Lalah Hathaway Talks Playboy Jazz Festival Debut, New Album, 5 Grammys and Tour with Mary J Blige
Lalah Hathaway Makes Playboy Jazz Festival Debut This Sunday June 11
by A. Scott Galloway
Many fans might be surprised to learn that Lalah Hathaway – who has collaborated with numerous jazz artists from Marcus Miller to Joe Sample – has played most of the grandest jazz festivals around the world but never performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival. She’s never even been to one as a spectator! That’s all about to change when she takes the stage at Playboy Jazz Festival 2017 – Sunday, June 11 – with some nice surprises in store. She talks about a new album dropping this summer, how she is so NOT an overnight sensation, what her 5 Grammy wins mean to her, her upcoming tour with Mary J. Blige and more in the memory lane conversation below with A. Scott Galloway, a music journalist who has been writing about the lady and her music since her very first album in 1990.
A. Scott Galloway: So you’ve never played “Playboy” but you have performed at the Hollywood Bowl. I think I’ve been there for at least two of those occasions!
Lalah Hathaway: I’ve only played the Hollywood Bowl a few times. I opened for Al Green once, I sat in with Anita Baker once, and I did the “Black Hollywood Soundtracks” show with Marcus Miller and Reginald Hudlin.
Galloway: What is it like for you to play a place that has that much history and of such size?
Hathaway: I’m going to call it a “room,” o.k.? It’s a beautiful room. One of those places where you walk out onstage and it’s just amazing to see the bodies, camera phones and lighters as far as the eye can I see. With it being built into the rock, it’s just so gorgeous out there under the stars.
Galloway: You singing “Purple Rain” last summer at the Black Hollywood Soundtrack show with your Mom and family in the audience…I will never forget that moment. Prince had only been dead a short while. You’ve already placed yourself in Hollywood Bowl history with that one.
Hathaway: Thank you. That is so nice to know.
Galloway: So what do you have in store for us with your Playboy Jazz Festival debut: anything new?
Hathaway: Of course! I have a new album coming out in July or August that I am really excited about. I just have one more song to complete. The album is called Honestly. It’s going to feel a little different for some folks. We have added some of those songs so it’s going to be really fun to play it at The Bowl.
Galloway: I’ve been listening to you since album #1 and all the guest spots from gospel to jazz in between. How do you think this music will be surprising to folks?
Hathaway: A lot of people feel like, “This is new for you” while others say it reminds them of my first record (self-titled Lalah Hathaway – Virgin Records – 1990). For me, it’s a continuum of what I’ve always loved doing. I think people have come to expect a live experience from me. There’s some of that but it’s also a little more electronic and different. I’m trying to get on that Rihanna paper!
Galloway: In the last four years you have racked up 5 Grammy awards. What do those awards mean to you as an artist?
Hathaway: You know…it’s incredible because the Grammy is the ultimate honor you can receive in this industry – the recognition from your peers. The thing that’s so crazy is people saying, “Oh, you’re a Grammy darling,” which is so funny to me because I was working for a good 25 years before anybody gave me anything. When people used to say, “Wow, you are so underrated,” I never felt that way. I feel super highly rated by everyone that rates me. I never had a problem with respect from my peers. So to be recognized now by the Grammys is really icing on the cake. If you had told me when I was 22 or 25 when I was seeing a lot of other people advance to where I felt I wanted to advance to at that point, I wouldn’t trade what I have now for anything in the world. This is the path I’m on and I am super happy that it has been a stellar last four years. To set a record for most consecutive wins in that category (Best Traditional R&B Performance) and to create the album I’ve wanted to do since 1995 that everyone discouraged me from doing-
Galloway: Whoa, wait a minute. People discouraged you from doing the concert album, Lalah Live?
Hathaway: Oh, yeah! Everybody had a reason why I shouldn’t do a live record! “Don’t do it – nobody buys live records!” That was in the `90s. Then Erykah (Badu) made a live record and Jill (Scott) made a live record. I kept thinking, “Why can’t I make a live record? That’s really what I do. I’m always on the road.” They’d say, “Well…” Then I did that Snarky Puppy recording (“Something,” resulting in the first of her Grammys in 2014). When we won, I said, “The hell with it!” I’m going to follow my instincts because they never lead me wrong. And if they do, it’s o.k. because it’s a decision I made.
Galloway: Well, I think you did it at the right time, too. Major labels often let an artist do a “live” album as one off of their contract that they rarely ever intend to promote anyway…and usually insist on a studio bonus track! And since your father’s album, Donny Hathaway Live (Atco – 1972), is the greatest album of all-time – which I say all the time – for you to do a live album too early might not have worked. But after 6 studio albums, a live album made perfect sense at that point.
Hathaway: It was time.
Galloway: So now we have a new album to look forward to and the opening slot on Mary J. Blige’s “Strength of a Woman” tour (beginning July 1st at the Essence Festival in New Orleans). I remember both of you debuting in the `90s when I was Music Editor at Urban Network magazine, especially interviewing you for your first album in our Burbank offices. Are you and Mary tight (close friends)?
Hathaway: I met her in (1995) when we both took part in the soundtrack for the movie “Panther” (a `60s/`70s period piece about the Black Panther Party). Do you remember that?
Galloway: I sure do. I was at the all-star vocal session for the theme song, “Freedom,” produced by Me’shell NdegeOcello at Capitol Studios in Hollywood.
Hathaway: Right! I was there! Me’shell was there, Angie Stone had done the vocal arranging. I met so many young women that day…N’Dea (Davenport of The Brand New Heavies band), TLC (Left-Eye, T-Boz & Chilli), Aaliyah, Xscape – ALL these young women were there! It was amazing. And Mary was also there. I remember sitting out in the parking lot with her talking about my dad. I went on to produce a song only released in Japan titled “Almost Gone” for her album, Mary (MCA – 1999). We hung out for a minute then we lost contact. We reconnected at the party Essence magazine threw for her a couple of years ago. She’s someone I have a great deal of respect and love for. We came up together. She’s one of the greats and I’m excited to have this opportunity to tour with her.
I’m just glad to be doing my thing – 27 years in – and still feeling like I’m at the top of it. A lot of folks got lost in the sauce in the late `90s/early 2000s.
Galloway: That’s true but you weren’t cranking albums out every year or two either. You had like, what, a 6-year gap between solo albums at one point, right?
Hathaway: It was a 10-year gap!
Galloway: O.K., wow! Was that by choice?
Hathaway: Part of it. In `94 I did my second album at Virgin, A Moment. Then they dropped me which, at the time, I thought was the worst problem of my entire life. It turned out to be the biggest blessing…ever! I had to really figure out that I had to move and do my own thing. Once I made that album with Joe Sample (The Song Lives On – PRA – 1999), they wanted me to do another one plus a tribute album to my father. I wasn’t ready to do those records at that point. So I just stayed working on the road and as luck would have it, I signed with MoJazz (Motown’s short-lived jazz imprint in the `90s), when it folded I went to Mesa Bluemoon then to Stax Records for its renaissance.
My path has always been my path. I just honor it.
A. Scott Galloway
The Urban Music Scene
June 10, 2017