Lalah Hathaway '90: Charting Her Own Course

Alumna Lalah Hathaway talks about staying true to oneself, collaborations via social media, and how comedy informs her music.

February 16, 2012

Back when she was a student at Berklee two decades ago, Lalah Hathaway '90 made an impressive debut, releasing her first recording. Since then, the daughter of the late soul legend Donny Hathaway has made a name for herself while eschewing labels and categorization, often fusing R&B, jazz, and pop, and exhibiting incredible versatility. Along with her own band, she's performed with such artists as Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, Mary J. Blige, Esperanza Spalding, and Prince.

Following the release of her latest album, Where It All Begins, the trained pianist and vocalist was back at Berklee for a concert and the opening of the Africana Studies Center. She took some time to talk about resisting labels, staying true to one's identity, and her Berklee experience.

The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview.


What advice do you have for female vocalists who want to create their own niche and carve out their own identity so they're standing out from the crowd?

Understand that you already have an identity. You don't have to create it. You have to find it. And you're going to stand out because nobody does what you do and you don't do what anyone else does. So get on your path. That's crucial.

I would tell female singers, in particular, to not just think of yourself as a singer. Think of yourself as a musician and your instrument is your voice and try to figure out ways to stretch it out as far as possible—not in terms of range so much as what you can accommodate, what you can learn, what you listen to, what you can emulate, what sounds you can make, what you can do with your instrument.

There's always pressure to fit into a neat category, or a genre of music, and you've resisted that. Especially with your latest album, you really speak to the idea of being true to yourself. Can you talk about that?

As a singer—well, unfortunately particularly as a black woman singer—you kind of fit into one of two or three neat little tidy boxes and two of them don't exist on the radio anymore at all. So the best that I've found is to follow my own path because at the end of the day if I don't get the bonuses that I want, I've still done the thing that best suits me, which is being myself. It's been really important to me to figure out my path and be on it and stay on it and just keep moving forward. The rest of it—the accolades and all of the other stuff—is a bonus. It's what I would do regardless.

I'm of the mind that some days I wake up and say hey, I want to make a bluegrass record and that's true that day. And I want to be able to do that. I don't want to have to ask someone's permission for where I fit in their mind about who I am.

For your most recent album, you looked to Facebook and Twitter to find collaborators.

I did and I got a lot of great material. I get an email every day, or a tweet every day asking to collaborate. Now you can just take a GarageBand file and email it and work on it. The way that we communicate with each other is so different. The way that we get stuff to each other is so different. It is a completely different paradigm and I think about the fact that while I was here at Berklee, I used to buy records. I would go around the corner to Strawberries and I would actually buy a record, and then Tower Records. . . This generation of kids, they never touch music. It never is anything tangible to them. It appears on their phone. . . It's a different paradigm all together. It's trippy.

You included a tune of your father's ["You Were Meant for Me"] on this current album but you hadn't done that up until now. Why was it time?

I could have chosen any time and I could have chosen any tune but that song felt right for this body of work and the situation was such that I had Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt and Capitol Records in the room where Nat King Cole made many of his giant, giant records, and [I had] my live band. It was just a situation that I knew would be great and I knew it was time for me to do that.

You're here through Africana Studies, a focused area of study at Berklee that embraces the study of black music, its practices, history, meaning,  and context. Can you talk about the context of your music and how it fits into that trajectory?

It's a heady thing to think that it might. . . I hope the legacy that I leave is that I made a huge contribution to the landscape of African American music and American music.

What do you think it means for Berklee to have this in its curriculum now?

I think it's wonderful. We always had it. We just didn't have a dedicated department. I sat in a couple of professor [and Africana Studies director] William Banfield's classes yesterday and it was so wonderful because the information had not been disseminated to me like that.

When you were here at Berklee, what were some pivotal moments for you?

I was in the John Scofield Ensemble with Rick Peckham, which I really loved because no other singers were there. I studied with Maggie Scott, one of my favorite people. Walter Beasley was one of my professors here at Berklee and really encouraged me. He was the first person who I told: "I want to try scatting but I'm scared because I don't know what to say." He said, "You're going to mess it up. . . But after that you're going to learn your language." I had a lot of great teachers here. I had a really good experience at Berklee. Those little four years, that little capsule of time, really propelled me into the mind space that I needed to get into to become a musician.

I heard that you also have an interest in comedy.

I have in interest in all things funny. I could never be a comedian, though, because my feelings would be hurt. I'm way too fragile. I love comedy and I love the contribution that comedy makes to music. It is part of what has informed my art. It's hard to say exactly how but there is humor in the music and there is humor in the stories and there is absolutely the influence of those artists on me.

What advice would you give to Berklee students?

I would say enjoy your time. Study hard, do your best, make as much music as possible, be as creative as possible, try stuff you would never try. There is going to come a time—like the day after you get out of here—that it's not going to be as easy. The world is not going to be as accommodating to you and your musical whims. So take this opportunity while you're in this bubble. It's a really sacred space.