Lalah Hathaway - on having soul in the family

A phone call from a friend, asking her to come and try out some music, set Lalah Hathaway on the road to realising her childhood dream. Drummer Robert ‘Sput’ Searight had been telling Hathaway for some time about one of the bands he plays with, large-scale groovers Snarky Puppy, and suggesting that they could work well together.

So when a recording date involving a few other singers was fixed in Roanoke, Virginia, Hathaway took along a new arrangement of a Brenda Russell song, Something, that she felt might fit. She had no expectations. She was among friends – she’d worked with one the band’s keyboards players, Cory Henry, before – and the resulting album’s title, Family Dinner Volume One, summed up the mood of the session.

“It was a really enjoyable time and I didn’t think too much about it,” says Hathaway. “Then the Grammy nominations for 2014 were announced and Something was there under Best R&B Performance. It was quite a surprise.”

Hathaway had been nominated for a Grammy before – for the song That was Then from her Self Portrait album in 2008 – and describes it as “the greatest feeling in the world until they tell you you’ve lost”, so she didn’t dare to hope this time.

“I grew up watching the Grammys on television every year and I’d imagined being on that stage in that room I don’t know how many times,” she says. “And in real life it’s every bit as exciting as you might imagine, and then the moment your name gets announced everything slows down. I’ve relived that moment a thousand times. It’s a dream come true.”

Her performance of Something in some ways sums up the roots of Hathaway’s singing. There’s a lot of gospel music in there and that’s where she started, singing in church in Chicago. As the daughter of the great but ill-starred soul singer Donny Hathaway, who jumped to his death from a hotel room window in 1978 when Lalah was ten, she’s often said to be carrying her father’s flame. But as she points out with a chuckle, she had – still has – a mother, too.

“My father’s a big presence in my life, of course, although I don’t have many memories of him,” she says. “My mum used to play his records in the house but I don’t think she played him any more than any other artist. My mum’s also a singer and musician and music educator. She travels with me and teaches me something new every day and keeps me grounded. But I never felt that I was the daughter of someone famous. Both my parents were musicians and I went to piano lessons but at that time it seemed like all the kids had piano lessons, so I wasn’t made to feel different from the rest.”

She was, however, encouraged to follow music as a career, if not as a road to stardom. Yet, when she went to Berklee School of Music in Boston she might have been forgiven for thinking that stardom awaited. The first demo she made got her signed by Virgin Records and when bass guitarist and record producer Marcus Miller heard her, he immediately invited her to tour Japan in a band including Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento.

“That was incredible,” she says. “These were the people whose music I was listening to at college, especially Milton Nascimento, and to get to sing with them every night was a fantastic experience.”

It wouldn’t be the last time she’s had the chance to work with favourite musicians. In 1999 she collaborated with Joe Sample of the Crusaders on her third studio album, The Song Lives On and in 2007 she sang on the Earth Wind & Fire tribute album, Interpretations, under the watchful eye of the band’s Maurice White, an experience she describes as “more than special”.

By this time Hathaway was signed to the then recently re-launched Stax label and was honoured to be involved with the label that documented so much of soul music’s history. A further honour came when Prince asked her personally to open for him at Madison Square Garden. “He’s one of my idols,” she says. “He’s such an inspiring musician. He can call me any time he likes.”

Success on anything like the Prince scale may have eluded Hathaway and there are those, including Natalie, daughter of Nat King Cole, who say that she might have had more and bigger chart hits had she covered her father’s songs. She’s mostly resisted these suggestions – she relented with a version of his hit You Were Meant for Me on her Where It All Begins album in 2011 – and prefers to make music on her own terms.

“I’m pretty hands-on,” she says. “I like to reach out and expand my career through my own efforts and you never stop learning. I’m like the eternal student. I would like to write more, though, and I know that’s a muscle I should exercise more. Some people I know keep the faucet running all the time, they seem to have ideas literally on tap. I tend to wait until inspiration strikes. But I’m always listening, and I always say that you could listen to music all day every day for the rest of your life and still never hear everything – but it’s great fun trying.”

From The Herald, July 2, 2014.

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