By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Lianne La Havas sings from the heart, admires people like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and may be the latest young songstress to emerge in a steady stream of British talent invading the U.S. music scene.
She counts stars like Stevie Wonder as fans, and with her debut album "Is Your Love Big Enough?" out this month in the United States, La Havas follows the footsteps of singers such as Grammy-winning Adele, soul singer Joss Stone and the late Amy Winehouse.
"There have been some wonderful UK singers of late, which is great for me, because they just sound to me like women who really enjoy singing and I'd like to think I'm one of those women as well," La Havas told Reuters.
The 22-year-old singer from South London, who will tour North America with Grammy winner John Legend this fall, dropped out of art school four years ago to pursue her music career, collaborating with friends at London performing arts college The Brit School (graduates include Adele, Winehouse and Leona Lewis), and providing backing vocals for singer Paloma Faith.
Born to a Greek father and Jamaican mother, La Havas credited her multicultural upbringing for her eclectic musical influences, which range from Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
"I'm very influenced by the old blues and generally just singing from your heart," La Havas said. "Singers like Billie Holiday sang as if they had been through (life), so I'm really influenced by that and I wanted to inject that into the record."
La Havas' soulful sound has already caught the attention of some well-established names in the U.S. music industry.
Grammy-winning folk artist Justin Vernon of Bon Iver asked La Havas to join the band on their North American tour this year, and Motown legend Stevie Wonder came to see the singer at her Los Angeles gig in May, which left La Havas starstruck.
"(Wonder) has influenced generations of people and has always made really honest, uplifting music. I felt really overwhelmed while meeting him, I cried a bit, being next to him was just too much ... I will never ever forget it," she said.
"Is Your Love Big Enough?" documents the singer growing up from her late teens into her early 20s. La Havas described the album as "a collection of songs written in response to various situations" in her life.
"I've used the songs on the album to demonstrate my head and heart over the last three years," the soft-spoken singer said.
While jazz and soul have a core element in La Havas' debut album, the singer's sounds range from upbeat funk on title track "Is Your Love Big Enough?" to melancholy pop on piano ballad "Gone" and an acoustic guitar-driven duet with Willy Mason on "No Room For Doubt" -- La Havas' favorite track on the record.
"There seems to be a mish mash of things influencing artists these days and their music sounds like you can't put your finger on it. I think all music feeds other music and then manifests itself in whatever way it does," La Havas said, calling her own sound "soul music, but not in the traditional sense."
Indeed, La Havas is part of a new generation of British artists unafraid to experiment with fusing genres including the likes of Ed Sheeran, who rose through the ranks of the UK hip hop scene by incorporating urban sounds into his folk pop music.
"Is Your Love Big Enough?" has been received well by critics, earning a score of 73 out of 100 on review aggregator website Metacritic.com, and has already achieved success in the UK, where it was released last month, ranking No. 4 on the official album chart.
BBC's Chris Lo called the record "a strong and skillfully delivered debut," while Maddy Costa at The Guardian praised the singer's "raw, repetitive" lyrics in songs like "Lost & Found," giving the album three out of five stars.
Jon Pareles at The New York Times praised the album's "low-fi core," and La Havas' "intimacy of a voice that hints at Alicia Keys, Amy Winehouse and Erykah Badu but is fully her own." Rolling Stone's Judy Rosen gave the album three and a half stars out of five, saying "the cool, pretty, expertly arranged music washes over you like a healing wave."
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte, Gary Hill)