There are no two ways to splice this story; Lalah Hathaway is, quite simply put, the truth. In a career spanning 25 years, she has created some of the most exquisite, sinuous music committed to record. Hers is the sound of comfort, of love lost and gained, of strength and fragility in the face of tremendous adversity. She is an album artist in an era of anodyne singles. You can play a Lalah Hathaway LP from beginning to end without the need to skip a song or shuffle the track list. There are very few artists working today who embody that level of excellence and consistency.
So it was particularly gratifying for all Hathaway fans when she won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance for her collaboration with the jazz collective, Snarky Puppy. It’s a measure of the mainstream music industry’s insularity (and the Grammys are often guilty of this) that it took a live vocal performance of almost miraculous power in which Hathaway sang multiple chords at the same time (which has never been attempted in popular music before) in order for her to receive her due recognition.
Hathaway’s repeated testing of her capabilities imbues her sound with a sense of imaginative daring and newness. Take this cover of Sade’s “Cherish the Day”, which she created with The Robert Glasper Experiment or this reimagining of her nineties hit, “I’m Coming Back”, or even her cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever”. Each song is sculpted and refined until it pulsates to an entirely fresh groove. The key to this success rate is confidence.
“I love going for the most extraordinary sound I can make,” says Hathaway. “I never want my listeners to go away after listening to my work and say, ‘Oh that was OK.’ I’m trying to kill it every time. I’m trying to knock it out of the park every single time.”
She’s equally forthright about the perks of being an independent artist and the state of what’s deemed popular in contemporary music.
“There are no real major labels anymore,” she says. “I’ve always recorded with labels but with the mind-set of an independent artist. There are always perks to owning what you do, whether it’s your time, your craft and how your work is created. I’m really excited about what independent artists are able to do right now.”
“The window of opportunity for soul and jazz music is a much narrower one. We live in a quick, microwave society that’s very youth driven. When I was growing up, Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell were making music I listened to. It wasn’t too heavy or grown for me. I also listened to Michael Jackson and New Edition. All that music made sense to me because I was exposed to all of it. I don’t think the radio today, or the corporations behind the radio of today, particularly in relation to soul music, have given kids that opportunity. They don’t put this music before them and say, “Hey, do you like this?” They feed them the same, paid-for-records over and over again. It’s a money-driven industry, which is unfortunate for kids. All the music I grew up with wouldn’t get a shot on the radio today. I don’t think there’s a stigma against soul music but I think our country is extremely youth-driven. In trying to appeal to 12 year olds, we’ve lowered the bar.”
Hathaway, who’s in the process of setting up her own studio, takes an organic approach to her song-writing. “Sometimes I would have music and I would write words,” she says. “Sometimes I would have the melody and someone would send me a track. It comes in different kinds of ways. In the case of “Boston” or “Outrun the Sky” the whole song would come to me at once.”
In one of my favourite songs, the moving “On Your Own”, Hathaway says the song was given to her in a dream by her father, the late soul legend, Donny Hathaway.
“It’s strange to explain how it came about but I had the hook for it for the longest time. I then began writing the song. It was one of those songs that I had in my mind that was given to me by my dad in a dream.”
It is this binding together of the past with the present that makes Hathaway such a riveting performer. It’s been stated many times before, in many different ways, but it’s worth stating again: Lalah Hathaway is a visionary at the apex of her creative capabilities.