Lalah Hathaway is always hooking up with people – no, not that way!
The Chicago-born, L.A.-based, soul/jazz-singing vet continually collaborates with various artists. She has done appearances on albums from such artists as Marcus Miller, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Eric Roberson and the late Grover WashingtonJr. Last year, she did guest shots on Robert Glasper’s and Esperanza Spalding’s acclaimed albums. And this year, she’ll appear on the upcoming releases from jazz/funk great George Duke and Texas instrumental fusion band Snarky Puppy.
“It’s really the experience of widening your scope and playing with different people,” explains Hathaway, 44, on the phone from Los Angeles. “They give you information that’s different. It enhances my musical vocabulary. And I just really love making music, and so I try to do it every opportunity that I get.”
Hathaway certainly enjoys getting together with like-minded musicians and seeing what happens. “There is a definite kinship among people that are not necessarily mainstream,” she says. “I don’t think we think of ourselves as not mainstream. Mainstream is really for you to decide what is mainstream, really. So I like to work with people I think are great and who will enhance my information. Who will enhance the information I have and, then, enhance the vocabulary that I have as a musician.
“I don’t really care if they’re mainstream or not,” she says. “I’m really looking for the experience of collaborating with that particular musician.”
Of course, when you’re a well-established artist who just happens to be the offspring of the late, great R&B artist Donny Hathaway, people are clamoring to work with you as well. Legendary label Stax Records jumped at the chance to sign her, releasing her last two albums. (Her last album, 2011’s “Where It All Begins,” contains two tracks co-produced by veteran producer Phil Ramone, who passed away last weekend.)
“I think Stax is a great label,” she says. “I think I was really honored to be associated with the brand that is Stax. It does definitely stand for soul music in this country, and I think it’s synonymous with the concept of soul music. So it was a good marriage while I was there, and now I’m doing something else.”
What she is doing is preparing to release an EP she recorded, collaborating this time with U.K. group DivaGeek. She’s also working on doing a live album, possibly recording it in her Chicago hometown.
Whatever she does, she’ll continue to perform music with that soulful, commanding voice. Although she is an alto and a contralto, Hathaway chooses not to delve much into what makes her sound the way she does.
“To analyze it, for me, doesn’t make sense,” she says. “It’s kinda like, ‘How did you get the sound of your voice? Did you think about it? Did you practice it?’ It’s kinda just the sound of your voice, right? So, for me, the fact that what I do is so natural makes it hard for me to analyze or process or explain to somebody because it’s just what I get up every day and do.”
She does admit she has an interesting, diverse array of influences. “It’s a lot of things, again, that I can’t put into words,” she says. “But growing up, listening to George Burns and Gracie Allen and Richard Pryor and the Bar-Kays and Chaka Khan, all of that – the laughter and that music – influenced the way that I expressed myself. And I can’t really explain to you how if you don’t know, but that’s what happened.”
But, of course, her late father was and still continues to be a major influence in her life. (“Honestly, I get asked questions about my dad every day, particularly when I’m working or when I have a record out,” she says.)
While people may wonder if she feels she has a lot to live up to, considering her lineage, Hathaway, who’s recorded for 20-plus years, knows who she is and what she wants to contribute to contemporary music.
“The way that I maintain who I am is to simply just be who I am,” she says.
“That’s been the easiest part of my life. I have, you know, a really good, grounded, steep knowledge that I am who I am. I’m very comfortable with that. I’m very comfortable and honored to be even mentioned in the same breath as the greatest singer who ever lived, and that’s Donny Hathaway. So it’s a very comforting thing to come from something that great. I can never compete with that, and I never have to compete with that. I can just be great by my own path.”