The most telling moment on
Lianne La Havas’s debut isn’t the one that immediately draws your attention. It wasn’t even a hit. But “Au Cinéma,” a love song that imagines a new romance the way it happens in a movie, captures the various shades that made La Havas one of England’s more compelling exports last year. Fingerpicked on electric guitar, it’s sultry and unassuming to the point of sounding more like a conversation than a song.
On her first headlining tour of this country, which stops at the Sinclair for a sold-out show on Saturday, La Havas arrives on these shores something of an unknown pleasure. In a post-Adele pop landscape, where every female English singer-songwriter unfairly gets compared to her, La Havas is not as easy to pin down on her debut, “Is Your Love Big Enough?” Not quite straight folk, it still has a spare, acoustic charm reminiscent of Bill Withers. Other times it conjures Sade’s way with a sly turn of phrase.
The album sounds wholly organic, as if she didn’t know what she had until it was finished.
“I don’t think I really had any ideas for it. I just wanted to make music that I liked, music that my friends would like,” she says. “I wanted to express myself and get some feelings across so that people would know a bit about me through my songs. But then it turned into a really eclectic-feeling album once I met my producer, Matt Hales [from the band Aqualung]. We really clicked, and the sounds that we were making were really pleasing us.”
“Is Your Love Big Enough?” is indifferent to genre. Jazzy love songs mingle with soulful serenades and stark R&B tearjerkers. “No Room for Doubt,” a duet with Willy Mason, is so breezy that you almost don’t realize how devastating the chorus is: “We all make mistakes, we do/ I learnt from you.”
At 23, La Havas — she was born Lianne Barnes, but La Havas is an approximation of her Greek father’s surname, Vlahavas — prizes understatement, both as a singer and guitarist. She could probably belt a song but never does, preferring to let the songs unfurl rather than explode. The same goes for her prowess on guitar, which she’s been playing for only five years (piano was her first instrument) but changed the way she writes.
“I love guitar. It’s just so versatile, how it can be made to sound like a voice or used as percussion,” she says. “When I started writing songs on guitar, something connected up in my soul and made me write melodies differently.”
Signed to Warner Bros. in 2010, La Havas then had two years to hone her songwriting and performance chops. It was a trans-Atlantic experience; she wrote and recorded in Los Angeles and London and gigged around the latter city with the songs she had at the time.
“That helped me get inspiration for new songs. Then I’d take my new ideas to whoever, and my development period allowed me to work with amazing producers,” she says. “You find you don’t always have chemistry with everybody, but it was a creatively motivated time.”
She came from a home alive with music that would eventually shape her own. Her father is a musician, and her mother is a big music fan who exposed her to Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige. Singing hymns with her great-grandmother is La Havas’s earliest musical memory (followed closely by the soundtrack to “Sister Act 2,” featuring Lauryn Hill, which La Havas unironically calls a “turning point”).
With an eye to start working on a new album in May, La Havas is backed by a band on her latest tour. Even so, she’s sure the intimacy of her debut will shine through, that its idiosyncrasies will remain intact.
“I enjoy the sound of things that have all the necessary elements doing only what they need to do, rather than piling on a load of effects or instruments just for the sake of it,” La Havas says. “As long as every part of it is necessary.”