury. She says that one of her all-time favourite albums is Kings of Leon’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, and that she wanted to work with Paul Epworth not because of Adele, but because of his early production work with Maximo Park and The Futureheads.
She’s come a long way since she had a job as Paloma Faith’s backing singer. “We don’t see each other very often but when we do it’s a big hoot. I havent had a chance to talk to her about what it’s like to do a second album. I should probably have a word.” She certainly should while she can, because Lianne La Havas, superstar in waiting, is about to be in real demand.
May 19, Wilton’s Music Hall, E1 (020 7702 2789, wiltons.org.uk)
Blood is out on July 31 on Warner Bros.