INTERVIEW: Grammy Nominee Lianne La Havas

Prince’s folk/soul protégée plays Ortlieb’s on Saturday.

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Lianne La Havas has arrived in the United States from London for a eight-concert solo tour that wraps up a few days before the February 15 Grammy Awards. Last year’s Blood is nominated in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category. It’s the 26-year-old artist’s first Grammy nomination.

We’d planned to talk by phone from her hotel in Manhattan a few hours before the first show the tour, but the connection is awful. I briefly hear her rich, friendly voice, “Sarah?” — before we must disconnect and try again. But, the minutes are ticking by and the phone isn’t ringing again. I’m worrying now that I won’t have time to ask her about when Prince, yes, The Purple One, came to her apartment in London for a cup of tea (with honey), or when she went to Prince’s personal recording studio, Paisley Park, to lay down vocals for his 2014 album, Art Official Age.

Minutes are passing. Now I’m guessing I won’t have time to ask her what it feels like to be 26 and be able to count Stevie Wonder, Robert Plant and John Legend as fans. La Havas caught the music world’s attention with Lost & Found, her 2011 EP, and then with Is Your Love Big Enough, her 2012 debut studio album. Her versatile soprano voice suits her heartfelt and elegant songwriting.

The phone is finally ringing. I pick up and hear La Havas gently laughing, “Wow, that was a terrible connection. You had some crazy robot voice.” Thanks phone company. I hate it when Grammy-nominees and friends of Prince think my voice sounds like a crazy robot.

Today in New York, she’s gone for a run, a bit of shopping, lunch and is ready to chat. Later, she’ll head downtown to perform in a cozy club in Chelsea, just La Havas alone with her guitar. She toured with her band earlier this year to support the album, but in these intimately scaled venues, like our Ortlieb’s Cafe, she gets to set her vocals free and take a deep dive into her jazz and neo-soul sound. Those lucky enough to get a ticket for the show at Ortlieb’s will get an evening of R&B grooves and powerful, textured vocals that can easily go from to-the-bone intensity to playful purr.

On to the interview…

Why did you want to do this quick solo tour before the Grammys?
I planned the tour without knowing about my Grammy nomination. I wanted to come back to the U.S.A. and I wanted to play on my own. My album Blood is so produced, not that that’s a bad thing, but it requires a lot of instrumentation on the road. So now the songs can exist in their purest form, with me and a guitar. I’m excited to share this version because it gives the songs a new life. It’s also back to where I came from: just me and a guitar. I haven’t had a chance do to that in a while. So now I can rely on myself on this round. I conveniently planned to end the tour in L.A., just in case there was Grammy party I had to go to. But then… I got the news. So it worked out perfectly. Now it feels like the ‘Road to the Grammys’ tour. [laughs]

Where were you when you heard you were nominated?
I was in a cab in London on the way to the train station. I was going to a gig. I was on the phone talking to my manager complaining about something. I hung up the phone, and I was still annoyed. Then I caught a tweet from a fan congratulating me on the Grammy nomination. I was like, ‘What?!’ I replied to the tweet, ‘What Grammy nomination?’ I searched on Google and confirmed it was true.

Did you tell the cab driver?
Yes, I told the cab driver. I told everyone! I was screaming on the street about it. Basically everything that I was annoyed about before just vanished away after that.

What will you wear to the awards?
I decided to go all out because this may be my only time to go to the Grammys. I have a beautiful dress, a gown. But you’ll have to wait to know who designed it, but I can say that it is a British designer. It’s bright and gorgeous. I love it.

Who are you going with?
My boyfriend is coming with me. He is a fabulous recording engineer and he may well be nominated himself in the future. It’s incredible to work with him. He worked on the album. My manager is also coming and one of the producers, Matt Hales [the singer-songwriter who performs under the name Aqualung]. It will be a really fun day with all of my closest and dearest surrounding me.

I heard that you are a fan of Ella Fitzgerald. You also have that control and ability to play with the rhythm and be in “the pocket” like she was.
Ella is my favorite singer ever. There’s always something I haven’t heard before in her music and something left to discover. I go back to songs that I know really well to listen and discover new techniques.

Does it make you wince or smile to hear comparisons of yourself to others? I’ve heard names like Amy Winehouse, Adele, Alicia Keys, Sade, Nina Simone. Do musicians like that or resent it?
It doesn’t make me wince. In general, musicians like it if it’s an artist they really like that they’re being compared to. But sometimes the names are surprising and it shows that it’s from someone who hasn’t listened deeply enough and the comparison comes from an uninformed place. For example, I’m a great fan of [singer] Corinne Bailey Rae, but we have no similarity in our music. I love her, but that’s a surprising comparison.

You have an impressive list of collaborators working with you on Blood: Paul Epworth (who produced Adele’s Grammy-winning album, 21), Matt Hales (La Havas’s longterm writing partner), Shea Taylor (producer who’s worked with Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Beyonce, Janet Jackson), Stephen McGregor (Jamaican singer, DJ and producer known as Di Genius) and others. Why this particular mix of people to work with you?
I was introduced to a lot of people to make this album. I’m always very open minded. My favorite person to work with will always be Matt Hales. With him, it never feels like work. It feels easy and effortless. We’ve got to know each other in a particular way that I’ve never experienced with any other collaborator. So when I came up with an idea, it would form for a while then I’d bring it to someone else. We weren’t all together in a room at the same time, but it was me traveling around to Jamaica and London and New York to write something and then take what I liked from an idea or suggestion, and develop that into the the next stage with someone else; but I was driving the process and choosing the parts that I liked, but we must credit their names because the song wouldn’t sound the way it sounds without that process.

Our time’s almost up…. Valentine’s Day’s just around the corner. What’s your all-time favorite romantic song and movie?
Probably [Philly-born, Temple grad] Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” and my favorite romantic movie is tragic but amazing. It’s really romantic right up until the end: Betty Blue.

Lianne La Havas plays February 6, Ortlieb’s Cafe, 847 N. Third Street, 267-324-3348.