Q&A: Lalah Hathaway—The Greatest

Soul singer Lalah Hathaway is having a flashback about her time on Soul Train, arriving to its studio to perform. “In my mind that place was the size of a football stadium,” she told SoulTrain.com, having grown up watching the show. “Getting there, seeing how tight it was and how close the people were dancing together, growing up I thought that place was so big.” Regardless of its actual studio dimensions, Soul Train left an indelible mark on her, Hathaway said. “Saturdays and Soul Train, I wrote a lyric about it in a song of mine, titled ‘Little Girl.’”

A prolific writer, vocalist, and live performer since her 1990 debut, Hathaway has plenty to look back on and look forward to. The ink from her incredibly distinctive mark remains fresh today. The Chicago native has wowed listeners with each of her 6 studio albums, and celebrated her 25-year anniversary by releasing Lalah Hathaway Live. The set was recorded at the historic Troubadour Theater in LA, the sight where her father, the late Donny Hathaway, recorded his iconic Live LP.

Lalah Album Shoot-10753-Edit-2 (1)SoulTrain.com: Lalah, you have this incredible voice with an outstanding body of work. You’ve got hit songs, you’ve won multiple awards, and you’re loved and respected the world over. After 2 ½ decades in the recording industry, what is it you want most?

Lalah Hathaway: To continue my quest to be like the greatest. I just want to keep playing music, creating music, keep collaborating with people, and moving into that light of being the best musician I can be before I get out of here.

SoulTrain.com: What about how you sing is better now than when you were a fresh new face?

Lalah Hathaway: I think I’m a lot more in touch with my tone and my sound. Also, I’m definitely way more in touch with my own personal vulnerability, which makes me a better artist.

SoulTrain.com: Has your experience made you more patient or more of a risk taker?

Lalah Hathaway: I think both, at times. After 25 years I have a lot more information. Sometimes it comes a little quicker, and sometimes…There’re so many ways to describe music and how you feel and how you do it. There’re really just no answers for any of it. And I find that as I’m trying to describe it, it just devalues what it really is. It’s a lot of in-the-moment, in the time, and the other people on the stage, and the rain, and the dust in the air. It’s all of that.

SoulTrain.com: We were on hand for Alexander Zonjic’s Shoreline Jazz Festival in 2014, and were really impressed by your performance with Ruben Studdard. It felt so organic at times we can’t help but wonder how much of it was rehearsed and what was just in the moment.

Lalah: The skeleton of the show was built, then we moved within the skeleton. Ruben and I did a tour together based on a couple records I did with him, so we’ve performed together like 20 or 30 times. It’s hard to go back 2 years and remember every detail of a show, but I really feel like we have some stuff that just comes up. For instance, the Luther and Cheryl Lynn song “If This World Were Mine,” you know there’s some stuff that’s going to happen because that’s how it was recorded. Some stuff we just happen upon in the moment.

SoulTrain.com: There’s been a lot of talk about the Soul Train Awards’ first Soul Cypher which, of course, you were a part of with Chrisette Michele, K-Ci, Eddie Levert, and Erykah Badu. How much was rehearsed and how much was in the moment?

Lalah Hathaway: None of it was rehearsed. I think we recorded it a few times, and that’s what you got.

SoulTrain.com: While unique to the viewing audience, it’s safe to assume that wasn’t your first time singing in a performance environment like that.

Lalah Hathaway: Not at all. I don’t think we ever called it a cypher before, but particularly as a musician you trade fours all the time. That’s what that is.

SoulTrain.com: So what was your overall impression of how the cypher turned out?

Lalah Hathaway: I thought it was great! I was honored to be a part of the very first. I thought it was super musical. The energy was there and the vibe was great.

SoulTrain.com: Some of the comments we read following the awards said it felt like you were passing the torch to Chrisette Michele.

Lalah Hathaway: Which torch is that?

SoulTrain.com: That’s a great question!

Lalah Hathaway: Which torch are they talking about?

SoulTrain.com: I guess we’d need to ask the people who left those comments. To compare you two, you both have distinct sounds, you both sing with a great deal of emotion. And you use your voices well within any song. Your listening audiences connect with that. Obviously, from a generational perspective, you’ve been a notable singer for these reasons for a lot longer.

Lalah Hathaway: How about we not define it as passing the torch, but everybody gets a torch! You know what I mean? There’s so much weird, tribal definition of what things are. How about she did her thing, I did my thing, and we did it at the same place and time. Do I even have a torch to pass? If I had said torch why would I give it away?

SoulTrain.com: Did being part of the Soul Train Awards bring back memories of going on the television show?

Lalah Hathaway: No, I kind of see them separately. The Soul Train television show on Saturday afternoons in Chicago, Illinois in the ‘70s and ‘80s occupies a super specific place in my mind that nothing else will reach. It’s a piece of my childhood.

SoulTrain.com: For your solo portion of the Cypher you sang “Little Ghetto Boy, the song that currently has you in contention for another Grammy. How did you react once the nominations were announced?

Lalah Hathaway: Oh, wow, so excited! I’ve won 2 in the last 2 years. To be nominated for essentially a Donny Hathaway song, a performance like his made at The Troubadour where he performed his, was such an honor and such a full-circle moment. It’s been…the greatest one ever.

For more on Lalah Hathaway visit her official website. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lalahhathaway.

—Mr. Joe Walker

Mr. Joe Walker is an urban and pop culture enthusiast. Known as “The Word Heavyweight Champion”, the biographer, author, entertainment and celebrity journalist, and columnist is currently a senior writer for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and writer of weekly classic hip-hop reviews for Concrete Magazine’s Concrete615.com. Also co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, Walker’s acclaimed, award-winning work has been published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He is also working on a book project with Liquid Arts & Entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit his blog MrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.

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