Every so often, there’s a chanteuse who delivers her gift of song with so much conviction that it not only stirs the soul but awakens the spirit. Lalah Hathaway is that soulstress. Whether listening to her soulful timbre or guttural speech , the daughter of the late great 70s R&B legend Donny Hathaway, is more than a conduit for soul, she’s an advocate for all musical genres.
On her fifth album, Self-Portrait, Hathaway’s fusion of jazz, rock and soul is sensual, provocative, introspective and clairvoyant as she tackles everything from affairs of the heart to party-starters. Essence.com caught up with the natural beauty to talk about her new album, her father’s musical legacy and why she’s become an ambassador of change.
Essence.com: Ms. Hathaway it’s been too long. We’ve missed you! What image are you portraying to your lifelong loyalists and new fans with this new album?
Lalah Hathaway: Thank you. Honestly, I’m not portraying anyone other than myself. Anyone who’s ever seen me perform live or met me knows that what you see is what you get. I’m a private person and guarded.
Essence.com: And are you sharing a more introspective you?
L.H.: Well, I’ve always been introspective and I’d even say I’m an introvert.
Essence.com: Well how has this project encouraged you to break out of your shell and enhance your personal growth?
L.H.: For me, this is the first record that I’ve ever worked on from start to finish including developing the concept, styling, the sequence and selection of the songs, the musicians, the producers, the marketing, the way it sounds-everything. That’s why I call it Self-Portrait because it’s my fifth album but it feels like my first.
Essence.com: It’s a blessing to have creative control. Did you have as much on your previous albums?
L.H.: When I recorded my first album I was in college and traveling back and forth from Boston to L.A. And I don’t really remember or know how that record was put together. The second album I was going through an upheaval because the record company was doing different things and I had four or five A&R reps and each of them had their own vision of who I was supposed to be.
Essence.com: I can only imagine. How do you deal with the great expectations folks might have of you because you’re the daughter of R&B legend Donny Hathaway?
L.H.: I get so much love in the street from people who genuinely loved my father and his music. So I know I take after him in that regard. But what’s crazy is that I’m just realizing that I may just be on the precipice of what I can do. All my life I’ve been a musician and if I’m good at anything else I’ve never had the time to find out because I’ve constantly been doing music. As I was working on this record, it dawned on me that perhaps I could be a better musician or a better singer. Maybe there are talents that I have yet to discover that I can do. To me the saddest thing is that we all will die with this unrealized potential and I really want to learn the fullest potential of who I am and to realize some of those talents as well as the things that I love.
Essence.com: Well, none of us should ever stop learning because when we do, it’s time to check out.
L.H.: You’re right. At times, I have become complacent particularly with my voice, but I just keep pushing because I learn something new every time I put forth the effort. I’m an eternal student. There’s so much music in the world that you could search it your entire life and still never find it all. That’s exciting to me.
Essence.com: You were only 10 years old when your father passed, but his musical legacy will live forever. Are you surprised by his cross-generational appeal?
L.H.: It’s crazy because every day I turn to MTV and I hear them playing the piano on the bumper. If you think about it he’s like Tupac, it’s crazy. My father’s music would make me cry because it just felt deep and I always thought that was because I was his child but as I got older and started talking to other people and musicians around the world I realized, Oh this was deep to everybody. Of course, I’m sure it is different on some level because I’m his daughter, but people feel his music like that all over. One day Mary J. Blige said to me, “You can just hear so much joy and pain in his music,” and I thought, Wow she can hear it too?
Essence.com: Would you ever do an entire album of remakes of your father’s songs
L.H.: I don’t feel a need to remake my father’s songs. At one point, I recorded “Flying Easy,” “You’ve Got a Friend and “Back Together Again.” It’s one of those things that folks have always asked me. One day, I spoke to Natalie Cole about and she said, ‘You gotta do one.” But I’m like, “You already did it!” I have him on this album, but I don’t know what song I would remake of his or if I’d do an entire album. It’s like asking, “Of all your fingers which one do you most favor?” And I just don’t know because you need ‘em all, you like ‘em all…
Essence.com: It would be difficult for any die-hard Donny Hathaway fan to quit such a melodic obsession. And by the way what is yours?
L.H.: I’m a gamer-I love video games. I’m a true techie I own every video console that was ever created. Right now, I’m playing Lost Odyssey. It’s a Japanese RPG and it’s the story of a guy who’s 1,000 years old and has lost his memory, so you travel through these different worlds trying to get his memory back and trying to smite down evil people trying to take over. It’s like a Japanese comic book and those are my favorite kind of games.
Essence.com: That’s cool, but the hottest game is Ms. Pac Man!. But you don’t have time for that because you’re volunteering your services to raise awareness about breast cancer in Black women. What do you do?
L.H.: (Laughs) Actually, I’m an ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. A couple of my girlfriends were dealing with issues with their breasts and that inspired me. The rate of Black women and girls diagnosed with breast cancer is rising at an alarming rate. I became active because I want to be an ambassador of change.
Essence.com: So what would you like folks to walk away with?
L.H.: My record… (Laughs)
Essence.com: (Laughs) Promote! Promote!
L.H.: (Laughs) No, I really want people to walk away knowing that when they have my record-and I really feel like I have achieved this in part already which makes me very happy. If you get my record, you know that you’re going to get a quality product. I really want Hathaway to be a brand name. So if you buy it and you don’t listen to it for six years it will still be good and relevant. I want people to have my record and say, “On my ‘desert island’ list, this record means a lot to me.” So knowing that my music was a blessing to someone’s life is what’s really important.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Mannion