British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas’ third album, a self-titled song cycle that chronicles the full arc of an intense relationship, is dreamy for several reasons: its modern/vintage R&B production, bittersweet lyrics, inspirations that range from Lauryn Hill to Emily Remler to Radiohead, and of course, La Havas’ signature combination of passionate vocals and jazzy chord choices. While the 31-year-old chanteuse may be most closely associated with her 1964 Harmony Alden H45 Stratotone, she has also pulled out Córdoba and Aria acoustics in the studio and onstage. La Havas’ recent performance for the “Home” edition of NPR’s Tiny Desk series is a great introduction to her approach, an amalgam of rhythmic fingerpicking she first learned from her father; Brazilian flavor inherited from many hours of listening to artists like Milton Nascimento; and jazz inflections she picked up from friends, bandmates, lovers, and YouTube.
“The acoustic, I do love it,” La Havas says from London. “Performing these new songs, I realized they can be played on electric or acoustic, but doing this album, it was nice not to feel totally tethered to just the electric. I started off like that and became more known with an electric guitar, but honestly, I think it just depends on the song and how it feels.”
Watching your most recent NPR Tiny Desk video made me wonder why you don’t play acoustic more.
I did Tiny Desk entirely on acoustic simply because it was the beginning of lockdown and I didn’t have anything set up in my house. But I’m glad I did, because there’s something very intimate about nylon-string guitar—it’s just you sharing a song, like you’re around the fire or something. I quite like that vibe.
What made you choose acoustic for the songs “Seven Times” and “Sour Flower” on the album?
I wanted those songs to be acoustic because I’m so influenced by bossa nova and samba guitar, which sounds much more authentic when played on the nylon-string. There’s something quite percussive about acoustic, as well, that I don’t think you can get from electric. With a nylon, you can really go for it, and it’s very dynamic.
You picked up guitar at 18, and your first album came out a few years later. Did you study with a teacher?
I wished always for proper guitar lessons, but I couldn’t afford them. I was really lucky that my dad knew how to play stuff. He was very excited when I wanted to learn, so he took it upon himself to show me whatever he knew. When I got to school, there were guitar lessons available, but I was more of a singer. My headmistress paid for my vocal coaching, which was very kind of her. I was a part of two choirs in my school, and I was able to study music, as well.
So what got you interested in guitar?
I was the backing vocalist in a band with some girls my age or thereabouts, and they were writing their own songs, singing, and playing guitar. That’s when I decided I wanted to learn. My dad taught me the basics of fingerpicking, and from there, I just got more interested in other rhythms. I was hungry to find other ones.
What happened next?
I found loads of guitar videos—I discovered Tommy Emmanuel, and Martin Taylor, and Emily Remler, all from YouTube. By day, I would be doing backing vocals in a band and going to college, and by night, I would go online and practice quietly, because I was staying in my auntie’s house. I was learning different rhythms, and then I started creating my own based on the fingerpicking I had learned. My friends would show me chords, so I learned the minor ninth, which I always use, because it’s nice and rich but still sad. That was one of the first ones that I learned, so now I find it difficult to play open chords, because I’m so used to playing rich jazz chords, which make it all into all of my songs. I’ve kind of gone backwards: Now I’m learning all my scales and teaching myself other techniques that I probably should have learned first.
You mentioned the minor ninth. What other chords caught your ear?
The major ninth and the sixth. I recently learned the 6/9, which is super rich and has so many possibilities. I like using all six strings for that one, and it’s pretty versatile. I’m trying to work out how to use the 6/9 in context: where it can replace something, maybe to make it richer; how to travel to it and from it; what simple chords go with it.
I saw a quote where you were taken aback by some people’s surprise that you can actually play. I consider you in the same lineage of people like Joan Armatrading, H.E.R., Valerie June…
I love those all artists so much! I’d be interested to know if any of them went to school or had any formal training, because I always thought I couldn’t call myself a professional unless I’d had formal training. I know it’s silly, but I just feel like I want to earn that status. I’ve got loads of friends who I’m constantly in awe of, who are really accomplished jazz players, and I’m just like, “What the hell is that chord? Please tell me what you’re doing!”
When you were in school, did you play piano?
My dad got me a keyboard for my seventh birthday, and that was when I started. It was before I was singing, actually. I took to it pretty quick; there were programmed songs in the keyboard, so I’d work out the melody to those and play them with my right hand.
But you didn’t take lessons.
I would have loved piano lessons, but that was expensive. Also, it’s not really what I wanted to play. I knew my scales and stuff, but I feel like piano lessons signified not being free on the instrument: You have to do grades, learn classical pieces, and follow the curriculum. I found it a little bit less exciting, so I used to just do my own thing.
Do you feel like you can be more yourself on guitar?
Absolutely. Piano was nice, but I couldn’t really do it how I wanted to do it, no matter how much I practiced. It never felt amazing the way guitar does. I think it’s because there’s something percussive about the guitar, and there’s a certain synchronization that happens when you’re playing one thing with your hands and singing something else with your voice. It just feels really complete when I play guitar, like I’m singing on top of it, instead of going through it, you know?
Some people find it difficult to balance singing and playing, especially with new material.
I’ll be honest with you—this new album is really hard to play and sing. I did most of it on guitar first and then sang after. It wasn’t until January, in rehearsals, that I was playing and singing some of these songs for the first time. I’m still getting to grips with the new material, but it’s going to be very satisfying when I get it.
Which songs do you find most challenging?
“Seven Times” is one of the harder ones. I haven’t done my ultimate version of it yet, but I’ll get there. I do like singing it, though, and I’m close. I have to sing and play “Sour Flower” in five, and then “Can’t Fight” is probably the hardest, because it was looped—I’m trying to play the loop exactly the same but also have a dynamic vocal. So yeah, I’m learning how to get this album under the fingers and in the pocket.
What’s your songwriting process? I imagine that songs come to you in many different ways.
Sometimes, I believe that ideas will come back if they’re really important; if they’re meant to stick around in your memory, they will. But that also might be BS [laughs]. That might just be me being lazy because I’m so tired. Lately, if I hear an idea in my head, I don’t want to ignore it.
Do you set aside time for the muse to visit?
Usually, I hear something in my head right before I’m about to go to bed. That’s what happened with “Paper Thin,” for example. I heard it just before I was about to go to sleep, but I thought, let me just get the guitar. I could hear the chords and everything, even the rhythm and the first words and the melody. It remained without any other words or structure until I was able to jam it with some friends on the bass and drums, and then it became what you now hear on the album. I have an idea, I jam it, and then I write the melody and stuff over that.
How about writing with other musicians?
On this album, I wrote a lot with my friend Sam Crowe, who plays piano. He wrote “Green Papaya” and “Sour Flower” with me. We would get in a room and play chords until something stuck out to us that we liked. We were just going with the feeling of how the chords sounded, and then we’d find a rhythm. With “Sour Flower,” I remember, we were liking C that day. We tried that chord in a couple of rhythms, but for some reason, 5/8 stuck out to us, so we just said, “Okay, we’re going to do C chord in 5,” and we felt it out—like, what is the next logical chord? What does it feel good to go to? And that is basically how I live my life [laughs]. “What feels good? Let’s do that.”
By the way, Sam is that guy who knows all the chords. He’s an incredible pianist. He played a chord voicing on the piano, and I asked him to play each note in order so I could work out the equivalent on the guitar.
What a cool way to learn voicings.
I know! If you just play a chord voicing like a pianist, it’s a whole different vibe on guitar. My fingers ended up in this mental shape, and I still don’t know what that chord is called, but I used it in a few other songs as soon as I learned it.
If I was going to put together a playlist of your favorite acoustic guitar moments, who would be on it?
Jessica Pratt’s “Bushel Hyde” is gorgeous, absolutely stunning. A Milton Nascimento song—I reckon “Cravo e Canela,” from Clube da Esquina. “A Nível De…” by João Bosco, which has the most beautiful guitar part in the intro. And another Jobim song, like the João Gilberto version of “Girl from Ipanema.” So, there you go—mostly Brazilian stuff.
When you were growing up, did you hear powerful Black performers like Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman?
I didn’t hear Joan till I was a bit older, but Tracy Chapman was extremely famous when I was growing up, so yeah, I’m a huge fan. Now I’m a really big Joan Armatrading fan, too. I love her music, I love her soul—I listened to a lot of her, actually, when I was making this album.
What acoustic guitars are you playing these days?
The only ones I have are nylon-strings. I got rid of all my steel-string acoustic guitars because I just haven’t found one that feels nice and sounds nice to me, but I’ve got two nylons that I love. I have a Córdoba 12 Natural and an Aria. The Córdoba one I spent a bit of money on—it’s more professional, I use it live, and it’s got a pickup; the Aria I just found in a thrift shop in L.A., and it’s actually a really legit, beautiful-sounding nylon-string.
After watching your Tiny Desk performance, I imagined how great a Lianne La Havas acoustic album would be. Will that ever happen?
Watch this space. You might be satisfied in your request. But you didn’t hear it from me!
Lianne La Havas has a penchant for evocative harmonies; shown here are a handful of chords that have captured her imagination. The first shape, Cm9, is a rich stand-in for a C minor triad, and any of the other chords can be used in place of a C major. While the first C6/9 chord here occupies an interior string set, La Havas prefers to play it on all six strings, as shown in the last frame.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.