Singer Lalah Hathaway talked to Alison Bentley about singing, her collaborations with Snarky Puppy, Joe Sample, Robert Glasper and Marcus Miller, and other current projects:
Alison Bentley: I heard you a couple of years ago at the Jazz Café in London. You created such a great atmosphere with your voice – is that something that you set out to do?
Lalah Hathaway: It is – we definitely want to create a vibe. We want to give the people an experience – create the sort of atmosphere they can get lost in and be transported in, wherever they need to go at that time. We know that music is such a great transporter! Be open to the experience, and make a space for people to fall softly into, wherever it is that they are going.
AB: And it seemed like such a democratic band?
LH: Yeah, we definitely have that. It’s definitely an experience that I want the band to participate in actively. I really think of it as a conversation. It’s important that everybody is having the conversation.
AB: I wondered if you play any instruments?
LH: I do, I play keys. I want to really start doing it more. It’s definitely on my agenda to practise and get better at it – I do for sure.
AB: Since that Jazz Café gig you’ve won a Grammy [For best R&B Performance with Snarky Puppy 2014] – congratulations!
LH: Thank you!
AB: There was a real buzz about that in the UK – people were saying, ‘Have you seen that video with Lalah Hathaway and Snarky Puppy?’ How did that come about?
LH: Snarky Puppy – actually someone told me about them. I guess it’s been a couple of years now. The person that I know from the band is Sput, whose real name is Robert Searight. I know him as a keyboard player but he’s actually the drummer for the band and he said, ‘You need to come and sit in with my band. I’m in this band called Snarky Puppy. You should come check us out.’ It really just happened quite organically. He called and said, ‘You know, we’re doing a record, we’re going to have some singers come. Bring some songs that you know, or that you’ve recorded before that you’ve written, and we’ll do some arrangements and see what works.’ He came up with this arrangement of Something, which was a song that I had recorded for my first record in 1990. And it just kind of worked out from there.
AB: The way you sing several notes at once is amazing. And you improvise and use your voice as an instrument. Is that something you do a lot?
LH: I really love the art of improvisation. I’ve listened to a lot of jazz and came up with that kind of ethic of trying to create on the spot- spontaneous music. That for me is probably the most fun to do- to create it right there so every audience has their own show. Every audience hears really, in essence, different music every time, because it’s all fresh every time.
AB: Did you study jazz improvisation at Berklee?
LH: I did, I studied a lot of jazz music. I studied a lot of the great improvisers. I grew up in a time as well where the landscape of music was- the colours were so vivid and so lush. I have a lot of information to pull from to do that.
AB: You’ve worked with so many great jazz musicians. For example, the album you made with Joe Sample and Kirk Whalum.
LH: Joe Sample is someone that I’ve known for many, many years. I met him first with Marcus Miller, and we had been on the road and been touring, and been in Japan. He said, ‘You know what? We should make a record.’ Again, you know, it’s one of those things that happened really quite organically. We just decided to make a record, and we took a week and made that record. Kirk Whalum is also someone I met through Marcus- a lot of these people I’ve met onstage or in bands with Marcus Miller. I’ve been working with Kirk off and on and Kirk is actually the saxophone player on the Joe Sample album. So it was great to work with him- we tour, and every year at some point we do dates together. I’m such a lucky, lucky person, a lucky musician particularly as a singer- a lot of singers don’t get the opportunity to stretch as far as I have been given the opportunity to stretch.
AB: And Robert Glasper?
LH: You know, he’s another person who I met just really by chance. One of the former keyboard players in my band actually knew Robert, and he said, ‘You’ve got to check him out. You’ve got to go sit in with his band- you would love him.’ And he came to a show in New York and he said, ‘I’m working on a record, I would love for you to be involved with it,’ and we really just went on from there.
AB: You sing R&B as well as jazz, but it always sounds like you. How do you keep that sense of yourself?
LH: I think that the thread is me, you know – growing up listening to Chaka Khan, where it didn’t matter if she was singing the Bebop Medley or singing in a duet with Rick James, or if she was singing a Beatles cover. It was always Chaka. The music around her did not dictate who she was. She really gave you what you were listening to. The thing is just to stay who you are and float over the top of those different styles of music.
AB: Did you always know that you would be a singer?
LH: I think so. I always knew that I would be a musician, a creative of some sort. I never had a time when I decided, ‘Okay, I’ll be a singer!’ As a child of two music educators and musicians it was an extremely natural decision for me. It never occurred to me that there were other things I would want to do instead. There have been times when I’ve wanted to be an actor or a dancer or a magician. They were always creative things, but music was always my passion, as far back as I can remember.
AB: You once said that if you weren’t a singer you’d like to be a comedian. Do you find that you use humour a lot in your singing and performing?
LH: I do! You know, whether it’s on the surface or not, that is absolutely one of my favourite things. Creating laughter for people and creating music for people are very, very similar and give you the same effect. That’s why you see a lot of comedians singing and a lot of singers making people laugh!
AB: You’ve talked about how important it is to be on your own path. Are there any particular people who have guided you on that path?
LH: I can’t overstate the importance of having someone like Marcus Miller in my life – for the, last 25 years, almost. And my dad [Donny Hathaway] who has really illustrated how to get on your path and stay on your path. I have worked with so many great people that have mentored me, even before I met them- just listening to the records, and listening to their words- like Anita Baker and Chaka Khan.
AB: How important is it to pass your legacy on to the next generation?
LH: It’s super important- to hear the stories there are to tell, that are like history lessons. So it’s really important to keep the tradition of it, to teach the respect for it, to teach the love for the craft. And so I do a lot of clinics, I talk to a lot of students, we do workshops- and it’s really important for me in the same way that people gave it to me, for me to give it back.
AB: It seems like you’re constantly touring. How do you look after your voice when you’re travelling so much?
LH: Well, I have a really easy instrument, I have a really gentle instrument. I generally try to listen to it and be gentle with it, and I don’t smoke and don’t drink too much- just try to take care of it. It’s just a muscle, and so I try to treat it accordingly. One of my singers, Jason Morales, and my other singer, Dennis Clark- we go through warm-ups before a show. Generally, I find that talking all day for me is enough of a warm-up! I don’t like to stress my instrument out too much.
AB: You have a new project at the moment with [singer] Ruben Studdard?
LH: Yes – and I’m actually on just one song on his record. We’re finishing up our tour this weekend in New Jersey- it started at the end of May.
AB: And your new single Shine? [With London duo DivaGeek: singer Vula Malinga and multi-instrumentalist and producer Ben Jones]
LH: DivaGeek is going to be with me, with the band, at the Jazz Café, and I’m really excited about that. I’m looking forward to getting back there.