By Kevin Zimmerman
Lalah Hathaway: A Musical Heir Continues The Legacy
There’s no mystery as to why Lalah Hathaway chose music as a career; you could say she was born into it.
Indeed, the 43-year-old R&B/soul/jazz singer/songwriter is the eldest daughter of the legendary Donny Hathaway, who in addition to his own soulful work recorded a number of hit duets with Roberta Flack, including “Where Is the Love” and “The Closer I Get to You.”
But Lalah has established herself in her own right, bursting onto the scene in 1990 with her self-titled debut and releasing five well-regarded albums since; both 2008’s Self Portrait and the current Where It All Begins have been Top 10 R&B hits, with her alternately smoky, intense, and laid-back styles winning fans the world over.
“I was always involved in music growing up,” she acknowledges, noting that in addition to her father, her mother sang and played piano. “I knew what my parents did, but by the time I got to Berklee it really kind of hit me.”
It was at Berklee that Lalah moved from being simply a singer to being a songwriter as well. “That’s when the idea that, ‘Oh, I’m a musician, my voice is my instrument,’ came into being,” she says. “I no longer just wanted to be the chick in a dress standing in front of a bunch of guys, but someone who could call the tunes and the sessions, and get respect in a totally different way.”
In addition to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, Lalah also started getting exposed to the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and various bop musicians during college, which helped flavor her music as well. Today, she says, her songs are born from either a lyrical, melodic, or rhythmic idea. “Doing it like a job makes you a better writer,” she says. “Sometimes waiting for the moment to strike can take weeks, and I end up letting a lot of songs go. I try to cut them down to their essence, but sometimes they end up with their luggage at their door, saying, ‘Okay, I’m leaving.’”
And, although she’s certainly succeeded on the strength of her own talent, she’s always embraced her father’s legacy. “There’s hardly a day that goes by that someone doesn’t mention him to me,” she says proudly.
That connection is made even more manifest on Where It All Begins, which playfully features several of Donny’s album covers with Lalah’s face overlaid on the cover and includes a version of his “You Were Meant for Me,” originally released as a single by Donny just a few months before his death in 1979 and given an understandably emotional reading here. “Whenever you lose a loved one, you have memories of who and how they were, and then you move on. But when a legend goes away, they never really go away. In a lot of ways, it’s like he never left.”
After wrapping a tour of Japan, Lalah will soon be on the road again: “Playing shows is probably the most fun of everything I do,” she says. “It’s where you really connect with people.”
She’s also already planning her next album, with an eye towards writing and producing it all by herself. “I look at people like Stevie Wonder and John Mayer and see that ‘written and produced by’ credit,” she says. “That’s something I really aspire to – I want to be completely responsible for creating a whole body of work.”