A Song For Her: Lalah Hathaway (interview)

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“Always remember, my friend, the world will change again/And you may have to come back through everywhere you’ve been.”

Before Lalah Hathaway sang those words, she was already a well-respected R&B vocalist. Fans held on to her two early ’90s albums like heirlooms, remnants of a recent yet still grander past when R&B meant more than simply crooning over a hip-hop beat. But after she recorded the song “When Your Life Was Low,” from which those lyrics come, something dynamic happened. She went from being a skilled torchbearer to becoming a master artist in her own right. Her singing, which always impressed people, began deeply moving them.

“Some nights when I’m singing ‘When Your Life Was Low,’ I’m just spent spiritually,” says the 36-year-old Hathaway, who, wearing a jean skirt and little makeup, looks like a fresh-faced Spelman student sitting in the lounge of Atlanta’s downtown Ritz-Carlton. “So many people come to me and say, ‘Is that a gospel song? Are you singing about a man and a woman or about God?'”

The ballad, which has also been recorded by jazz chanteuse Randy Crawford and brassy Bette Midler, deals with being left behind by someone you once loved and nurtured. “Sometimes I’m singing the song and I’m looking at the people,” Hathaway says, “and there’s a full, grown-ass man in tears. The interpretation of that song for me and how people received it kinda changed my life and kinda changed me musically.”

For one thing, the song, which she released on an album with jazz pianist Joe Sample in 1999, returned Hathaway’s warm, dusky voice to the airwaves after years of silence. Now she’s back with a soulful and intimate new album, Outrun the Sky, which includes the single “Forever, For Always, For Love.” A sensitively rendered cover of a classic Luther Vandross ballad, it recently hit No. 1 on the urban adult-contemporary chart.

“It’s like a love letter,” she says about the song recorded as a tribute to the ailing singer who suffered a stroke in 2003. “I hope he loves it.”

Hathaway’s current success follows years of professional struggles, as she tried to find a way to make her mature, lasting music in an industry obsessed with quick, disposable hits. Lalah is the daughter of Donny Hathaway, the legendary soul singer who suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1979. Though nearly three decades have passed since his death, he is still cited as an influence by Usher, Ruben Studdard, Justin Timberlake and others. Lalah feels she has a legacy to uphold. “My dad was here so I could get here,” she says, “and I’m here so he can stay here.”

Her desire to be a performer began when she was a teenager idolizing Janet Jackson. But then she enrolled in Boston’s Berklee College of Music and found her musical interests quickly – and forcibly – changed. “I lived on the eighth floor of the Berklee dorms with my roommate,” Hathaway says, “and all of these guys used to come to our room and, if we were listening to that Janet Jackson record, they would just take it off immediately. They’d say, ‘You cannot listen to this. This is pop music. This is crap. You gotta listen to Miles once a day, Bird once a day, ‘Trane once a day, Dizzy once a day.’ That was part of what turned me into the musician that I am now.”

Hathaway signed a deal with Virgin Records while still in school and recorded much of her self-titled debut during spring break. But although the album produced the hit “Heaven Knows,” she was disappointed with its slick, commercial sound. “I was feeling like a big sellout,” she says. Her second album, A Moment, failed to make an impression, and she was dropped from the label. For years she was without a deal.

“I had a lot of low moments,” she says. “I’d meet these girls in clubs and they’d say, ‘Oh my God, I love you. I just got a record deal.’ And I’d be like, ‘What?’ I didn’t feel like there was any place for me in the industry.”

Nevertheless, she kept working in the background, showing up on albums by Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Take 6, Donald Lawrence, Grover Washington Jr. and others, continuing to hone her talents. Years passed, many of which she couldn’t even tour because no one would book her without an album to promote.

But then one day, keyboard master Sample called and asked her to do “When Your Life Was Low,” setting the stage for her well-deserved career renaissance – the album, the tour, and all that comes with it. Like her father, who was known for his searing version of Leon Russell’s “Song For You,” Lalah is also becoming most recognized for her remakes.

“Joe told me that he was trying to find someone to cover that song for like three or four years and nobody was interested,” Hathaway says. “And I said, ‘That’s because it’s my song.’ Some songs I just really relate to. Joe once said, ‘I like when Lalah sings ‘When Your Life Was Low,’ because she really interprets the story.’ And I thought, ‘Is that what I’m doing? I’m just singing the song.’ But maybe I am an interpreter.”

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