Lalah Hathaway: There Are Some Voices...
There are some voices...once heard, never forgotten – that’s the easiest way to sum up the powerfully distinctive sound you’ll hear every time you hear Lalah Hathway. It’s easy to say that it’s in her genes; after all, she is the daughter of one of the most revered voices in black music and while father Donny definitely had a major musical impact on his daughter, Lalah has her own thing. In recent times, I’ve had the chance to witness that ‘thing' more than once: first, at a venue with less than great acoustics on Catalina Island (just miles outside Los Angeles); at a tribute to Luther Vandross in New York City when she mesmerized me with her version of “For Always, Forever, For Love” and then in a more intimate setting as one of the guest artists on the tribute to Phyllis Hyman I helped create in Los Angeles in early November when she held the crowd spellbound with her interpretation of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love” and the standard “For All We Know” (a song often associated with her father). On all three occasions, I was struck by the way Lalah delivered songs with a commitment to the pure art of singing. Few vocalists have an understanding of space, that a simple pause between words can make all the difference. Without doubt, Lalah has that down: she knows the importance of a lyric and it is that mastery that makes her such a special kind of artist. As much as I’ve enjoyed her CDs – and have been fortunate to work with her from the time I wrote her first record company bio in conjunction with the release of her critically-acclaimed 1990 debut for Virgin Records – seeing her ‘live’ is a whole other thing.
Surprisingly, Lalah has only released a total of three solo albums during the past fourteen years even though she has done her fair share of touring and working on projects with other artists such “Song Lives On,” her brilliant 1999 collaboration with Joe Sample. Fortunately, this year she closed the ten-year gap since the 1994 release of “A Moment” with “Outrun The Sky,” a brand new album on Mesa Blue Moon. There is of course more than one good reason why and Lalah was happy to explain in a recent interview we did for www.soulmusic.com.
“Well, honestly, part of the reason has to do with the crazy state of flux this industry has been in,” she reflects. “There are a lot of people like me who have been maintaining a career under the radar and that’s particularly true for artists who do soul music. People have often asked [in the past ten years] ‘why did you wait so long [to make a new record]?’ It’s funny because the perception is that we were somewhere waiting!” Industry politics certainly didn’t help: after Lalah left Virgin in 1995, she signed with MoJazz, the Motown label whose roster included such talented folks as Impromp 2 and Frank McComb. “I recorded an album there but the label folded…and then I signed with Pyramid,” Lalah recalls. “Same thing happened: you’re working with people on Friday and they’ve been fired the next Tuesday! The hardest thing has been finding a label that would be willing to pay for me to make a new album. A few years ago, we finally found it with Mesa Blue Moon but in between, sure, I got discouraged. I wondered just what kind of record people wanted from me.”
Fortunately, the year 2004 brought about a change: the release of father Donny’s “These Songs For You, Live” (which I had the honor of producing along with my good friend A. Scott Galloway) was an omen of things to come. Some months later came “Outrun The Sky” and says Lalah, “I’ve been trying to make a record for ten years and no matter how many people buy it, it’s already a success for me. I recorded it for the people who love my music and who love my Daddy so whatever happens now, it’s all a bonus. You see, I’ve been blessed to be able to play with people like the late Grover Washington Jr. and Joe Sample even without having a record out there myself. That’s what kept me going as a musician, reminding me of what I’m supposed to be doing out here. And I’ve always been very blessed: my peers have always been very complimentary so it’s never been a question for me and I know music is my life’s purpose. It’s in my blood.”
Lalah took an active hand in the creative process with “Outrun The Sky”, writing or co-writing nine songs on the album and producing or co-producing six of them. Others contributing to the project included Mike City, Chris Parks & Vivian Sessoms, Rex Rideout & Bud Harner and David Delhomme (who co-produced four tracks with Lalah). Standouts include the bluesy “We Were 2,” the gentle-yet-melancholy “Boston,” “Better And Better,” “More” and the title track. Commenting on a couple of the cuts, Lalah notes, “The song “Boston” was written back in 1993 after I moved to Los Angeles. It’s the most personal song on the album: the lyrics definitely come from the heart. I was sitting in my apartment in the [San Fernando] Valley and the temperature was 104 degrees and I was miserable. I was homesick, missing all my friends and musicians in Boston. I just sat there and the whole song came out. Then, the title track is really ‘me’ – it’s got that ‘space-cadet’-like flavor to it. It’s esoteric, slightly ‘flower-child’-like. It has a bluesy flavor and I think people like it because it reminds them of my father’s music.”
The song “Better And Better” was, according to Lalah, “originally written for Eric Benet. I harassed [the producer] Mike City for years for the song because I always loved it.” The album, Lalah says, “is really about my life over the last decade and while there isn’t really a theme, it’s about the spoils and victories of growing up and coming out the other side.”
With the release of ”Outrun The Sky,” Lalah is busy promoting the album and performing but she’s quick to note that ‘live’ shows have been a key part of her activities for the last few years. “Promoters and folks in the industry would give you a lot of b.s. and have you believe you can’t have a career without a record but I’ve been playing a lot during the last two years and selling out almost everywhere we’ve been. It did surprise me but I’ve learned you can do alright even without having records out [every year].” Inevitably, when Lalah performs there are some songs that are mandatory pieces in her repertoire, mostly notably her own “I’m Coming Back” and the song “When Your Life Was Low” from her album with Joe Sample. “That’s become something of a signature tune for me,” says Lalah. “I remember when Joe and I were talking about doing the record and he said that he had been trying to get people to record it ever since Randy Crawford first did it. It’s a great piece of music but it’s a tough song. After we recorded it, I told him that no one else took it because it was mine, it was meant for me! Now I can’t go anywhere without singing it.”
The response to her latest album is such that Lalah considers the wait between albums to have been worth it: “I’m so happy about the reaction, it’s a real validation” and it comes towards the end of a year that has included a number of highpoints including her participation in the “Daughters Of Soul” European tour which was created by Sandra St. Victor and involved Lalah, Simone (daughter of Nina Simone), Milini Khan (Chaka’s daughter), Nona Hendryx and Joyce Kennedy. ”It was awesome, truly inspiring and wonderful to be with all those women. The U.S. market can be hard sometimes and I’m hoping we can bring the show to U.S. audiences. Watching each of them from the wings was like being in a big master class!”
Certainly, watching Lalah Hathaway perform is also like being in such a class: all the training she received at the prestigious Berklee School Of Music along with what she inherited from her father has made her a rare artist, one who combines musicianship and a natural instinct for what works with lyrical interpretation. While she is aware of her musical gift and her ability to move people with her work, Lalah sums up where she’s at by simply saying, “I feel lucky and blessed and that I’m in the right space with my music and my life.” That sense of self-assurance is evident every time she hits the stage and on her latest album. If you want some real music and you haven’t yet done so, we strongly recommend you purchase a copy of ”Outrun The Sky”: it’s an affirmation that we still have some true artists out here making music for the heart and soul!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.