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‘I'm always finding new things that are interesting to me to try’: Lalah Hathaway on her diverse musical career

Lalah Hathaway
Derek Banks
Lalah Hathaway

I met Lalah Hathaway back in 1990 when her debut album was released and I've been a fan since then. Over the years we've also become friends and that's even cooler. Listening to her records is great but seeing her live is an experience. She's coming to the newly refurbished Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, N.J. on Friday, April 12 at 8pm. I caught up with Lalah to talk about the upcoming gig, a new recording project that's coming out later this year and a whole lot more.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: Is this show a one off or is this part of a national tour? What are you doing?

Lalah Hathaway: This is part of a little small tour right now. I have a record coming soon so we're getting ready to get ramped up to be out there this summer.

Tell us a little bit about the record.

I'm excited about this record. I'm in the end stages of it right now, mixing and mastering. I'm thinking May, June, sometime around there. We haven't made it official yet, but sometime in the top of the summer.

I'm definitely looking forward to that. I've always been a huge fan of your music. I know that if you don't believe in the power of DNA, all you have to do is listen to you. I hear echoes of your dad every time I hear you, even though you really have cultivated your own path with the many directions that you have taken with your music. It’s a little eerie sometimes hearing your voice and his voice, but how does that feel to you?

It feels very natural to me. I think that in the same way that we all sound like our parents or your kids sound like you, I think it's just natural. I think the phenomenon happens because we both are singers so we are emoting kind of similarly. But it makes a lot of sense. It really does. He's half of the box between him and my mom is the other half.

That's the other thing, because your mom contributed to that gene pool as well. I don't think as many people know about your mom as about your dad. Talk a little bit about her.

My mom is a singer, piano player, and organist. My parents met at Howard University in the Fine Arts department. They're both musicians. While I'm definitely influenced heavily by my dad, I’m also heavily influenced by my mom.

How much has that Chicago connection influenced you? I went to college at Northwestern, so in my late teens and early twenties, I got a really good dose of that music scene in Chicago with all the blues and the jazz. Chicago is a music city.

Absolutely. Chicago is so richly textured, specifically with Black music. When you think about artists like Herbie Hancock, Donny Hathaway, Maurice White and Chaka Khan, and all the greats that hailed from Chicago. There's such a rich tradition of Black music, of Black jazz, of Black soul music, of gospel music. All of that definitely informed my art as well.

Clearly, that's been a big part of creating the sound that you have created. What’s your favorite place? Do you like California, Chicago, New York?

I've been living in Los Angeles since I got out of college. I wanted to move to New York but folks told me, “No, you got to move to LA because that's where all the TV shows are,” so I came out here. I did not want to be here but Los Angeles is so much like my home now. I have been nurtured and fed by so many leaders of the West Coast. Being able to work with people like Snoop and Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar and DJ Quick and Battlecat and Terrace Martin. I have been really, really nurtured by this music here, by the legacy of the West Coast so I'm very proud to call this my second home.

I had the same experience. I came kicking and screaming, but here we are and here we stay. A lot of people, when they talk about Lalah Hathaway, they want to categorize you as neo soul. How do you feel about that label or about labels in music, period? In my opinion, your music is so diverse and really can't be characterized but some people are bothered by that.

It doesn't bother me. It only bothers me when it hinders what I can do or where I can go or how much money I make. I feel like these are words that people use, and I definitely understand that people have met me at different points in their lives. So some folks know the Joe Sample or the Kirk Whalum records, and they think I'm a jazz singer. There are people that know about the Donald Lawrence and the John P. Kee and Take 6 records so they think I'm a gospel singer. Others know about the Mary J. Blige or the Snoop records or the Kendrick records so they think I'm like an R&B singer or whatever that is called now. They've heard records with Gregory Porter and they think I'm a neo soul singer or they’ve heard records with Jose James and they think I'm a neo soul singer. Wherever folks are on their path, wherever they meet me, that's what they think that I do and that is okay for me because I do all of those things.

I think some of the greatest music comes out of those collaborations between artists who see each other and hear each other. They know who you are and then you make music together collaborating. You play well with others. Who are some of your favorites that you've collaborated with and who have you not worked with yet that you would love to work with?

Honestly, every year, this is maybe the first or second year in the last 10 years or so that I was not involved with a record that was nominated for a Grammy. Last year, I did a record with Boney James, a really beautiful record that we wrote together. I did a record with Keiko Matsui. I've been wanting to do that for a really long time. I did a record for Snoop that's coming out. I get to work with so many people. I have opened for Prince. I sang with Take 6. I call it Take 7 when I show up or Take 6 and a half when I show up. There are still so many people that I'd love to work with. There are so many new people and so many people from my past that have mentored me without even knowing it like Sting or Michael McDonald or Stevie Wonder. There are also so many new people like Kenyon Dixon or Lucky Daye.

Coastin' featuring Lalah Hathaway (Official Performance Video)

There's so much music, which is the beautiful thing about it. We could do it every day, all day for a thousand years and still not get to the end of it. I'm always finding new things that are interesting to me to try.

Yeah, I love the things that you've done with Robert Glasper and with Esperanza Spalding, there's just so much of it. One of my favorite people to see you with, who I know is also a very dear friend and who I think is one of the more underrated talents in music today is Rahsaan Patterson, who I just think is an incredible guy. You guys have a great friendship, don't you?

Absolutely. Great writer. Great singer. Just a great emoter. We've done a lot of work together.

He's a great performer as well. I love to see him do his thing on stage. He's a great guy. I think today's musicians are more free- spirited, defying all these genres. I think it does open up things a little bit for people to be able to do what they want, especially since changes in the industry in terms of being with a record label and having somebody tell you what to do. Now, you can make a record in your own house.

You sure can. It's the greatest and the worst thing to happen. You can make a record on your iPhone in half an hour and have it up on Spotify in a couple of days. It's a good thing and a bad thing. I think a lot of the changes that have happened in the evolution of this industry have been so great and so terrible all at once.

It's so wonderful that I can have every piece of music I've ever heard in this phone, but it also leads me to believe that it's all there for the taking. Anytime I want it, I don't have to pay for it. It's there. It’s an interesting time for the music industry. I think we are about to see it switch into yet another era. I think it's going to be a great era for creatives and free spirits and people that are really doing the independent game.

We still have to figure out the financial part of it. It's devastatingly easy to just access someone's music without paying anything. I think about people who are in their 20s who've never bought music at all and don't understand the value of supporting artists. This is your life's work.  This is like, if you manufacture cars and people could just come take the car after you made it.

Yeah. I don't think folks understand that. I think music is like the last marker on a totem pole. Even with movies, people still want to go to the movies, still want to support movie stars and there's still a lot of money in that industry. But I think for musicians, sometimes we're the last thought. Even though the music is the thing that people really need to set the tone for an event, it's the last thing they think of to ask for and to pay for. I hope that it's important to people. It's so important to me. It's been a part of every step of my life.

On the last day on the Earth, I will lament the fact that I have to leave music here. I'm not sure what's happening over there, but it will be like the other person in the room that's my best friend that knows me so well to leave all of that music here. I'm hopeful that the people that create music will be given respect.

Yeah, definitely a little more respect and a little more compensation, because people say, “Well, I have Spotify or I have Pandora or I have Sirius,” but don’t get what the artist is making. It's like fractions of pennies on the dollar for the artists who have created all that great music.

But the labels make a lot of money. You know what I mean? I can remember being 20 and driving up to my label in my little Nissan 240SX and seeing all these Range Rovers thinking, “Wow, there must be a lot of artists here today” and getting in there and it's just the folks that work in the building. They make a lot of money so there just has to be some parity for the artists.

That's why I love the fact that artists can take ownership of their own music and do it themselves and not have to go through and get permission from someone else. In the past, the creative process was affected by that where you would have to answer to someone who would say, “I need a song, another ‘I'm Coming Back,’ we need another whatever.”


It doesn't work. But I think it also underscores the importance of live performance. This is something that to me is the height of musical expression, to be able to see artists live. I always encourage people to do that because it is a communion between the artist and the audience. I really think that people don't always understand how much you as a performer can get out of that conversation that you're having with the audience.

Absolutely. It's a conversation. I think a lot of audience members don't realize that they are part of the music. That’s why it's really important to me to make a record that sounds as great as I can get it. But it's also equally as important to get out in front of people with that record and create that vibe for them. It's very important to me in a live setting to make sure that people are good—whether you're crying or laughing or hugging somebody or proposing to someone or you’re mad—whatever it is, the music has to bring that out of you. We try to provide a space for that.

Lalah Hathaway: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

I think one of your best performances in was the live recording that you did at the Troubadour, returning to the scene of one of your dad's greatest successes. What was that experience? That record is just fantastic.

Thank you. That's like my little baby record. Since 1992 I wanted to make a live record and everyone said, “Oh no, nobody buys live records. Nobody listens to live records that doesn't go on the radio.” There are all these formulas that people have that are successful for the three minutes on the radio. The label too tells you how you know it's got to be this many bpm you got it's a lifestyle situation. Nobody's listening to that and then here come Erykah Badu and Jill Scott with these gorgeous live albums that people are eating up and that have stood the test of time. By the time I got ready to make my live album I just said, “I’m doing it. I don't care who says I can't do it.”

It has probably been my most commercial success so far. We won three Grammys, we broke records. It was really something and to present that record, we did it through Pledge Music at first so people were able to really talk to me about what they want to hear, what they want to see. I was able to kind of reciprocate for them, which I had already been doing at my website since 1997. It was just a really great situation for me.

I remember a record that Betty Carter did at the Great American Music Hall, which she called The Audience with Betty Carter. When I talked to her about that, she spoke to the importance of what the audience brings in terms of the energy. Also, performing live gives you a chance to just take those favorite themes, those songs that we love so much and just put a little something on it and make it interesting.

I was in South Africa this winter. It was summer there. We played three shows in Joburg, 3,000 people, I guess. Then we played a show in Cape Town with close to 5,000 people outside. These folks were singing every song and it was incredible.

It's just a place I don't get to go that often. That audience really understood like, “Okay, we better really have fun with this because when will she come again?” Hopefully I'll be able to go over more often, but while we were playing, no one was eating food. No one had an iPad at the show. Everyone was just into the show. I hope for specifically American audiences. I want them to go and really engage, really be present, particularly with soul music because it's really needed right now. Go and have a good time but really just pay attention. Pay attention and get what you can get out of it. Don't spend your money and come sit up front and be on your phone the whole time.

Oh, please. How does that feel to you as an artist? To look out and see people, instead of looking at the stage, looking at this little tiny screen so that they can post bad video.

I keep telling them, it's not going to sound good. It's never going to be more real than it is right here in this moment. And if you are watching me from the third row of seats through a phone, it already happened and you missed it. I'm standing right here but I have to admit, I have pretty good audiences though. They come, they come.

You really do and you have people who follow you. I remember one show that you were doing at the Hyatt in Newport Beach where you're performing. It seemed like half of the VIP section was all your friends. They were like, “Oh, that's, Lalah, my girlfriend.” I guess that was a hometown show too so that also makes it possible. The communication that was going on between the stage and the audience was spectacular that night.

Oh, good. Thank you.

We’re kind of expecting the same thing on Friday, April 12th at Union County Performing Arts Center. You don't want to miss Lalah Hathaway live. It is always a treat. For tickets and info, you can go to smoothjazznj. com. You said the new record may come out later on this summer. Do you have a name yet?

Not yet. We're messing with two names right now.

Do you have much original stuff on it?

All originals.

I can't wait to hear it because I know you are a writer.

I'm working on it. I'm getting better at it. It's really been fun to collaborate with people and write stuff. I'm coming off of the last album which was called Honestly, that I wrote entirely with one woman named Tiffany Goucher to just kind of mix it up a little bit this time. I'm really excited about it.


This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.