On Lava La Rue’s 2019 mixtape ‘STITCHES’, they rap: “No human born a conservative / Just a greedy method of conserving quid.” That couplet alone is just one example in the back catalogue of the west Londoner whose astute politics are inherently tethered to their art. But on their new EP ‘Butter-Fly’, the politics come wrapped up in the thing that unites us all: love.
“I realised, actually, that even my kind of love [queer love] is inherently political,” La Rue says of the decision to now spotlight it more in their music. “Because it’s still extremely underrepresented across all genres.”
It’s also because the 22-year-old musician and visual artist – real name Ava Laurel – “fell in love properly” for the first time. “That definitely had a huge influence,” they say. “Before then I was always apprehensive to approach topics of love because there’s so many artists who put out love songs because they’re relatable to everyone. But I wanted to talk about something that I was experiencing and felt important to me.”
Instead of feeling like they were “being mushy” or “giving in” to writing songs about love, they came to appreciate the gravity of a queer person making music – in part for the benefit of the LGBTQIA+ community. “In the past I was using female pronouns for my lovers and people were reaching out to me and being like, ‘You have no idea how much it meant to me to just listen to a bop and it so casually be about a lesbian relationship, but not actually for the whole thing be about that.’”
“For me growing up, it would have helped me massively seeing someone who I resonated with singing about that kind of love rather than trying to apply something that doesn’t quite apply to you but make it work, which I feel like a lot of queer people do. When you do have more queer people being the icons that inspire you to create music, it reaches out across all fields and genres. Essentially, it will then be progressive for the whole of music.” Laurel’s politics come to the fore again.
‘Butter-Fly’ sultry jam ‘G.O.Y.D’ – which features Laurel’s transatlantic pal Clairo – hears them fully embrace writing about love, going so far as to indulge in queer tropes. Laurel, Clairo and their mutual friend, the producer Vegyn [Frank Ocean, Travis Scott], were making the song together virtually “all about this long-distance relationship and really wanting someone over FaceTime so much”, Laurel says. “It’s such a lesbian cliché: falling in love with someone who lives in another country.”
That the artist feels more free to write about love speaks to the transition they’ve had over the past few years. Since the soulful hip-hop of their first EP ‘Letra’ (2018) and the following year’s meatier, upbeat mixtape ‘STITCHES’ – not to mention their work in the NiNE8 music and arts collective with Biig Piig, Nayana IZ and others – they’ve come out as non-binary, entered their 20s, and realised that the at-times tumultuous journey of growing up (Laurel was in foster care in their teens) has emboldened them to be exactly who they want to be now.
‘Butter-Fly’ EP is Laurel celebrating what they have in their life. You can hear it in the record’s lushly textured hip hop, psychedelic and R&B soundscapes – all joyous musings of a person content with their lot, influences including Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Gorillaz, Tame Impala, Björk, and Erykah Badu.
“It was made in a transitional period for me. I’d fallen head over heels in love and I felt like I had cut off all the negative things in my life. And I was surrounded by really nourishing and caring people. Before that I was very much in hustle mode; trying to make sure my music could cover my living. I’d fucked off to LA [in late 2019] to write this project and suddenly I was like, ‘Do you know what? I’ve got good people around me. I’m OK. I’ve got a great team. I need to not look left, not look right and just focus on the music.’ Suddenly loads of waves of emotions hit me and I realised I started feeling things I’d been putting off for years. When you’re in hustle mode you don’t really allow yourself to process things because you’re just so busy trying to survive. So in that time period I was really emotional and I was like, ‘All right, well let me put this all into the music.’”
‘Lift You Up’, a dreamy trip-hop number featuring Karma Kid, details how Laurel has become self-sufficient. The lyric “Rags to riches couldn’t keep me bound” is a nod to their successes in an array of fields: Laurel has collaborated creatively with big fashion brands, made a documentary for the TATE Modern and more.
“‘Lift You Up’ represents the growing pains of adulthood – like resilience and the skin getting thicker,” Laurel says. “I’ve realised I was definitely afraid of being alone back then; I always wanted to have loads of people around me. I wasn’t selective of the people around me, and I might have allowed toxic things to happen in my circle. Suddenly things started going wrong and once I got out of that, it made me feel a lot more equipped for properly entering adulthood.”
And what about the growing pains of identity and coming out, if at all? “To be honest I always knew that I was genderqueer and didn’t quite see myself on a specific side of the spectrum from a very young age, but those words weren’t actually in circulation to use. It was just seen as, ‘Oh yeah, little Ava, she’s a bit of a tomboy’. When I did start doing more research, I was like, ‘OK, there’s actually a word for this.’
“A misconception about being non-binary is people think it’s almost like a third gender – like a gender in a middle – where it’s actually a whole spectrum. I think my idols exuded that same energy but I those words really weren’t in circulation. Prince was probably non-binary. I realise now there’s maybe a bit more terminology for exactly how I feel, but even within that I still feel it’s a very complex thing.”
But the conversation isn’t moving fast enough, Laurel adds. “It’s very easy to feel like there’s been progression when you have your own bubble of people or if you have your own echo chamber online. Yet there’s also a whole other world of people where it’s totally not OK, especially in other countries. I have a lot of people close to me who come from countries where you’re absolutely at risk by being openly queer – let’s focus on making those people safe. They need the bare necessities and they’re still not there. To me, that’s not progression. We should be way beyond that by now.”
Future plans include work on more video projects and and collaborations with NiNE8 (“we want to get our own spaces, have our own pop up shop – there’s the fashion aspect of it”) and Laurel is already looking beyond ‘Butter-Fly’ and how they can continually push themselves: “I just want to keep up the same energy, but make it even more cinematic, make my songs even better and keep growing. I’m eager. To be honest, I feel like I’ve just started.”
Lava La Rue’s new EP ‘Butter-Fly’ is released February 19