Interview: Lalah Hathaway – Singer and Songwriter

Posted: May 19, 2008 in interview, music
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Lalah Hathaway

Date of Interview: 05/19/2008

© 2008 Clayton Perry

When your last name is Hathaway, there is a certain degree of attention that inevitably follows you, especially in the world of music.

As the daughter of Donny Hathaway, one of soul music’s eternal legends, the expectations placed upon Lalah’s career have been extraordinarily high.  In spite of such pressure, she has blazed her own trails and become a staple on jazz and R&B radio—spending half of her life in the musical spotlight.

Self Portrait, her Stax Records debut, is an introspective account of a twenty-year career.  Upon review of the album, Lalah Hathaway managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on the intersection of jazz and R&B, “Tragic Inevitability,” and her father, Donny Hathaway.

Clayton Perry: Few artists survive one decade in the music industry, yet you have endured for two.  What memories shine bright from the early years, when you released your debut album in 1990?

Lalah Hathaway: That part of my life is kind of a blur. It was the end of the ‘80s. I was getting out of college. I was coming to LA from Boston to do demos and meet with several producers. Everything got made really quickly and I was relatively oblivious to the process, other than showing up to do what I had to do. Thankfully, people were able to hear my intent. My work was very representative of who I was as an artist at that time and who I am now.

Clayton Perry: How has the industry changed since then?

Lalah Hathaway: Everything’s different now. The rise of the Internet alone made such a significant difference in the industry. It’s a smaller place and a larger place all at the same time. It is very interesting. And even now, it is still changing.

Clayton Perry: In 2005, you were quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “there is less money in real music these days.”  Have your feelings changed?

Lalah Hathaway: Well, not so much. I grew up in the ‘70s, at a time of a really rich landscape of music and varied radio. I am unsure if the industry will ever be the way that it was. I think that it is mostly a factor of commerce. My grandparents probably told my parents “You guys don’t even know what music was. The music we had when we were kids…” Maybe that’s a generational thing and every generation thinks that they know what music is. This is true particularly for soul music. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s – that was really the time for soul music in this country, so I feel bad for kids that do not have access to that.

Clayton Perry: If Outrun the Sky, your first independent release, was about coming into your own, what significance does Self Portrait have for you?

Lalah Hathaway:Self Portrait is about who I am as an artist. It is the first record I made front to back myself.  I was involved in every aspect, from the production to the artwork to the musicians we chose. I had my hand on everything on every level, so the process allowed me to figure out who I am and where I am going as an artist.

Clayton Perry: Of all the songs featured, is there a particular one that you hope listeners will gravitate toward?

Lalah Hathaway: For me, from beginning to end, it is one body of work and it’s hard for me to choose a favorite. I do think Self Portrait is my best record. It is the most concise body of work I have created.

Clayton Perry: You closed off the album with “Tragic Inevitability.” There’s a part of that song that says, “If we are truly fashioned by fate and modeled by destiny, then surely we must concede this tragic inevitability; what will be, will be.” What life events sparked those lyrics?

Lalah Hathaway: The lyrics come from somewhere, but really the story is more about what it stirs inside of the listener. When you listen to it, what does it resonate within you? When I hear people talking about what they wrote about in a song, it kind of takes the smoke and the mirrors away from the listener’s experience. It is more for me to find out what your experience is with it because somehow you relate to these lyrics.

Clayton Perry: Many traditional jazz and R&B artists have come and gone over the years, so what do you attribute to your longevity?

Lalah Hathaway: I don’t know. This is what I want to do. This is what I aspired to do. It is what I love to do. I have always been a musician. When people say longevity, that really means, “How have you been able to keep making records?” I will always be a musician and the part about making records is just dumb luck.

Clayton Perry: Marcus Miller has praised your versatility in both jazz and R&B. What link do you see between the two genres?

Lalah Hathaway: Well, they are part of the same blanket of music for me – which is soul music, which comes from African rhythms, and blues. It is easy to disseminate the music as a musician. As a person that listens to music, you can take any song and put any series of drum patterns under it and change it to anything. So you can make it a country song, or make it a blues song, or a Gospel song, or a jazz song. It is really about the rhythm and how you interpret it. I just have a real natural sense for soul music and so maybe that is what Marcus Miller hears. I am able to interpret things in different ways based on my feel for soul music.

Clayton Perry: If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you have?

Lalah Hathaway: I would tell them, “Don’t do that.” There are no footsteps. That is the whole reason the music industry and art in general – particularly in this country –  is homogenized right now, because you have a whole lot of people trying to step into existing footsteps. Make your own footsteps.

Clayton Perry: In 1991, Natalie Cole released Unforgettable… with Love, which featured a digital duet with her father, Nat King Cole.  If you could record a song with your father, which song would you choose?

Lalah Hathaway: I love all of my father’s songs, but I don’t know if that is something for me to do. It would be really hard – like of all your fingers, which is your favorite one? I think Natalie Cole did a great job at it, though.

Clayton Perry: I see.  I only ask because you have been on a couple of collaborative works, in recent years, where you have interpreted other artists. I wasn’t sure if there was a particular song you wanted to leave your mark on.

Lalah Hathaway: Maybe as time goes on. I do a lot of tribute stuff, so I recognize that. I have recorded a few of my father’s songs, but I don’t know if I would do the duet thing, though.

Clayton Perry: I’m sure there are challenges that come with traveling, having a career, and balancing that with your personal life.

Lalah Hathaway: What’s crazy, though, is that my career and my personal life are so intertwined because I’ve been doing music for so long. It is hard to tell where one thing stops and the other one begins. All my life I have been a student of music and going to music school, so I have prepared myself to be immersed in it.

Clayton Perry: Do you think that formal training helped you develop your own style, or hindered you from finding your voice?

Lalah Hathaway: I don’t think that anything that you do to enhance your knowledge of your field will hurt you. It only helped me to become a better artist, to know as much as I can about my craft, about my instrument, about what it is that I do.

Clayton Perry: Is there a particular lesson that you wish you knew when you first started off?

Lalah Hathaway: I wish I knew everything I know now when I first started. [laughing]  I learned a lot of things. Don’t wear white on TV. Get enough sleep on the road. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Make sure your business is taken care of. It has been quite a journey and I am still learning.

For more information on Lalah Hathaway, visit her official website:


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