The soulful voice of Lalah Hathaway stops a Washington cocktail party. She is standing behind a mic--black pants, silver hoop earrings, barefoot. She has kicked off her black platform shoes.
She seems comfortable in her own skin as she sings a song made famous by her father. Her voice is luxurious, smooth and controlled. The notes linger: “There is a time when I didn’t have no one...didn’t have no love... Do you remember.”
Lalah Hathaway, often called the First Daughter of Soul, is the daughter of the late, great R&B legend Donny Hathaway. With six solo albums, critics say the Grammy-nominated singer has established herself as a genuine contemporary R&B artist in full control of her voice.
For more than 30 years, she has been making music. She was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1990, when she released her debut album, “Lalah Hathaway.” In 1994, she released, “A Moment” with the hit “Let Me Love You.” In 2004, Hathaway made “Outrun the Sky.” In 2008, she released “Self Portrait,” for which she received a 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for the song, “That Was Then.” A year later, she received a Grammy nomination with Kirk Whalum for Best Gospel Performance for “He’s Been Just That Good.”
We met up with Hathaway on Capitol Hill last Tuesday, the day her sixth solo album “Where It All Begins,” was released. The album, which has been called “a rebirth,” is classic R&B and highlights her lush alto. On the album, she sings about strong women, the joy of falling in love and the sadness of losing love. The album includes a recording of “You Were Meant For Me,” which her father recorded in 1978.
Q: You are often introduced as the daughter of Donny Hathaway, do you ever feel you have to try to fill his shoes in some way or continue his legacy?
A: The best part of being me is I know who I am and who my dad was and there is a comfort in knowing it is nothing I ever have to think about. I am who I am. There will never be another me throughout the strand of time. There will never be another Donny Hathaway. I just happen to be the daughter of the greatest singer of all time.
Q: Tell me a bit about your childhood memories with your father, Donny Hathaway.
A: I don’t have a lot of memories with my dad. Unfortunately, he died when I was ten years old. A lot of the memories I share with people are the memories that folks have given me in the last thirty years, how music changed their lives, how they got through college, how they got through a divorce, how they raised their kids, how their parents gave them memories.
Q: Your mother is a classically trained vocalist. When did you start singing and what inspired you?
A: I have been singing all my life, being the child of two musicians and two educators of music. I just remember being really little and having piano lessons and playing for my mom [Eulaulah], so she could do her singing lessons. I have been doing it as long as I could remember, since three or four years old.
Q: You grew up in Chicago. When you were coming up, who were your mentors?
A: I had a lot of mentors from the time I was really little, growing in this industry. A lot of people I went on to work with--like Joe Sample, Marcus Miller, Take 6, George Duke and Herbie Hancock and Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind and Fire--a lot of people I grew up listening to. They have all mentored me at some point.
Q: Do you remember any specific advice they gave you?
A: People at a certain level really don’t have to say anything to you. You can just watch them work. So Joe Sample, for instance, on the bandstand, or Marcus Miller on the bandstand, the way they communicate with the band--it is a lesson that is invaluable, something you can never really teach. Or watching Chaka, in a show, deliver the message, really interpret songs for people is a lesson I learned I could never really put words to.
Q: Have you thought of re-recording your father’s music.
A: Like a duet? No. But I did it for this record. I recorded, ‘You Were Meant for Me.’ This is the first time I recorded it for my solo record.
Q: What inspired your newest album?
A: What is crazy is a lot of things that inspired my first album have inspired me on this record. I think this record, ‘Where It All Begins,’ most closely resembles the experience and the feeling, the whole zeitgeist of making that first record. There is an exuberance I haven’t had in a minute that I didn’t even know I was missing. I wanted to make an artistic statement of feeling empowered as an artist and those things informed both records.
Q: What message do you want listeners to take away from it?
A: I want it to be vital listening music. I want them to interpret it however they interpret it. Too often we put labels on people or on things or categorize. I like it better when people come and say, ‘This is my experience with your music.’ That makes more sense to me. I want the music to be something they want and they need and they have to have.
Q: You have said your hope is that ‘people can hear me and understand who I am.’ Talk about what you meant by that.
A: What people need is description. They need to compartmentalize: ‘This goes here and this goes here.’ A lot of times I am doing an interview or somebody will say, ‘Tell us who Lalah Hathaway is?’ which is such a crazy question to answer for yourself. But I really hope that my music speaks for who I am. I really hope it is honest and truthful, and it is light and it is dark and it has all these different dimensions. You take away different things from it. That is me. I hope the music speaks for itself.
Q: Your voice is a gift. What do you hope for it?
A: I hope it lasts forever. I hope I stay in good voice as long as I am here walking and breathing and talking. I hope it is a sound that lingers like my dad’s thirty years after the fact, the sound is so relevant, so in your ear.”
To hear Lalah Hathaway’s new song, “If You Want To,” go to www.lalahhathaway.com.
Lalah Hathaway’s show is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011, at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave, Alexandria, VA 22305, 703-549-7500, www.birchmere.com.