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Phone interview recorded October 17, 2011

Upon the release of her sixth album, WHERE IT ALL BEGINS,’s Jeff Forman catches up with songstress Lalah Hathaway. She opens up about her renewed commitment to music, her Twitter fixation, floating onstage with Prince, and her secret desire to join the cast of an iconic, long-running, live comedy sketch TV show.
Tune in…

Jeff Forman: What up everybody, a big hello to the community, Jeff Forman here, and super jazzed today to be hanging out with a long time, dear friend, one of my favorite musicians, one of my favorite singers. I had the privilege of working with her on her debut record a thousand years ago (laughs). She is Grammy-nominated, soul music royalty, she is an Xbox and PlayStation titan…

Lalah Hathaway: It's true.

JF: … And the self-appointed Queen of the Planet. On the eve of releasing her fifth or maybe, her sixth, full length recording she is here to talk with us about WHERE IT ALL BEGINS. Ladies and gents, I bring you the easy, breezy Ms. Lalah Hathaway.

JF: Dang, I forgot to cue the digital applause, Lalah. I'm sorry.

LH: Oh, that’s ok. It's in my mind.

JF: Thank you so much for taking time to hang with today. How are you? I'm sure you're stoked about the new record.

LH: I am and it’s Christmas Eve. My record comes out tonight at midnight and I am at the ready on iTunes, You know, because I always buy my record. Used to be that I would go to Tower Records and be standing in line.

JF: Oh man, Tower Records! Wow!

LH: Back in the ‘40s, Tower Records. But I buy it online now at midnight but the same… almost same effect.

JF: For the record, today is October 17, 2011, the album goes on sale at midnight tonight. Like Lalah just said, iTunes, Amazon… well pretty much everywhere.

LH: Absolutely, at too we have some really cool bonus things you can get on my website and one of those things is you can buy the cover art which is really, really cool.

JF: Very cool. Ok, but before we jump into the new record… we’re buddies, we’re friends, we've known each other a long time. Follow my lead ok? Just play along with me for a minute?

LH: Alright. Ok.

JF: This won’t be painful, I promise.

LH: Ready

JF: Corn Flakes or Cheerios?

LH: Did you say Frosted Flakes?

JF: Corn Flakes… no sugar.

LH: Corn Flakes or Cheerios?. I'm going to go with Cheerios.

JF: Ok. iPhone or Android? Actually, I'm sure I know the answer to this. This is, I know, a silly question for you but… iPhone or Android?

LH: What?! I am talking to you on my iPhone 4S right now.

JF: Oh, you pre-ordered, huh?

LH: Well no, I just walked into the store and got one.

JF: Oh, ok. Are you having fun with Siri?

LH: I am having fun with Siri. I’m asking her all kinds of question like “where do you bury the body?”. You know she's got all kinds of little answers that I like. I like her a lot.

JF: Ok. Day or night?

LH: Night, absolutely.

JF: Unequivocally, huh?

LH: Yeah, no question. I don’t even know what the rest of the context of the clue is and the answer is still “night”.

JF: Ok. Ella or Sarah?

LH: What?! This is a hard one.

JF: I know. Pick one, you gotta pick one though.

LH: This is a conversation that Rahsaan Patterson and I get into every couple of years with heated fervor and ultimately for me I'm going to have take Ella Fitzgerald. It's very hard… I mean the degree of separation is one point, one percent, but ultimately she speaks to my mathematical sensibility in a different way.

JF: And who does Rahsaan side with? We actually spoke to him pretty recently about his new project. I wish we had asked him this one.

LH: Yeah, he goes with Sarah. Yeah, he will go with Sarah each time after we mix it up a bit and then I will always end up with Ella.

JF: Ok. London or Paris?

LH: Hmmm…You know unfortunately I have never spent too much time in either place. So I'm going to assume that it's Paris because it seems kind of romantic.

JF: Would you throw in a third overseas city? If you had to pick a favorite city of yours. Out of the country, out of the US?

LH: Yeah, actually Tokyo. I really love Tokyo.

JF: Ok, this one may not even be fair, but I am going to throw it at you anyway. SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE or INNERVISIONS?

LH: That’s a hard one. I'll just say INNERVISIONS.

JF: Actually, I was thinking it was unfair because SONGS is a double-disc set so it may not even be fair to compare the two.

LH: And I can't remember exactly which songs are where, but I do absolutely go through a stage every year for about three weeks where I'm only listening to INNERVISIONS.

JF: INNERVISIONS is "Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing", "Too High", "All In Love Is Fair".

LH: Yeah

JF: SONGS of course is all those hits from SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE.

LH: Right.

JF: A couple more and then we will roll to the record. A blanket on the beach or a bench in the park?

LH: Ugh! Neither. (laughs)

JF: Ok. (laughs)

LH: Actually, I went to Barbados last year to play and I really gained a new love and respect for the beach. So I'll have to say a blanket on the beach. I’m not a beach chick but I think I actually am a water chick, so I’ll have to say “a blanket on the beach”.

JF: Ok. Venus or Serena?

LH: Oh, it's hard to choose. I love them both. I think Serena is a little bit more of a… like a live wire, I think she is interesting. I'll say Serena. I don’t know. That’s a hard one. I love them both though.


LH: KIND OF BLUE, all day. A LOVE SUPREME is a great record and I grew up with both of those records but KIND OF BLUE is like the gold standard, in terms of listening to jazz and opening your mind to jazz. I think it’s a little more palatable and it's probably in my top five favorite records of all time.

JF: Yeah for me, I would agree. “Blue In Green” is just an amazing piece of music. Amazing.

LH: That’s a record that I learned probably every part in my sleep. I learned all the bass parts, the drums parts, the piano parts, everything, in my sleep at college. It was one of the first records that I really, really, really took apart.

JF: So let's talk about that for a second. I referenced earlier that you were one of my favorite musicians and you know I joke about that all the time. I do consider you a musician first and, not a singer second, but I consider you to be a musician. You use your voice as an instrument. How do you hear music when you listen? What do you hear first? What do you notice first? What do you pay attention to first?

LH: It depends on the music. I don’t have anything that I do by rote; it just depends on what is hitting my ear. You know, maybe it’s a singer, or maybe it’s the keyboard or maybe it’s the ear candy, or maybe it’s the beat. It just depends on the piece I’m listening to.

JF: I ask because, you know, how most singers zero in on the voice first. You know what I mean? And I get the impression that that’s not you. You don’t really do that.

LH: No, I don’t. I sometimes hear the voice first. Again, it depends on who's singing, or what they are singing. Music for me is such an experience because I really can hear a lot of different things and I think it’s a blessing and sometimes a curse because it's hard to really focus on one thing sometimes. But I do, depending on what I am listening to, and can hear a lot of different things happening.

JF: It's interesting because that seems to be something you have in common with your Daddy. Because I’m told that he had an amazing ear as well. For example, he could pick out the second violin in an orchestra. You know, that kind of thing. Kind of similar for you? You hear on that level as well?

LH: I think so. I mean I can look at a group of people singing and pick out the voices. You know what I mean. Like I can match up sounds with faces like that in that way. I think it’s maybe a genetic thing . My ear is very… I think it’s a strange thing, it works for what I do. But I can hear a lot of things that probably people aren't paying attention to.

JF: Alright, WHERE IT ALL BEGINS. It begins, as we said previously, tomorrow October 18. I’ve spent some time with the record. I’ve studied all your stuff, obviously I'm a fan. This one feels like your brightest record yet though, it feels bright to me… that was the adjective that came to mind most immediately after I listened. Does that make sense to you?

LH: I think so. Rahsaan told me that too, that the record seemed really bright, brighter. I think so. I think I am in kind of a different and new place yet again. This record most closely resembles my experience with the first record in terms of it being like a new experience and being fun and being inspired. I think… yeah what you feel is those tempo changes and key changes and really just me stretching in a way that I haven’t in awhile. “Brighter” is a great word.

JF: And again, you attribute that to any significant life changes? You kind of alluded to a new mood… what do you attribute that new mood to?

LH: I think a lot of it has to do with time, a new kind of station in life, which is just what happens as you grow up. You know everything around me feels kind of new which is a good thing and that seems to happen with me every now and again, and I just sort of change my entire latitude and it just sort of feels like it's changed. So in terms of the record, I know that my approach was fresh. I did the whole record basically by myself with no A&R, with nobody standing over me telling me what to do. With no management for a large part of it, just really trying to find out what I was doing. And the record that I created… I really felt empowered as an artist. You know I really felt empowered… within the structure of the music industry I have always sort of felt like I've been signed to majors but I have always felt like an independent artist. So finding my way to create this record within the structure of what the industry is right now was really empowering as an artist.

JF: The other overarching theme of the record to me is the diversity of it. The width and breadth of the material, of the songs, and I guess that approach may have to do with like you just said overseeing it yourself, you having most of the creative control… there's some up-tempo, kind of dance-oriented stuff, there's sexy ballad,R&B ballad type stuff, there's a lullaby… there's a song that almost sounds country/ folkish, but still contemporary. Would you attribute that diversity to your creative control?

LH: Absolutely, you know ultimately those are the types of records that I have always tried to make which are records that kind of give you a sense of the breadth that you can have on a record, ‘cause when I was growing up… you know, I had Chaka Khan records that had Beatles covers on them, and then a duet with Rick James. I mean there were all these different types of things on her records; jazz, medleys arranged by Arif Mardin, but the thread of the record was Chaka. It didn’t matter to me that the songs had different beats, or that they were different genres, the record always felt focused because she was the artist. And so those are the types of records that I've always kind of wanted to create. What happens in the music industry is that a lot of times people have a sense of who you are and what you do and then try to apply that kind of force on how you present yourself. So for me to be involved in the last 20 years with Take 6, or Marcus Miller, or Meshell Ndegeocello, or Richard Smallwood, or Donald Lawrence… all these different types of music, it really stems from the same place and the thread is me. I really wanted to give a record that offered a lot of different things.

JF: So let's talk about a couple of specific songs, of course you know which one I’m going to single out.

LH: “I'm Coming Back”?

JF: Oh yeah. That was one we worked together on with the first record. Shoutout to Gary Taylor who wrote the song. You chose to re-attack it, or re-approach it for this record. Why? Why that particular song?

LH: It’s one of those songs that since the time I recorded it for the 1990 record, it has been a fan favorite. Now I didn’t start playing it live ‘til close to 2000, believe it or not.
I never really played it live. It just didn’t… it was kind of, for me, getting around the production of it and having probably a smaller band than I would like and then at some point I didn’t really travel with singers and so it was just not anything I ever really had in the show until probably 1999 or 2000. And when we added it to the show, all the musicians in the last 10 or 15 years have really given it this shape that it has now. So now, we hardly ever miss that song in the show ever. And I have been all over the world and people request that song like in churches and in Tokyo and in South Africa, people really love that song. And so I knew I wanted to be able to really give it to the fans in the way that they hear it now. Which is that arrangement that you hear. And my first couple of sessions for this record were at Capitol Records with Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt with my band and so I knew that I would have an opportunity to really, really lay out this kind of lush, live arrangement for people, of the song that I know that they love, and I just happened to be doing overdubs and backgrounds and Rachelle (Ferrell) said “I’m gonna stop by today and come check you out” and I said "come on down". And we sat there for a couple of hours and then I said "don’t you feel like singing?" and she went and got on that vamp.

JF: Let’s just point out for the listeners and readers that Rachelle Ferrell is featured on this sublime record, this sublime version.

LH: Ridiculous, isn’t she?

JF: Crazy. Like, just dumb, stupid crazy…
So tell me this, would you consider it your signature song?

LH: No

JF: Ok. Do you consider any particular song a signature Lalah Hathaway song?

LH: I have some. "I’m Coming Back" is probably one of them. But I think like "When Your Life Was Low" is one, and “So They Say” is probably one. You know, I get a lot of the ballads… it’s a lot of the ballads so probably any of those ballads that we do, particularly "When Your Life Was Low."

JF: Really?

LH: Yeah.

JF: Even more so than "Forever, For Always, For Love"?

LH: And that one.

JF: Right, of course.

LH: You just referenced “When Your Life Was Low”. Let's back pedal a little bit, because in the intro I mentioned that WHERE IT ALL BEGINS is either your fifth or sixth full-length record. I was alluding, as you know, to the Joe Sample record you did. Do you consider that your record as well?

LH: Absolutely. Because it’s twelve songs and I'm on, like eight. (laughs)

JF: Ok. No, I would agree.

LH: Yeah, I absolutely consider it. And really, the only songs you know off that record are the ones I sang. So absolutely, it is a part of the body of my work you know for sure. I'm very proud of that record. It kind of did a strange thing for my career in a way. You know, I think people have kind of always seen me as sort of a serious kind of singer, like a jazz singer. And that record really cemented that idea, which is funny, because it's still not a jazz record. But it took me into a different sort of place in terms of my career.

JF: Right. I definitely wanted to highlight “I’m Coming Back” especially in light of Vesta's recent passing (Note: Vesta Williams originally recorded “I’m Coming Back”; it’s a bonus track on her debut album VESTA). It’s almost like an untimely but timely tribute to her… you know what I mean? In a serendipitous kind of way. Actually, the other song I want to highlight, not from WHERE IT ALL BEGINS but from your second album A MOMENT, is one of my favorite Lalah songs and that’s “Do You Suppose”.

LH: Oh, see… that’s a great song, the problem with that record is that not a lot of people got to hear it. That was the sad part about that record. That’s such a good record too.

JF: But you know I specifically wanted to highlight that song from that album because I don’t know… you may not even know this but we recently lost Raymond Jones. Yeah, so you did know. Ok. He was a good buddy and an amazing creative contributor… he did a lot of stuff with Spike Lee as you know, and Jeffrey Osborne, George Duke, of course worked with you… and I just wanted to shout him out because he left quite a legacy.

LH: Absolutely, and Sammy McKinney as well.

JF: Yeah, absolutely.

LH: He was a writer on that record. Yeah, a lot of folks goin’ home like right now and I am happy that I’m associated with such giants… you know, some of the songs that I have been able to record in my career have been such huge songs, you know… it’s a blessing.

JF: Yeah. What are your favorites from the new record? I know every artist says, “they’re all my babies, I can't pick one”.

LH: It's true. It's so true. You know I'm going to tell you this. Generally speaking, I don’t have favorites because it is kind of like saying, “of all your fingers, which is your favorite finger?”.

JF: Some are able to answer that! (laughs)

LH: Yes, it's true, it’s true. But when I turn my record on right now I usually start at track number two and then let it play back around to the beginning. So probably the title track for me, right now, is the one I am leaning toward. Really love that song.

JF: I do too. It has kind of a quasi, ‘70s like, free kind of thing, actually kind of reminiscent of… what's the last track on SELF PORTRAIT?

LH: “Unidentified Divine Object”?

JF: No, no , no.

LH: Oh, oh, “Tragic Inevitability”.

JF: There you go… “Tragic Inevitability… love that.

LH: It's got that vibe, it's got that sort of spacey, Roy Ayers ear candy, it is a fabulous record to listen to in headphones.

JF: And your voice just kind of complements that kind of approach, that kind of musical approach. I love that.

LH: Thank you.

JF: Tell me this. If you weren’t doing what you do, if you weren’t being the musician that you are, the performer that you are, the singer that you are, what would you be doing professionally?

LH: I would like to think that I would be a comedian or a comic actor.

JF: (Laughs)

LH: Why are you laughing?

JF: Well, because those of us who know you, know you have the most outrageous, wackiest sense of humor in the world and we love you for it.

LH: Yeah, yes, I think that would be fun to do.

JF: Stand-up? (laughs) Or like a… some kind of BET sitcom?

LH: No, no. I'm thinking NBC , “30 Rock” type sitcom.

JF: Oh, ok. “Community”, “Parks and Recreation”. Right.

LH: Yeah. Or like on “Saturday Night Live”. You know, that was my dream as a ten year old was to be on “Saturday Night Live”.

JF: Really?

LH: Yeah.

JF: Interesting.

LH: Absolutely.

JF: Before we go, a couple of things I just want to touch on quickly. Tell me about opening for Prince.

LH: Oh, that was the best ever! I did it… it was crazy!

JF: That was what… the end of last year, beginning of this year?

LH: Yeah, the end of last year… I did it three times. And they probably stand out as the best gigs I've ever had.

JF: Now, how did that come about? Because I know he cherry-picked particular people that he wanted to open for him on his last tour, his most recent tour. How did that happen?

LH: He actually came to a show of mine a few years ago and I was told that he sent his guy down to our merch table and he bought like 12 records. And then I played last year and he came by. Shelby, his background singer, brought him by and they called to see if I would open. And of course, of all the gigs you can ever get, opening for Prince has got to be… I mean, I can't think of anybody else living that I would be as excited to provide support for and just go watch work. So it was very exciting, it was nerve racking, it was exhilarating, it was really fun to be back on a big stage in front of a lot of people because you know, that doesn’t really happen to a little, tiny R&B artist as much and as I was out there walking the stage I realized… I remembered, oh, this was my dream when I was 18 years old, 19 years old. You get to a certain place in your life and you say "Ooh, I want to play the Garden, I want to play Carnegie Hall, I want to play all these different places" and then you realize ok, well, that may not happen. I'm not going to be opening for Britney Spears, I'm not on the road with Alicia Keys or Pink or… you know what I mean? But opening for Prince, I got a taste of that in such a huge way that that was part of what re-sparked my love, and really gave me this renaissance, really gave me this rebirth. Like, oh wow! This is something that can absolutely happen… so it was very exciting.

JF: I actually caught his gig, saw one at the Garden here in New York and I saw him at the Forum in LA, and just a master. I mean unrivaled practically.

LH: Absolutely. It was crazy to watch and crazy to hear, it was crazy to be standing in the wings with him while he introduced me to the 16,000 people waiting. What they do is they call you and say make a list of songs that you would be willing to sing with Prince, of his songs. And so, none of the songs on the list was he wanting to do. The first song I chose was “Diamonds And Pearls” ‘cause I thought that would be great but he doesn’t do that song. So the first night I got there we sang "Sometimes It Snows In April", we sang that together which is crazy and after we finished singing he said ok… he just took my hand and we went over to the piano, and he played “Diamonds And Pearls”.

JF: Wow

LH: And the whole time I'm on the stage, I'm just floating like… what?, where am I? is this a dream? It was quite an experience and one I will cherish forever.

JF: Yeah, that’s definitely a lifetime highlight I'm sure.

LH: Absolutely, absolutely.

JF: Talk a little bit about… again before we get out of here… talk a little about the philanthropic organizations and charities you are involved with. I know you do a lot that maybe people don’t know about. I know you just did a benefit show last week in fact... talk a little bit about that stuff. Breast cancer awareness stuff you've been involved in…

LH: I do. I do a lot of stuff… I don’t do enough stuff, I think people don’t do enough stuff I'm looking to do more stuff, but I love to be involved especially where children are involved. I did a benefit in Dallas last week for a school and these kids are the brightest kids that I've ever seen. Just these fabulous kids. Anytime that there is place where they are teaching children that they are artists… you know what I mean? That their life is their art is what I interpret from it. To me, that is the best thing you can do to empower a child. So I’m really interested in a lot of the programs that NARAS offers like “Grammy U” and “Grammy In The Schools”… the sound check program where kids can come out to the shows, to do sound check and have an experience with us, where they watch the sound check and they ask questions, not only about the music but the whole panel. To let them know that there are different ways to get involved in the music industry that don’t necessarily involve being up onstage. So I do that. I also was an ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure. I’m not an ambassador for them anymore but I still do talk to women and men about checking their breasts, and their breast health, because I just don’t think people really like to talk about it. I try to do it in the shows where I have a little minute, where I have a platform to be able to say something that may be of value to someone… yeah, I try to do my part. I need to do more like everybody, but I try to do my part.

JF: Yeah, I think we all feel that way Lalah, but as long as you do something, you know, no matter how big or small it seems… just do something. And we appreciate you for doing something. So you’re out promoting the record. How can folks keep up with you online? I know you’re a Twitter head.

LH: I am.

JF: Are you addicted to Twitter, Lalah?

LH: I’m addicted to most things that are on the computer and I have always been. I had a website set up in ‘98, which was basically Twitter. If I had known that it would be worth a zillion dollar s, I would have tried to figure that piece out. But I've had that website and some of those folks have been with me since 1998. But yeah, I’m on the computer all day, talking to people and finding out what songs they want to hear when I come and see them and I am very, very interactive with the fans. Absolutely.

JF: It's just @LalahHathaway, right?

LH: and @LalahHathaway, you can put my name in and find all my Facebook, and Twitter, and LinkedIn, and Bebo, and iMeem and Friendster and all that stuff.

JF: Wow, Friendster… whoa, throwback. Ok.

LH: Remember Friendster? (laughs)

JF: MySpace?

LH: I'm on MySpace

JF: Are you on Orkut?

LH: Am I what?

JF: Ah, you don’t know about Orkut, huh? Google's initial social media foray.
I hear it's big in Brazil (laughs).

LH: No. Interesting. Some of them are crazy.

JF: You probably know Google just started a new one called Google+.

LH: Yes, and somehow it broadcast my telephone number, my office telephone number. I don’t know how that happened. Is it supposed to be an answer to Facebook?

JF: I'm told it’s kind of like a Twitter/Facebook hybrid. And it seems to be working a little more like Twitter than Facebook. Facebook, as you know, is really for… well, if you’re not a celebrity, it's for friends, family mostly.

LH: Right.

JF: Google+ seems to be more of a promotion type venue. You should look into it. It might be something good for you to take advantage of.

LH: I've got one. I just haven’t really been messing with it. I’ve been sort of adding people and letting people add me but as soon as I get off the road that will be my next thing to put together.

JF: October 18 is the official release date for WHERE IT ALL BEGINS. You’re out now promoting… any tour plans? Tell people where you might be.

LH: Yeah, all my dates are up at, but I'm out right now. I have a day off, a day and a half off, so I'm at my mom's house. I’m going to DC tomorrow to do “College Bound” which is a benefit honoring Camille Cosby. I’m excited about that. And I’ll be on the road through the weekend. I just did “(Jimmy)Fallon” last week. Did you see it?

JF: I was flipping and I caught some of “Fallon”… for the folks listening, “Fallon” is “Jimmy Fallon”, a late night show here in the US. That was cool, you got to sit in with The Roots for the whole show, pretty much.

LH: I did. Yeah, and the whole show was pretty fun. We went over a bunch of songs. You know it’s kind of like, “what do you want to do?”, and I was like, “what can we do?” and it was, “we can sing anything”… so we had a good mix of my stuff from the new record, we did a kind of a samba version of "Heaven Knows" which was interesting and we did "What A Fool Believes", the Michael McDonald song. It was fun.

JF: Was that your first time working with The Roots?

LH: No, I did the Grammy's with them last year out in LA. Yeah, cool cats.

JF: I know you’re in New York I think, the end of this week right?

LH: I am… at the Highline Ballroom. Are you coming?

JF: The Highline. Of course, I will be there, of course. I might even be on stage.

LH: Right on.

JF: Playing piccolo or something.

LH: Then come on wit’ it. Absolutely.

JF: Lalah, thank you so much. Everybody go pick up WHERE IT ALL BEGINS. Like I said, out tomorrow October 18. Go download it… legally, of course. Go to your local mom and pop. Is it on vinyl Lalah? Can anybody get vinyl?

LH: No. I’m trying to get it on vinyl. DJ Quick told me I should have it on vinyl but it’s really a fight doing anything that costs anything, these days.

JF: Yeah, I know. But like I said, go pick it up, WHERE IT ALL BEGINS. Lalah, thank you so much.

LH: Thank you. Good talking to you.

JF: Likewise. Look forward to seeing you later this week in New York City. Again everybody, for, Jeff Forman here. And go pick up that WHERE IT ALL BEGINS, like asap. Thanks Lalah. Talk later. Bye, bye.

LH: Thank you. Bye.

About the Writer
Jeff Forman, a music industry vet, heads Mylestone, his artist advocacy firm in New York City.
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