Gemma Montgomery, one of the winners of last year's marie claire Inspire & Mentor scheme, takes a wonder down memory lane with the incredibly talented Lianne la Havas and chats about how a reserved choir girl rose to be one of the brightest and most exciting artists to flourish from British soil.
I hear you’re from a very cool family?
‘Yes, my dad plays all sorts of instruments. Anything he can get his hands on really as he’s very passionate about music, and about playing music because it makes you happy. So he would always enforce that in me. He would play piano, guitar, and now he plays saxophone. He also plays the harmonica and the accordion. The piano is his oldest instrument, but the saxophone he actually taught himself. He’s been playing everyday for three years. So I’d like to reiterate it’s never too late to learn an instrument. I started to learn the guitar at 18.
You’re friends with a alot of Brit School graduates, how did you meet the Brit School crowd?
‘Some of them had attended the choir with me, and some of them were friends of friends. And I just started hanging out with them. We started recording music and they were playing guitar, so that made me want to learn. And that’s when I started playing guitar at 18. This made me take my songwriting more seriously. I loved poetry when I was growing up and I loved adding poetry to music.’
I hear you were contemplating a career as an art teacher. Was this because a career in
music can be an unreliable one?
‘Yes, exactly. My parents were very supportive of anything I wanted to do, but obviously they had doubts about me realistically making it. But I had to follow my gut, to be honest. I started art college and maybe lasted two weeks. I loved it, it was really cool, but deep down I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So when I left I became a backing singer for a friend of mine called Rox. She was in the choir with me. Rox was a student at The Brit School and
she decided she wanted to start a solo thing, so she asked me to sing with her. Rox was the one who befriended Paloma Faith on Myspace. Paloma then invited Rox and myself to support her and that is how I met Paloma.
How did you leap from being a backing singer to where you are now?
‘Well at that point I had an opportunity to go and record in LA with Matt Hales (a producer and musician), and I just had to take it. And it’s Matt who produced my record. It was a gradual thing after I left Paloma. At some points I thought, ‘have I left too soon?’, I was getting a bit skint. But I wrote songs during this period, and so if I had stayed with Paloma, I wouldn’t have been able to write those songs. So actually in hindsight it was a really good decision. It was four months after I left Paloma that I signed my own record deal, and then began the process of making my album which took three years.’
That’s a long time, why did it take three years?
‘It enabled me to meet some amazing producers. I met Matt Elizondo, who has worked with Gwen Stefani and Eve. I worked with Andrea Harris, who made the first Jill Scott album. So I was able to meet these amazing, amazing people, and just write songs, discover a bit about myself musically and what I wanted to do, and also discover what direction I wanted to go in.’
You’re racking up a pretty impressive fan list. Your fans now include Prince and Stevie Wonder. You must have had lots of ‘pinch me’ moments?
‘Yes! Meeting any of my idols always gives me a ‘pinch me’ moment. Getting a phone call from Prince… you wouldn’t even think he uses the phone. I’m like ‘Oh my god, he dialled my number, especially to talk about music!’ So that’s a huge honour. I consider him a friend now. I actually saw him recently just before the Grammys in LA. He was in town so we hung out for a bit, as you do. He’s the most charismatic, hilarious, most brilliant host. Such a gentleman. And is always surrounded by beautiful women. I saw him in the spa and he had all these gorgeous women around him. It was really fun!’
What would be your advice to those who find themselves in a similar position to you and need to decide whether to choose a reliable career and following their passions?
‘It’s very competitive. So I would say, you just have to be absolutely sure that you have it in you. Absolutely sure that it is in your being. If you sing for example, singing is a part of your being. It’s your core thing. You need 100% belief in your ability. But also make sure, or try, not to get taken advantage of. Of course the industry can be a scary place. You have to listen to your gut instinct. If there are people who seem too good to be true, they probably are. You want people to be really real with you, and for them to be a genuine fan of your music, or to genuinely see a talent in you, because then they can help you get your music out to as many people as possible.
Can you name three songs that inspired the young Lianne growing up?
‘The first track I fell in love with growing up was the Fugees version of ‘Killing Me Softly’, a massive tune and an incredible delivery. I loved everything about it: the video, everything. I fell in love with Lauren Hill, Pras and Wycliffe; the whole group. Another was India Arie ‘Video’, which is a young female anthem. Then when I was about 12, I really got into The Kings Of Leon. It was their first album at the time and I loved that tune ‘Wasted Time.’
At the moment I love Laura Marling. I feel particularly inspired by her. Her inner confidence comes through. She has faith in herself, she knows who she is. That’s another piece of advice I would give. Don’t be afraid of your own identity. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Don’t think because you don’t look a certain way, that you are not a certain thing, that you’re not acceptable. You are acceptable. Being individual is more attractive than anything else. So having your own opinion, your own voice is the most attractive thing. So I’d say identity and confidence are so important.’
So what would you advise to those who may be lacking in confidence?
Of course its very easy to say, ‘have more confidence’, but just realize that whoever loves you, loves you because of who you are. You need to apply that to whatever the situation. The music that you make, if you love it, you created it because it’s what you like. You are what you like, and that is something not to be afraid of. So I’d say, just remember why you’re loved.’
Lianne La Havas’s debut album, ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’, is out now on Warner Bros.
Picture credit: Micheal Yeung
Watch an exclusive behind-the-scenes video for Lianne La Havas’ video for Elusive below: