The 22-year-old, multiracial, nonbinary creative known as Lava La Rue has made music and art in West London since their teenage years, giving them a giant leg up on plenty of other emerging indie hip-hop/pop/soul artists, in terms of both professional and social savvy. When we connected over Zoom in August, La Rue walked around the outside of a studio rehearsal space in which their band was hunkered down preparing to play U.K. Festivals. The artist was quick to smile, and to apologize for almost imperceptible background noise.
We launched right into La Rue’s Hayley WIlliams-fronted favorite band, Paramore, and its Nashville roots, and the two other artists, Erykah Badu and Bjork, that would likely render them starstruck-speechless, should they ever meet. I was not surprised to learn that all three are among La Rue’s influences – the music the younger artist has made, including the five-track EP Butter-Fly released in early 2021, embodies the combined beauty, boldness and weirdness of a great talent emerging from a pandemic cocoon (their choice of imagery, not mine!) and shaking free of genre boundaries.
“Magpie,” oft-played on WNXP, combines crisp, rapped rhymes with La Rue’s lovely singing voice in a James Bond-ian tune oozing with sex appeal. The overt flirtation in lyrics such as “Why can’t you just sit right next to me” continues during “Angel,” a collaboration with fellow queer artist and L.A.-based friend Deb Never that’s both bright and sultry, reminiscent of music made by Tame Impala. La Rue said they can sing and rap what’s in their head and be “so much smoother” in these songs than they feel they can in real life, when it comes to expressing desire.
And you know I’m a good girl, maybe a little too flirtatious“Angel”
But my heart’s in a good place
And I’m down for you to take it
“Goofy Hearts Club,” another track on the EP, is an EDM-meets-piano-pop ballad La Rue intentionally wrote to be “fluffy, but then sing [their] heart out at the end,” demonstrating their belief that even temporary, ill-fated infatuation is worth the let-down:
I’m OK being alone“Goofy Hearts Club”
But it’ll be much better with you by my side…
Maybe I’m just into the thrill of that
More than the cold hard fact
We will hurt each other in the end
But it’s not just romantic love that’s La Rue’s focus. The artist described lessons from an upbringing in a Caribbean-Londoner household that prioritized shared responsibility and uplifting the whole. This “we are in it together” ethos undoubtedly influenced Lava’s pursuit in their mid-teens, while they were in foster care, to connect creatively and build trust with friends in the NiNE8 collective, whose members pooled their scant resources to afford recording equipment.
Seemingly unstoppable American indie pop peer Clairo teamed up with La Rue for “G.O.Y.D.” – girl of your dreams, natch. The collaborators decided they wanted proceeds from the track to benefit For Our Sibs, a collective that supports Black, trans, non-binary, GNC and intersex folks in the U.S. and the U.K. Lyrically, though it was penned before the world shut down and forced La Rue to fine-tune the EP in their own bedroom, “G.O.Y.D.” was all-too timely in its mid-pandemic release, describing long-distance love over FaceTime.
La Rue wraps up “Butter-Fly” with “Lift You Up,” a vulnerable telling of the push-pull of success in music armored with a “just try to stop me” attitude. In its lyrics, they slay would-be stumbling blocks of their past, present and future:
Misogyny couldn’t keep me down…“Lift You Up”
Foster Care couldn’t keep me down
This world is for me, it’s my Lava Town
Get me a one-way ticket.
On the Record: A Q&A with Lava La Rue
Celia Gregory: It’s so good to have you here on 91.one!
Lava La Rue: Thank you for having me. I wish I could be with you in the flesh.
CG: I would love to do this in person if you can ever get to Nashville.
LLR: I’d love to get there. My favorite band’s from Nashville.
CG: Oh yeah? Who are you digging on?
LLR: It’s Paramore. It’s really lame.
CG: That’s not lame, no! And Hayley Williams, man, she’s totally reinvented herself. She’s a superstar. Does she know that you are a fan?
LLR: No. There are only three people I can list on my hand that, if I was to meet them, I don’t know what I would say or do. Hayley’s one of those people. I don’t even think I would be able to say anything, because I’d just be so starstruck. It’s literally her and Erykah Badu. Anyone else, I’ve met so many people and I’m like, “Yeah, cool.” They’re really nice, like another fellow human. I respect the artistry. But her and Erykah and Bjork, I just couldn’t do it.
CG: We’re going to get you to Nashville eventually. I know you said you’re rehearsing to play, and so I’ll start there. You’ve already done a couple of festivals. So what’s it like to be back out there in front of people after releasing this music still sort of mid-pandemic?
LLR: I’m really grateful to just play in front of people again, as all artists are. But I think the biggest thing is you can see the difference in the energy of the crowd. People aren’t taking shows for granted anymore. People are so happy to be there. I was always someone where I would just want to go to like a show to dance and be by the music. But you can feel that with everyone. No one’s trying to look cool. No one’s trying to look pretty. Everyone’s just going for it, because they just have missed it so much. So it’s an incredible feeling.
CG: These songs on Butter-Fly, I know some of them you had recorded a while ago, but what was it like releasing music in a year like no other?
LLR: Well, I had a very interesting situation because I had already recorded most of the project between London and L.A. Actually, one of my producers is based in Nashville, but would then come to L.A., Isom Innis; he’s in Foster The People. I had already recorded most of the project and when the pandemic hit, I was in the stage where I needed to finish it. So, actually, to be told I needed to stay in my bedroom and sit with the music and go through everything was kind of what I needed, because I was just totally undistracted. The pandemic was really hard for a lot of people. But for me, I needed the isolation to really think about the project and think about my intentions behind the songs that allow me to put more context and emotion into the whole thing.
CG: Obviously pre-pandemic, too, is when you got to collaborate with some these fellow artists that are on the record. And I guess were you friends first with Deb Never before you partnered up for “Angel”?
LLR: I met Deb when I was in L.A. recording the project, and we just really got along with each other. We were very similar in our ideals. And then I found out that she was moving, like, five minutes around the corner from me in West London to finish her project. So we were like, “This is perfect. Let’s make this music.”
CG: Some of my favorite lyrics on this EP are from “Angel”: “I’m a good girl, maybe a little too flirtatious. But my heart’s in a good place, and I’m down for you to take it.” That’s a great example of how you are flirtatious with your music. Tell me about the aspects of sexuality and sensuality that you bring to music. They are bangers, but there’s definitely some coy flirtation that’s layered in your music, I think, that makes it really unique.
LLR: I honestly feel like I’m so much smoother in my music than I am in real life. Like, in real life, I would still say the things that I say in my music, but I feel like in my music I’m allowed to say my head voice and what I really want to say in a situation. Specifically on “Angel,” it was kind of something that I wanted to say to someone but was too shy to. So I put it in the music and then I played her the song and then she was like, “OK, I get the message.”
CG: “Goofy Hearts Club” was really touching to me. It’s almost like this hopefulness for a public display of infatuation. But are you saying that you typically are pretty shy when it comes to the interpersonal before being, as an artist, really out there?
LLR: It is a mixture. I feel like not everybody believes in horoscopes, but I am such a Gemini. It really is depending on the moods and the context. I feel like there are times where I’m just like, “OK, I’m just going to go for it and I’m going to say it and I’m going to be unapologetic.” And there are other times where I’m kind of like, “OK, maybe there’s other ways I can say this without really saying it.” And I do express that through the songs. Through “Goofy Hearts Club” I just wanted to make a ballad where it starts to feel like cute and fluffy. And then I end up just like singing my heart out at the end.
CG: I was going to mention your expression, because you can do so much with your voice. I get the impression that you sort of choose when to delivery these crisp rhymes versus your singing voice, which is quite beautiful. You don’t confuse the two — it’s not melodic rapping; it’s like one or the other. So how do you approach songwriting, choosing how to use your voice and how to flex your skills?
LLR: That’s a really good point. I only very recently discovered in myself that I do that, that I’m kind of one or the other, because a lot of rappers will maybe melodically sing or a lot of singers will rhythmically incorporate rapping in their vocals. But it wasn’t until people kept on asking me, “Who’s the feature? Who’s that person singing on the hook in that song?” And I’m like, “It’s me.” And they didn’t realize because the qualities of me going from, like, straight rap into a really soft, high voice, they didn’t actually put two and two together that I was the same person. It wasn’t really intentional. Again, maybe it’s this duality Gemini thing. I’m a bit one or the other. I’m either singing my heart out [sings melodically]. Or I’m literally like [deep voice], “Yeah.” There’s no in-between for me.
CG: You were raised, I read, by your grandmother who’s a first-generation Jamaican Londoner. And you spent a few teenage years in foster care. But you’ve been immersed in music your entire life, right? It’s within you. You told a magazine that “everything is a bit of song and dance when you grow up around Caribbeans.” So how do you, especially with your arts collective, square music and culture and community now?
LLR: Right now, I think even the pandemic showed the need of community and having a community more than ever. Growing up with a Caribbean family and with a first-generation Jamaican, old-school woman, you grew up with a lot of morals about family and how important it is to not just be self-sufficient, but to be sufficient within the people around you. How can we can help each other, bring each other up? Especially when there’s a lack of resources. And I guess I brought that mentality into creating a collective where a lot of us didn’t necessarily have any connections or specifically any ways into the industry. But we were like, “Let’s just put in 20 pounds each — 20 bucks, as you guys would say — and let’s just make our own little microphone set-up and make music together and we’ll just share resources.” And that’s kind of what we did. And I guess I took that from my grandmother.
CG: That’s so lovely. So obviously these people are collaborators and friends. What are the Nine8 folks up to now that you’re getting back out to touring? Are you able to travel together?
LLR: We’re playing some festivals, closing some festival stages. We’re really excited for making more music, making visuals. I mean, we’ve been doing this together since we were 16. So we’re never really going to stop. And when you have that foundation of knowing someone like that since teen-hoods, you can not see each other as much during a pandemic or whatever, but when you meet each other again, nothing’s changed because you’ve already set that boundary, you’ve set that up. You know, that’s a special bond.
CG: I think you told Hunger mag last year that 2020 was Summer of Love 2.0, “with all the queers and youth coupling up over lockdown and making DIY art.” So I’m curious about your methods now for connecting with fans, family, lovers. It’s another strange year, but do you feel like you are continuing that Summer of Love 2.0?
LLR: Yeah, definitely. I think that was just the beginning of a movement. I saw a lot of people move into communal spaces and start their own sort of creative ideas. A lot of people, unfortunately, lost their jobs here in the UK because of COVID-19, as they did all over the world. And they actually allowed a lot of people who wanted to create ventures or start a new lifestyle, they were able to do that because people are waiting for that moment of, “OK, I’m going to quit my job and do this job.” And then finally it’s like, “The pandemic hit, you haven’t got a job so, OK, cool, let’s do this.” I’ve seen just an upsurge in different subcultures and communities and movements here in London. And it’s a beautiful thing. I think we’re going to keep seeing that throughout this decade.
CG: Anything else about Butter-Fly you’d like to share?
LLR: Butter-Fly is almost the beginning of a narrative, in a way. It was like everything before Butter-Fly was me being a little caterpillar and experiencing growing pains, and then the tracks on Butter-Fly shows my growing pains and me going into this cocoon over lockdown. Now my wings are on and I’m out here and ready to continue the story. I feel like everything up until this point is just the origin story of the movie. I’m excited.