Interview By: LeLe Symone
With a groomed-in-the-gospel mother and a soul icon as a father, there was practically no other option for Lalah Hathaway except music. And the release of her latest CD, Where It All Begins, only cements the righteousness of that enviable legacy.
“What keeps me going is my passion for music,” said the singer, songwriter and musician, who’s in the midst of touring and excited about the autonomy and the artistic freedom she was able to flex during the project. “Aside from everything, I’m a musician at heart, so this is the life that I was born into. I listen to music everyday and up until the day I die, there will still be more music to discover. This recording process most mirrored the first time I ever did it, because I had a hand in everything, the songs the artwork, all of it.
“Coming from the last record into this one (2008’s Self-Portrait, which earned the performer her first-ever Grammy nomination) I was really taking control of what was going on in my professional life in terms of putting the music together from start to finish, choosing the studios, the producers, picking the songs and all of that, it was about truly, really learning the business, so that I can continue to thrive. I’m getting really comfortable with my choices and the record is just what I intended it to be: to A&R my own project was the most fun I’ve had.”
More upbeat and eclectic than her previous release, Ms. Hathaway was able to tap into a variety of producers, from previous collaborators like Mike City to newer names like Dre and Vidal to JR Hutson, who contributed the slinky mid-tempo “Small of My Back” and also has a sort of familial connection with her late father, Donny Hathaway. “The funny story behind working with him is, when I asked fans on Twitter ‘who should I work with next?’, a lot of them told me ‘try J R Hutson.’ He’s actually the son of Leroy Hutson, an iconic R&B soul singer of the 1970s, who was my father’s roommate in college. We had lost touch for a few years, but now we’ve been catching up like crazy and working with him was great.”
Touching on multiple genres and influences, the CD’s first single, “If You Want To” (co-written with another longtime friend, fellow performer Rahsaan Patterson), is a decidedly lighter and breezier departure from the jazz offerings she’s been heard on, but according to Ms. Hathaway, only newer fans who’ve encountered her music in the last few years might experience a sense of shock.
“One thing that I started to figure out early on in my career is that I can do a whole lot of different things. Depending on your experience as a listener with me, you have different expectations, but for people who remember my first record, where there was a lot of R&B, this won’t come as a surprise to them. But I think in recent years, after the Joe Sample record and the Luther Vandross remake (the stunning “Forever, For Always, For Love”), or after the Take 6 and Donald Lawrence projects, folks think that I’m actually a gospel or jazz singer. My intent is to do everything well, but some people want to pigeon-hole your sound into this little box, and I refuse to let that happen. Your hope, whenever you create any sort of commercially-available art, is that people will get it, but the truth is, not everybody will get everything, and that’s okay, I have to move however I have to move as an artist. If we could please everybody all of the time, it would be fabulous, but it would also be boring. So I have no fear of alienating anybody because my intent with everything I do is to bring my A game, and that’s what people are listening for.”
Not that Lalah minds going backwards occasionally, demonstrated on the lush remake of her father’s signature ballad, “You Were Meant For Me” (“The fact that I even approached the song is a love letter to my dad, it’s so beautiful and so reminiscent of that era of music”) and a reimagining of “I’m Coming Back,” a song that the late Vesta Williams recorded before Lalah remade it for her own debut: it’s since become a fan favorite and the inclusion of Rachelle Ferrell is another bonus. Where It All Begins is a passionately-rendered project and meant to be enjoyed as a whole, at least according to Ms. Hathaway, who professes to not having a single favorite amongst any of its tracks.
“Ever since I was little, people would always ask me, ‘what’s your favorite color, who’s your favorite Jackson, what’s your favorite food?’ And I just never had one. So to ask me if there is a favorite song is like asking me, ‘of all of your favorite fingers, which is your favorite finger,’ when you actually need them all. I hope that you all enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together, it really has been a pristine experience for me and I’m really confident that it comes across that way. People have preferences and those are pretty built in, so there’s nothing I can do about that, all I can do is give you my best.”