Lalah Hathaway: Family Soul
While known to many across the globe simply as the eldest daughter of sadly-deceased Seventies soul icon Donny Hathaway, soul and jazz singer/songwriter/producer Lalah Hathaway is nevertheless currently (and impressively) celebrating her 21st year as a respected recording artist in her own right via the arrival of her new, fifth solo LP "Where It All Begins" - which also marks her second album release for the legendary (and recently re-launched) Stax label.
Indeed, with several of its tracks co-written by Lalah herself, the musically-diverse "Where It All Begins" also boasts writing/production input from such top-tier contemporary studio bods as Dre & Vidal, Mike City, JR Hutson, Rahsaan Patterson and Jonathan Richmond - whose CVs collectively span such chart-topping names as Michael Jackson, Usher, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild. Which in turn results in the album’s varied musical moods ranging from the contemporary R&B bounce of ‘Strong Woman’ and celebratory party vibe of "If You Want To"; to the jazz-tinged mellow groove of "Where It All Begins" and an intense, percussion-heavy remake of the sensual fan-favourite "I’m Coming Back," a song that was initially recorded by Lalah back in 1990 and now additionally features vocal input from equally-revered jazzy soulstress Rachelle Ferrell.
Born in December 1968 in Chicago, Illinois as the first daughter of aforementioned soul legend Donny Hathaway (who would tragically commit suicide in 1979) and his classically-trained vocalist wife Eulaulah, it was actually in 1990 that Lalah would release her self-titled debut album for Virgin Records, which in turn spawned the Derek Bramble-produced US R&B Top Three ballad single "Heaven Knows." Meanwhile, with her second album for the label - 1994’s contemporary-R&B-embracing "A Moment" - attaining notably less sales, by 1998 Hathaway had left Virgin and in 1999 solidified her jazz following by releasing a duet album with legendary Crusaders keyboardist Joe Sample entitled "The Song Lives On." Which (released on GRP Records) ended up hitting an impressive Number Two on the US Jazz Chart.
Meanwhile, with her distinctive alto and contralto vocals by now having already been featured on albums by the likes of Grover Washington, Jr., The Winans, Marcus Miller and Me’Shell NdegeOcello, 2004 would find Lalah finally releasing her long-awaited third solo album "Outrun The Sky" (which featured a successful cover of Luther Vandross’ "Forever, For Always, For Love") before, in 2005, taking to the international stage as part of the well-received Daughters Of Soul Tour. A musical melange which - founded by one-time Family Stand lead-singer Sandra St.Victor - also featured Nona Hendryx (of Labelle fame) and Joyce Kennedy (of Mother’s Finest notoriety) as well as Indira Kahn and Simone, daughters of Chaka Khan and Nina Simone respectively.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2008 that Berkley College Of Music graduate Lalah would finally achieve her first Top 10 solo album. When, after signing with the legendary (and recently re-activated) Stax label, her critically-acclaimed first LP release for the company - "Self Portrait" - entered the US R&B Albums chart at a lofty Number Six before eventually garnering Hathaway a Grammy Nomination for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance - in turn making it her most successful album to date.
… All of which ultimately sets the scene for this month’s release of the aforementioned "Where It All Begins." As a serene-mannered yet forthcoming Ms. Hathaway reacquaints herself (incredibly for the first time in almost 20 years!) with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis - to discuss such interesting topics as her new album; her experience as the daughter of soul music royalty; plus the impact her signing to the renowned Stax label has made to her career.
PETE: Musically your new album definitely boasts a wide mixture of styles and tempos…
LALAH: “Well, the main thing I was trying to achieve was to make a record that I felt had a lotta different colours, and a lotta different textures and SOUNDS to it. You know, when I was growing up as a kid, the albums I was most drawn to were those that had all kinds of different THINGS on them. Like you could listen to a Chaka Khan record and it would have a Beatles cover, followed by a duet with Rick James, followed by one of (Seventies/Eighties super-producer) Arif Mardin’s very complicated vocal arrangements of an old standard... And the thing that drew me in would always be the artistry of Chaka HERSELF!... So yeah, the kind of albums I wanna make these days are definitely those that show as many different sides to me as POSSIBLE! Where the real focus is the musicianship and the SOUND of the record, as opposed to it being all about a GENRE. Because, though while here in The States in particular we tend to get caught up in where to put records in a box and how to compartmentalise them, to me it’s always been more about the music itself and the INTENT behind the music.”
PETE: So what are the main ways in which you feel "Where It All Begins" differs and/or represents a progression from your four previous solo albums?
LALAH: “Well, the main thing is, it’s a record that I really did take my time putting together MYSELF. You know, while in the past there’s always been an A&R person or other people standing over me to sorta shepherd the process, this one marks the first time where the people around me have said ‘Well, clearly we don’t need to DO that - she knows what she’s DOING’... And I think that it’s when you allow the artist to breathe and allow them that room, that you end up getting true ART! I mean, my intent was to put this album together myself as though I was an INDEPENDENT artist. You know, I made every phonecall; I scheduled every session; I approached all the musicians; I chose all the songs; I put the studio time together... So yeah, this record genuinely was a labour-of-love and really does represent my own expression through-and-THROUGH! In terms of the MUSIC, the PRODUCTION of the music, the SOUND of the music - and just the artistry of it as a WHOLE!”
PETE: You’re still strongly identified as being soul icon Donny Hathaway’s daughter. Do you feel being the offspring of such a musical legend can become a double-edged sword - in that, while you do have the advantage of a famous last name, you’re at the same time under constant pressure to live up to your father’s legacy?
LALAH: “Well, you know, in terms of being my father’s daughter, that just happens to be who I AM! In the same way that I’m also my MOTHER’S daughter and my aunt’s niece and my cousin’s COUSIN!... But yeah, as you say, it IS a double-edged sword - in that I think there ARE a lot of expectations and there ARE a lotta things that people try to PUT on you. But having said that, it’s not something that I’ve ever really DWELT on. Because to me there is a comfort in knowing that I’ll never be able to do what he did, and that my path is solely MINE. You know, one thing I’ve understood all my life is that you are who you ARE, and that you do find your own distinctive voice in whatever you DO! Because at the end of the day, there is no-one else LIKE you, and you are the one who’s always on the frontline of BEING you! So to me the best way that I can honour my father and carry on that legacy, is to have the intent to be great at being ME! Which is ultimately, I think, why no-one could possibly be harder on myself than I am - in terms of my growth, as well as the desire to be extraordinary as an artist in my OWN right!”
PETE: How do you feel about now being signed to the legendary (and recently re-activated) Stax label, and what difference has it made to you as an artist?
LALAH: “Oh, I really love Stax! I mean, as a younger person growing up with black music here in The States at the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies, in my mind there was STAX and there was MOTOWN! And while I did love both camps, to me it was the Stax music that presented a certain swagger and a certain ATTITUDE - particularly in terms of The Civil Rights Movement and being black in America at that TIME. So for me to now be signed to this label - which over the years has been home to all these great soul singers that my father counted as his peers, like Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers and Carla Thomas - really does mean a LOT! You know, I genuinely am very excited about being associated with the Stax BRAND! Plus in terms of my own long-term development I really do look at (the 2008-released) "Self Portrait" - my first album for the label - as the beginning of my empowerment as an ARTIST! In that it was that record that really did mark the start of me getting to this place I’m at TODAY, where I’m basically doing everything and calling all the SHOTS!... So yeah, with hindsight it’s definitely Stax that’s allowed me to DO that!”
The album "Where It All Begins" is released November 7 through Stax
Words PETE LEWIS