Lianne La Havas: Blood

With Blood, Lianne La Havas rediscovers herself and adds a prefix to her name.

Lianne La Havas


Label: Nonesuch
Release Date: 2015-07-31

Ladies and gentlemen. Children of all ages. Cats. Dogs. Animals of all kind. Please turn your attention to the stage. Put your hands together. Be ready to give a warm welcome. Cheer as loud as you can. Get out of your seats. And say hello to … Ms. Lianne La Havas!

Ms. Lianne La Havas is different than Lianne La Havas, of course. The latter was pretty great herself, what with 2012's excitingly subtle and mildly underrated Is Your Love Big Enough? Led by an infectious title track with an even more infectious clap-your-hands chorus cadence, that set announced La Havas as a songwriting beauty. Armed with her electric guitar and an entire ton of complicated emotions, she went from mysteriously cute ("Au Cinema") to fearlessly in love ("Age") to desperately heartbroken ("Lost & Found") and she did so with a grace and maturity that left No Room For Doubt about precisely how far her talents could evolve.

Ms. Lianne La Havas, though? She's the one at the forefront of the nearly flawless Blood. Gone are those apprehensive tones that painted her debut with affect and precision. In is a ringing endorsement from Prince and a power so prominent, you have to check your iTunes every now and then to make sure this isn't some off-handed Beyonce or Alicia Keys collection that you've been listening to. Out is a reliance on her timid, interesting and fruitful guitar noodling. Taking its place is a kind of super-production that puts the groove front and center and takes the bass volume to 12. If Lianne La Havas was a really good folk-soul queen in 2012, Ms. Lianne La Havas is a bona fide neo-R&B star in 2015.

And this is proven no less than two tracks into Blood. "Green & Gold" has a crossover appeal that La Havas lacked before, its slithering bass line adding a level of funk that the singer probably didn't even know she had. It's the perfect combination of where she was and where she is, the track easing itself in with her subdued electric guitar before essentially being buried in the mix in favor of a slinky feel that comes to life with the help of a horn section. You can't not two-step to it.

Meanwhile, opener "Unstoppable" ditches the six-string altogether, allowing the singer to grab the mic and dance. The hook is weirdly reminiscent of Keys' "Unbreakable" (which isn't a bad thing) and it serves as a cathartic moment each time La Havas steps up and belts her proclamation. She's not wondering if anyone's love is big enough anymore; she's insisting that it already is. The same applies to "Grow", which has a hook that offers echoes of another Keys track from As I Am, "I Need You", complete with world-dominating voice and aggressive production.

Yet even when that aggression dies down, and the singer gets back to where she started, the vibe is different. "Ghost" strips things back to the way they used to be, guitar and singer, but there are little touches to the background that were previously missing (namely, the eerie effects that fade in and out as she sings). Plus, she's aged. When she intones, "Lost somewhere between a foe and friend, round and round again," that voice is weathered just a little bit more than it was before. There's a pain she's accrued that took the place of the charming naivety often heard on her debut.

"Good Goodbye" is where that mix of past and present cuts deepest. The backing strings and keys aren't things she had at her disposal before and neither is the impact of a line like "I've never seen you cry." She says it with that trademark delicate voice, but this time it's accompanied by the stare of a cold-blooded murderer. Plus, holy shit, it's sad. And in a rare turn of events for pop music, the grandiose production values do the singer favors, adding drama and prestige to a tune that could have been just another depressing song from just another artist with just another guitar.

Still, what makes Blood great -- and not just good -- is that turn toward a soulful upbeat that La Havas once lacked. "Tokyo" is enigmatic and fun. It finds the sweet spot between Taylor Swift's 1989 and Jill Scott's The Light Of The Sun, calling upon The Purple One's influence with a slap-friendly bass line throughout the chorus and atmospherics that paint each verse with intrigue. Second single "What You Don't Do" modernizes doo-wop and begs to be performed with a back line of Mrs. Carter's dancers. When she hits "Don't tell the whole world / Just wanna be your girl", you can hear how much she's going for it. The emotion is there. The inhibition is there. The power is there. The desire is there. The passion is there.

Which sums up Blood better than anything else. Emotion. Inhibition. Power. Desire. Passion. If Is Your Love Big Enough? was designed to get our attention, Blood is designed to keep it. The steps forward here are borderline transcendent for an artist who once appeared to have no problem fading into the back, blending in with the noises and the pain around her. This time around, that artist has taken charge, immersing herself in soul music while staying true to her folk roots. It's the best kind of rhythm and blues: no reservations, no fear, no bounds, no parameters.

It's not Lianne La Havas. It's Ms. Lianne La Havas.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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