A creative multi-hyphenate burning a trail in their path, Lava La Rue might well be the future, but they’ve arrived in the here and now.
Words: Martyn Young. Photos: Patrick Gunning.
“I really feel like I’m just getting started,” says rising alt-pop icon Lava La Rue, reflecting on four years of creative adventures and a wealth of some of the most inventive and vibrant music around. It’s positioned them firmly at the heart of the UK creative scene as one of our most powerful and exciting voices. In 2022, though, things are a bit different. It’s time to shake things up. Lava La Rue is ready to push their boundless creativity to the next level and truly cement their place as a visionary artist.
Starting the year with the release of incendiary queer anthem ‘Vest & Boxers’, as we reach the summer, Lava is releasing their definitive musical statement in the shape of the ‘Hi-Fidelity’ EP. A lot has changed in just six months, though. The world is in flux, and Lava’s creative vision has crystallised into an idiosyncratic aesthetic, as opposed to the disparate genre-hopping eclecticism that defined their earlier period. In short, there’s been a hell of a lot going on. The one constant has been the ethos of collaboration and community that drives everything Lava does.
“It’s been a rollercoaster year,” they begin, seeking solace from the sun on the hottest day in history. “Politically, it feels like everything could crumble. Right now, there’s global warming and war. Politics in the US and the UK just seems like it’s falling apart, but through that, there has been a sense of community gathering and people talking about how they feel with people creating collectives and communities around them to support them through these times.”
“Even though it comes from a place of struggle, the resilience of people coming together is a beautiful thing,” they continue. “I’ve definitely seen that through queer communities or trans communities or working-class creative communities that are like ‘let’s all get together and build something together because we can’t rely on anyone else to do it’. That togetherness has given me a lot of hope this year.”
Sharing bonds and working together to nurture relationships, both social and creative, has allowed Lava to express their personality and explore their own unique culture and heritage. It’s at the heart of everything. Lava has a remarkable talent for spotting something special, whether in people, a sound, a vibe, a style or something floating in the creative ether. There’s no master plan, though. No blueprint for how to do it. Everything they have done, from their own music to forming and leading pioneering arts collective NINE8, has all come from the same organic place.
“From the moment my mates who I went to college with were like, ‘Oh, you should put this online as Lava La Rue’, I was just like, ‘Oh, cool’. I didn’t really care if it was just my five friends listening to it or if it was 50,000 people. It was just cool that I could make a thing and put it out into the world,” they explain.
In their earliest musical memories, the half Jamaican, half Latvian, inquisitive kid was immersed in a strong heritage that has informed their music and creativity ever since. “I grew up in a household with my grandma that listened to a lot of lovers rock and rocksteady,” they remember. “Trojan records stuff and variations on late-70s and early-80s reggae. Lovers rock has a real psychedelic, smooth, soulful touch to it. It’s also very guitary and made for live music. In many places, it’s very experimental as well, with a lot of synths. Sometimes I listen to new-wave Canadian indie bands, and I can actually sonically hear some influence of what was happening in Jamaica in the 70s, whether it’s intentional or not. That’s where I started out.”
“I get excited to better myself. Not even just for financial success – I find it really exciting to pick up a new skill”Lava La Rue
In their formative years discovering music, Lava was drawn to exciting, vibrant sounds and big personalities. The first album they owned was by Gorillaz, because they were enthralled by the cartoon images. “I was really into comic books as a kid, and I saw the designs by Jamie Hewlett and instantly was drawn to that. I had no clue what the music was, and I was too young to be like, oh, that’s the man from Blur. I was 8 years old!” they laugh.
Following this musical awakening, they embarked on a path that would define their boundary-pushing, anything goes aesthetic. “By the time I turned 13, after Gorillaz, I went down a whole indie route,” they reminisce fondly. “This was an era in the late-00s and early-10s where pop-punk, Avril Lavigne and Paramore were all the rage. I also grew up in an area with a huge British punk heritage. The kids who lived in West London’s parents and grandparents were very much affiliated with The Clash, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and that kind of thing. I formed a band with some of them. We were called The West Borns because we were all born in West London. We’d play at local street festivals; they were proper community-led street fairs, and we were a band of 13-year-olds playing our guitars and wearing ripped skinny jeans. We wanted to be an all-girl band version of The Clash but at the age of 12.”
Perhaps one day we might see a reunion of The West Borns? “That would be hilarious,” they laugh. “I think I’m in touch with the drummer on Facebook.”
Obviously, The West Borns didn’t take over the world, but Lava knew that music was something that was going to drive them forward. It led them to meet two pivotal figures that would influence everything they do. The three like-minded friends began to hang out, formed a lifetime bond and started making music in their own primitive style. “I was in sixth form college with my mates Mac Wetha and Biig Piig. We were all in the same class together, and before we had any of those names, we were sharing beats and little songs we had written or going to open mic nights together,” they explain. “I sat down with Mac one day in a cafe after school and showed him this poem, and he was like, oh, you should put that over these bedroom beats I’ve been making. Me and Jess, who is Biig Piig, around the same day, were thinking of artist names. This was proper SoundCloud era in 2015. We were thinking of SoundCloud user names. I was like, what do you think of Lava La Rue? We were both like that’s great, cool! It was us in our lunch break at the music hall trying to figure out cool little names.”
When they think back to those earliest days, the contrast in where they are now becomes very clear. “When we started, it was super DIY,” they say. “There was a lo-fi sound that people associated with us. For some people, that was a stylistic choice because the genre was quite popular on the internet, but for us, there was no other choice. We didn’t have the privileges of affording sound isolation units for the studio and having clarity. What do you do if you don’t have sound isolation or clarity? You just put a shitload of reverb on it and make it seem intentional, and then you create a genre out of that. It’s a smart thing to do. If you’re in an indie band and you can’t afford to have that new age crystal clear Arctic Monkeys production sound, then you become like a shoegaze band and put everything through so many effects channels that it becomes so washed out that you can’t tell that it’s low quality.”
Now eight years into creating and four years into releasing music, Lava finally has some of what they need to bring their vivid creative visions to life. “I have more resources and people around me now. I can make things sound a lot more like I intend to rather than being forced into a style due to a lack of resources. That’s amazing because I can make things sound like the idea I have in my brain. I’m in a position now where if I want a violin or a double bass player, I can just get them in the studio. Having that is incredible. You can hear such a sonic shift in the music. Not just with me but with all my friends as well.”
That sonic shift is all over ‘Hi-Fidelity’ with its amorphous alt-pop, psych-washed sound. The progression isn’t necessarily an abrupt shift, though – it follows on from their last solo release. “I feel like I just started opening up a conversation on my last EP ‘Butter-Fly’ where I’m trying to expand some ideas sonically and genre-wise.”
There’s an extra confidence and sense of ambition in the music they’re making now as the full Lava La Rue experience comes to life. “Everything before was based on little freestyles and was like something me and mates at school made in our bedrooms,” they continue. “Every release I’ve done was a collection of things I made in like 2017, and things I just put on a mixtape. Now, I’m focusing much more on having a project tell a narrative both sonically and lyrically as a body of work.
“There’s so much more consistency now. It’s allowed me to delve in and expand on this sound. I just want it to feel even bigger and make a statement. It’s this fusion of psychedelia and rock and indie mixed with things you can hear from my more R&B-inspired projects, and hopefully, I can get a real solidified genre fusion from that,” they say excitedly.
What about that all-important album, though? Could it be on the horizon? “The idea of an album is definitely calling me,” says Lava. “I think it’s time.” For now, though, the ‘Hi-Fidelity’ EP is a supremely satisfying teaser. “This project makes the Lava La Rue sound a lot clearer,” they add. “The music moving forward will be an expansion of that. I’m glad I haven’t released an album until now because I was a kid just trying to get my bearings and get the right resources around me. If I had made an album two or three years ago, it wouldn’t have been fully formed because I didn’t have what I needed. Now is the right time. It feels authentic. It feels me. It represents many elements of my identity, both who I am, where I’m from and how I feel. It makes sense to me.”
The EP deals with the resonant themes of growing up and finding your place in the world. Finding your own identity. “It’s about growing pains,” says Lava. A lot of the ideas in the songs are because I had just left teenhood, and I was starting to approach thoughts and ideas as a young adult as opposed to everything else I’ve released that was written and conceptualised as a 19-year-old or a 20-year-old. I have a different approach to life now and different thoughts and feelings when it comes to love, coexisting and mortality.”
One particular song on the EP – closing track ‘Motel’ – is perhaps the best thing Lava has released. A vast, chunky, soulful, spacey, funky banger – the track encapsulates the vibe of the whole project. “The main idea of that song is when is too old to die young,” explains Lava. “Growing up, when I heard about the 27 club and saw Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse or whatever, because I was so young, I thought they had lived these big fruitful lives. 27 seemed quite old to me. Now that I’m 24 and 27 isn’t that far away, I’m like fuck, man, that’s young. There’s so much I want to do, and so much I want to achieve. I explore that in that song. That expiry date that some people put on youth and craziness. It’s like fuck, I don’t even know anything right now. There are more mature existential ideas on this EP.”
That desire to get things done and experience life to the fullest is present in all of Lava’s work. They are insanely creative and constantly buzzing with ideas. “Pushing myself in different directions comes from a place where I get excited to better myself. Not even just for financial success – I find it really exciting to pick up a new skill. I believe that no matter what your religious beliefs are or what you believe happens in the afterlife or if you believe in that at all, you can live so many lives within your own lifetime,” they say excitedly. Right now, there are no worries about burnout. The possibilities are endless. “I will get to that stage at some point, but while I’ve got all that excitement now, I may as well do it,” they say. “In school, I’d never be bothered to write an essay, then suddenly I’d get into a zone where I’d just write three. Once I’m in a zone, I want to do as much as possible because there’ll come a time where I just can’t be arsed. I haven’t come to that stage yet, but at least when I do, I can say I’ve done that now. I’m happy.”
It’s important to remember Lava La Rue isn’t just a musician. They’re a full-on creative multimedia experience. An artist fully tuned in to the importance of creating your own space and – y’know – doing more than simply making good songs. “I’ve always looked up to artists who have created whole worlds around them,” they say. Lava cites hugely influential pop-culture figures like Pharrell Williams and Tyler, The Creator as artists who have successfully diversified while helming their own collectives. “I would love to do that,” they continue, warming to their theme. “I also think I don’t see any queer women or non-binary people or half Jamaican half Latvian people who have done that. I’ve never seen someone who hits my demographic do that, so that inspires me. It would be pretty cool to have someone like me, or not a guy, do that. I’m sure they’re out there, but I’d like to see more representation, and that excites me to keep on world-building.” Never mind world-building; Lava is creating a whole universe. Lavaland may shortly need an extension.
When they get deep into talking about the music, they clearly feel things on another level than your average artist. “As pretentious as this sounds, all my senses will inspire the music I’m making,” they laugh. “I can watch a movie and feel really moved by that. I can be moved by the landscape visually. I can hear a soundtrack for it that I want to make myself. I can smell something, and a smell can instantly unlock a memory. It’s a primal thing. I’ll feel that nostalgia, and that smell will bring me back to this time, or that smell of perfume will remind me of this person. Every single sense works for me. Even just being really cosy and wanting to make a really sleepy, cosy, groovy song because I’m wearing a fluffy fleece. Every sense can inform the music. It’s visual, it’s sonic, it’s touch, it’s taste. It’s all of it.”
As important as all of these senses are, another critical feature of Lava’s aesthetic is the importance of heritage. All those days growing up in West London listening to reggae and punk and plotting to take over the world. It’s now more important than ever to not lose sight of that. “When you grow up with something as your heritage, it’s really easy to fall into that because that is the basis of your identity. When you’re a child, you’re basically a moldable clay, and that’s what you’re soaking in,” they explain. “That’s why we speak the way we do, walk the way we do and have all the mannerisms we’ve learned. Growing up around the Notting Hill Carnival community and the Caribbean community with elements of West London Britishness has had a huge impact on my basic core identity. Leaning into elements of that now as an adult where it really is intentional is because I feel that there’s so much of that history that people don’t fully understand. Specifically being a black, mixed Caribbean musician making in many places very indie-leaning alternative guitar music. A lot of people when I was growing up didn’t understand that rock music and guitar music has always been a Black thing too. When you look at British bands, it’s still very caucasian dominated, despite the fact that a lot of early rock music throughout time has had huge influence, starting with Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix through Prince. In the 2000s British indie scene, the only Black British person I knew who came from migrant parents was Kele from Bloc Party. That was it. That was pretty wild. It was cool leaning into that world and wanting to represent and saying, hey, we exist.” For a whole new generation of kids, Lava La Rue will be another icon within that lineage but forging their own distinct path.
“Even though there are still loads of gatekeepers in pop, the public is like, hey, we’re going to make Kate Bush chart again after 40 years. That’s fucking incredible”Lava La Rue
It’s definitely a good time for Lava to fully embrace their music’s alternative side. A lot of the boundaries of the old music industry are all-too-slowly being broken down. New opportunities are finally arising for a more diverse and inclusive group of engaged artists. Plus, thanks to technology, anyone in their bedroom with a vision and a desire can make something and get it out into the world. “We’re having a British and Irish boom of bands which is really cool,” they enthuse. “We’re going to see a lot more bands charting, a bit more like it was in the 2000s in The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys era. Now we have things like Wet Leg and Fontaines D.C., I think we’re making the best bands in the world right now. We’ll have an influence on pop music. You’re seeing it as well with a lot of solo artists and songwriters. It’s exciting that there’s less of a need now for a middle man between the artist putting out their record and instantly attracting a demographic. Back in the 2000s, you did need someone to distribute the CDs and the vinyl, and even though these things are still important, I’m seeing so many bands come up now who just put out a song online that they’ve made that morning and it instantly has like a million views, and they’ve reached their crowd,” they add. “Even though there are still loads of gatekeepers in pop, the public is like, hey, we’re going to make Kate Bush chart again after 40 years. That’s fucking incredible. That’s a good thing for pop music. Kids online just find things and say, we think this is cool. I think that’s quite organic rather than being based on an algorithm. It’s great that sometimes 13-year-old kids get to dictate that some random person who dropped a demo in their bedroom can enter the UK Top 40.”
Fully blossoming into a music scene that is more vibrant and exciting than maybe ever before, Lava La Rue feels right at home leading the zeitgeist. As they prepare to go out on tour, their ambitions are only getting bigger. “I’m making the live show more of an experience,” they say. “Anyone who saw me perform a live show before the pandemic saw me with a microphone and a DJ. Now I have a full band. You can hear that the music is made a lot more for live. I want to make that an amazing experience and visually represent that.”
While it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of someone who is almost breathlessly creative, for Lava, the ultimate goal is pure and simple. “I just want to expand on the sonic world and remember to have a good time. Not be on autopilot for everything. Just try to stay present,” they laugh. They might feel they’re only just getting started, but Lava La Rue is already on the next level. Anything is possible. ■
Taken from the September 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Lava La Rue’s EP ‘Hi-Fidelity’ is out now.