Lalah Hathaway Returns with New Music, Message Soul singer Lalah Hathaway is back on the scene with a new album, Self Portrait. The daughter of the late R&B legend Donny Hathaway talks about her music, her legacy and why this album challenged her in very different ways.
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Lalah Hathaway Returns with New Music, Message

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Lalah Hathaway Returns with New Music, Message

Lalah Hathaway Returns with New Music, Message

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This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll hear about how you don't have to be white to be a hockey fan. But first, you know the name, but what about the voice?

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's Lalah Hathaway singing "Let Go" from her upcoming album, "Self Portrait." The contemporary rhythm and blues and jazz singer is the daughter of soul sensation Donny Hathaway. But while she's flattered to be likened to her dad, she has her own unique voice and style, which might be most distinct on this, her fifth album. Lalah Hathaway joins us now in our studio in Washington. Welcome. Thank you for stopping in.

Ms. LALAH HATHAWAY (Soul Singer): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about this project. Is there something in particularl that you wanted to showcase with this album?

Ms. HATHAWAY: You know, I really wanted to do a record from front to back that I really was creatively kind of in control of. And not in a conceited kind of way, but I just really wanted to put myself into this project as an artist.

MARTIN: And what does this single that we just played, "Let Go," does it have any special meaning?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Yeah, it's pretty literal.

MARTIN: Because it sounds to me like you weren't letting go, you were holding on, you were like, no, see this is my album.

Ms. HATHAWAY: No, you know, I think there were a lot of things I had to let go of in the last couple of years and that song comes out of that. Relationships, people, and jeans and things. And so it just was a good way to get you into the record. It felt like such a good summertime song, you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of song "Let Go")

Ms. HATHAWAY: (singing) Let go, let go. You gotta let it go.

MARTIN: Did you literally let things go?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Absolutely. I gave many, many bags of clothing to Goodwill. I let go of a couple of mindsets. Tried to let go of a couple of beers. You know, just trying to grow up a little bit.

MARTIN: Was that a - what's the word, a spiritual exercise, in a way?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Indeed. And the whole record is that way. It's kind of cathartic for me to get my feelings together and organize them and kind of write them into songs and messages and love letters, you know.

MARTIN: At this stage of your career, do you feel like you have a sense of what you want to say? The way you want to say it? That you actually have the control?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Indeed, I do. I made changes. I hate to get settled on something because it always changes. But I do feel like I'm coming into being that sort of artist that I have dreamed of being all my life that, you know, I make my own records, do video, you know, and just offer this art from myself to the people that want to hear it and see it.

MARTIN: What do you think has made the difference for you in getting to that place? Because you know, we've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of artists at different stages of their lives and many of - particularly the younger artists, that's exactly what they say they want and they're not sure how to get there. What do you think it is?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Honestly, I think it's really simple. It's time. It's maturity and getting to a place where I feel like it's OK whatever my thoughts and sentiments are and however I want to express them. And as I get older I'm less censored. I'm less apologetic for what I want to do and how I want to do it. And so I think it's just time.

MARTIN: What about the connection to the roots? I mean, obviously, people - everybody knows your dad's name, Donny Hathaway. Do you feel that people now see you as Lalah? Or do you feel that people still are looking for Donny?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Yeah, I think there's both. I don't mind either thing. It's OK. I think that because I do what my dad did, in that tradition, it's a kind of an occupational hazard that people compare us, you know. But other than that, I mean, you know, when you go home people say, girl, you look just like your momma. It's really the same thing. It's really the same thing. And people will say, oh, you sound like your dad but if I answer the phone in my mother's house people think I'm my mother. So it's really - that's just - it's really typical.

MARTIN: For whom you are named and who also has a lovely singing voice, as I understand it. Your whole family is musical. But for those seven people on this earth who may not remember Donny Hathaway, let me just play a little bit of his music, the classic, "A Song for You," if I may?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Please.

(Soundbite of "A Song For You")

Mr. DONNY HATHAWAY: (Singing) I love you in a place where there's no space or time. I love you for my life. You're afraid of mine. And when my life is over, remember when we were together. We were alone and I was singing this song to you.

MARTIN: Do you still listen to your dad's music?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Of course. Of course. And every day, particularly while I'm working and working on a record. I hear his name every day. People ask me about him every day. I see him on television every day. I hear his piano playing every day. So it's kind of - it's not like, you know, when your grandma dies and she's just kind of gone, it's kind of - he's still here in such a huge way and his music still influences so many people, myself included, and he's been gone thirty years.

And this music that we hear Justin Timberlake talking about and Usher and Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige, and all these people, this is music made by a guy at that point in his prime, like in his mid-twenties, and that music has lasted a really long time, so I think that's incredible.

MARTIN: Is that good, though, or is that hard? Because I'm thinking now as you're saying it...

Ms. HATHAWAY: It's also hard.

MARTIN: Yeah. You know, you pass by, like, if it's a family - you pass by a place that you used to go or you see their Christmas stocking and you feel a certain thing, I don't know. Tell me about it, if you don't mind.

Ms. HATHAWAY: It's an interesting phenomenon because he's just always here. And I can't imagine like - you know, growing up I used to think, well, I'm glad I'm not Lisa Presley. I'm glad I'm not Sean Lennon or Julian Lennon. I always could feel for those kids in a way because I was experiencing that in a smaller way. It is definitely - it's a phenomenal thing. It's like every Christmas, you know, my dad's here at Christmas time because of that song.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with R&B singer Lalah Hathaway about her new album "Self Portrait." So let's get back to your self-portrait. You have a song titled "That Was Then." Let's play a little bit of that and we can talk about it.

(Soundbite of "That Was Then")

Ms. HATHAWAY: (Singing) Come on and let me in yeah. It was like a lifetime passed through my fingers, through my fingers so long ago. So much that I didn't know. So much that I didn't know. It was like a light shine down and showed me how - how to move on. That was then and this is now.

MARTIN: You've titled the album "Self Portrait," but in a way, it sounds to me like - I don't want to tell you how to do your business, but it sounds like graduation. Like there are just a number of things in the piece about ways in which you've changed and moved on. Was that kind of a constant while you were working on this or is that something you were working toward or thinking about?

Ms. HATHAWAY: No. It really occurs to me as you're saying it, you know, that maybe that's part of the record, and a lot of the stuff as an artist that I write is kind of prophetic. It's stuff that I'm going through that I don't even realize I'm going through. So thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Is there something about this album that's different from the previous?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Yeah. I think, really, it truly is a simple matter of time and maturity. I'm definitely more involved in a way that I've never been before from the bottom to the top. It's still at the core, it's still really me just trying to figure out what this soul music is for me, but it's definitely more of a self-portrait of who I am.

MARTIN: Do you find - I don't know, sometimes women when they want to search themselves have to be loud about it.

Ms. HATHAWAY: Not really. I just - I'm not loud. Marcus Miller tells me I'm an oboe, I'm not a trumpet. So I accept that. I've had nothing but good thoughts and I'm really excited because to me it's already successful. I have had nothing but really good feedback about the record, and the single is out now and it's just got like five stars everywhere I look. It's just really exciting. I just - I am prepared to believe my own hype this time.

MARTIN: But it's not fizzy, fizzy popcorn music. In fact, there's, you know, it's not like, hey, everything's great, it's summer in the city kind of thing. There are some complicated feelings and in fact, there's a final track on the album, it's "Tragic Inevitability," and I'd like to...

Ms. HATHAWAY: Right. And thank you for saying it correctly because not everyone does. And I knew that would happen but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: This is NPR.

Ms. HATHAWAY: That was lovely the way you said that. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: We should be able to manage tragic inevitability at NPR, but thank you for noticing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HATHAWAY: Oh, people are leaving out all kinds of consonants and vowels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I can't speak on that, but let me play a little bit of that and then you can tell us a little bit more about it.

(Soundbite of "Tragic Inevitability")

Ms. HATHAWAY: (Singing) See the tragic inevitability. Is that you and me can never be the way we were, ageless and evergreen. We can't ever make believe no more. Deep inside my soul it hurts me so and I will not be consoled.

MARTIN: Some grownup stuff going on there.

Ms. HATHAWAY: A little. A little bit, yeah. I'm kind of a melancholy baby sort of by design. So that song, I had the title for the longest time and the lyric didn't come to me until I was recording it, when I was right at the mic the lyrics were coming to me.

MARTIN: Really? You can do that!

Ms. HATHAWAY: I didn't know that I could. My friend (unintelligible) told me that I could do that because that's the way he does it, and I thought, OK. I was so nervous because I didn't have a song and you have the studio time booked and it's not free. So I'm standing there at the mic, like trying to organize my thoughts and it just came to me.

(Soundbite of "Tragic Inevitability")

Ms. HATHAWAY: (Singing) To this tragic inevitability.

MARTIN: Was there anybody in particular in your mind?


(Soundbite of laughter)

There's, you know, actually, there's a few anybody's in particular on my mind. And if you really break the lyric down, the tragic inevitability is that you and me can never be the way we were. That's a real simple sentiment, you know.

MARTIN: And it applies to a lot of situations.

Ms. HATHAWAY: And not just people but situations.

MARTIN: Sure, jobs, it could apply to jobs. It could apply to places that you may have lived that aren't the way they were. Could apply to New Orleans, maybe. I don't know.

Ms. HATHAWAY: Absolutely. Yeah. Fabulous pairs of jeans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Or relationships.

Ms. HATHAWAY: Absolutely. It's all of that. It's all that. I hate to attach - you know, I know people are real interested in what the personal story is behind it, but it's really about how you experience the music and what your story is for it. There's some magic to a story that you feel is about you, and as soon as I tell you what my story is, that removes all the smoke and mirrors and kind of shows you the trick, which I hate to do. I'm a magician, that's what I say.

MARTIN: Well, keeping it on the real, I mentioned that you were kind enough to stop into our study in Washington in part because you're involved in a cancer awareness initiative.

Ms. HATHAWAY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I'm just curious about why that moves you?

Ms. HATHAWAY: Well, I'm actually an ambassador for change with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure. And it moves me firstly because I have breasts. Secondly, because all my girlfriends have breasts. Thirdly, because in the last year, in the last 12 months or so, a few women close to me had specific issues with their breasts, and so it came up at such a time when I felt like oh, Wow, this is such an opportunity to be able to speak on it and to be able to use this little, tiny, small two-by-two platform I have to just raise awareness.

And a lot of women come to my shows and so it's just a way to say, you know, let's all be grownups. You tell six of your girls, I'll tell six of my girls, tell them to tell six of their girls, and so just to get the dialogue going is important.

MARTIN: Grownup stuff.

Ms. HATHAWAY: Grownup stuff. I feel really grownup about it.

MARTIN: All right. Lalah Hathaway's grownup latest album is called "Self Portrait." She was kind enough to join us here in the studio in Washington. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HATHAWAY: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

MARTIN: Lalah Hathaway's new album comes out tomorrow. If you want to find out more about it you can check out our web site at

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