The revered singer-songwriter Lalah Hathaway thinks music is a mode of resistance. For 27 years, the exceptional contralto singer’s snuggly vocals have actively caressed ballads such as “That Was Then,” “Breathe” and “Mirror,” as well as memorable interpretations of Luther Vandross’ “Forever, For Always, For Love” and Anita Baker’s “Angel.” The Chicago-born daughter of the revered music legend Donny Hathaway recently figured it was time to change her tune, so she cranked out the rhythmic, uptempo jam, “I Can’t Wait,” from her forthcoming studio album, Honestly, due to arrive November 3rd.
Backed by a cracking snare loop united with a steady bass riff, Hathaway’s sultry delivery sounds recalibrated and danceable. Hathaway, a five-time Grammy winner, doesn’t think “I Can’t Wait” is any different from her Video Soul-era tracks like “Heaven Knows,” “Baby Don’t Cry” and “Let Me Love You.”
Releasing “I Can’t Wait” gives Hathaway the chance to make music for her listeners to escape to. “I decided I wanted to create something that would inspire movement,” Hathaway explains. “I was ready for a pattern interruption for the audience and for me. It’s just another piece of who I am.”
The infectious energy of “I Can’t Wait” reflects the long-awaited evolution for Hathaway’s musical vision. Honestly will be released through the songstress’ own recording imprint, Hathaway Entertainment with distribution support through Caroline Music Group.
Forming the record label has given Hathaway the freedom to release more music and to develop talent. Previously signed to deals under Virgin, GRP, Sanctuary, Stax and eOne, she maintained her self-sufficiency as a signed artist and businesswoman despite being part of a broader artist roster. “I have always been an independent-minded artist,” Hathaway explains. “Inside of a label situation, you do operate as your own CEO of your own situation. I look forward to presenting new music from different people and making some really cool projects and albums with them. I’m not concerned with what the market looks like. I’m really interested in people that are passionate about music and are great at it.”
Another plus for Hathaway’s entrepreneurial ventures is avoiding record labels’ stringent timetables for promoting projects out of fear of oversaturating listeners with new material. “This way, I can really experience the music the way I want to and get it to the consumer the way I want to give it to you,” Hathaway says. “Music is my passion; it’s my love. Creating a mood for people is what I want to do with this record.”
Hathaway’s highly lauded 2015 project Lalah Hathaway Live is an album full of songs recorded at the storied Troubadour in West Hollywood, the same venue where her father recorded his landmark 1972 live set. The crowdfunded, triple Grammy-winning labor of love was originally conceptualized in the 1990s. Steadfast, Hathaway pitched the idea to her label reps.
Her dreams fell on deaf ears, so the go-getting Hathaway decided to take matters into her own hands. “In the ‘90s as an artist,” Hathaway reflects, “you just went and stood where they told you to stand, looked pretty and smiled, sang the song, went home and came back the next day.”
“People will throw roadblocks in your way because they don’t have faith in your dream,” Hathaway continues. “I don’t expect anyone to have faith in my dreams anymore. I hold myself to a different standard. My dreams are my dreams, and I just go for them now.”
Making Lalah Hathaway Live, she adds, gave her the confidence to put her career objectives first. “It really put the period at the end of that statement,” Hathaway confirms. “The record really taught me to follow my instincts in terms of what I want to present artistically.
Hathaway’s well-oiled technical abilities allowed her to coast effortlessly through jazz, R&B, hip-hop, rock and pop sounds. She has shared recording booths and stages with Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Nancy Wilson, Joe Sample, Herbie Hancock, Donald Lawrence, Esperanza Spalding, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, Robert Glasper, Snoop Dogg, Prince, Gordon Chambers, Gregory Porter, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Meshell Ndegeocello and Stevie Wonder.
Each of those magic moments allowed Hathaway, a Berklee College of Music alumna, to obtain a nontraditional education in music theory and appreciation. “My career has always been as a musician; it comes first for me, before recording artist,” Hathaway says. “I’ve learned so much watching these artists. It’s very important for me to collaborate with as many forms of greatness as I can and try to be around people that I know I’m going to learn from. Music is a collaborative effort.”
Hathaway’s astute knowledge of music hasn’t always been welcomed with open arms. During this year’s MTV Video Music Awards telecast, Twitterverse trolls came after Hathaway following her comments on vocal group Fifth Harmony’s three-part harmonies. Admitting she’d never fully listened to the group’s music, an unbothered Hathaway, who jokingly calls herself a comedienne, says the social media posts took her perspective out of context.
“I don’t really care what people think about what I say,” Hathaway warns. “But what I do care about is some people tried to say I was commenting about their performance. I would never make a comment like that because it’s mean and unnecessary. You want to impart what you know, and you want to learn what they know.”
A staunch advocate for children of color learning music, Hathaway frequently visits music programs, conservatories and youth music departments to interact with young musicians. She adds, “I hope I am a mentor to people. I’ve been so blessed to work with a lot of people that mentored me growing up before I realized I was being mentored or I was a student. Music is a super mutual collaborative effort and situation. It’s a conversation, not a monologue.”
The stage continues to be Hathaway’s sweet spot. She made a cameo appearance during Essence Music Festival in the summer blockbuster comedy Girls’ Trip. The easygoing singer recently wrapped up a six-week stint as the opening act on Mary J. Blige’s “Strength of a Woman” tour. Despite the wealth of fun she had vibing with the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Hathaway calls the dates “the longest moment in R&B history she’s ever had.”
However, Hathaway used the tour to sample some of Honestly in front of the audience. “The feedback we got was really tremendous,” she shares. “I look forward to creating my own show across the country and the world.”
It’s not in Hathaway’s nature to share sneak previews or spoiler alerts for her shows. She creates her set list based on the audience’s energy, preferring her listeners abandon any preconceived expectations. Hathaway feels more fulfilled than she’s ever been in her entire career. She’s making music on her terms and has earned immeasurable amounts of respect from her musical peers and fans alike.
More importantly, making good music for and with good people is what keeps Hathaway encouraged and inspired. “My intent is to use music to uplift my people and to uplift myself,” Hathaway says. “I’m looking for people that are striving to be extraordinary, and I’m not interested in mediocrity ever.”
SEE Lalah Hathaway at New York City's Highline Ballroom on November 13th | Tickets