Despite having a résumé that would make plenty of artists green with envy, Lalah Hathaway has spent the past two decades hiding in plain sight. The Chicago native, Los Angeles transplant and daughter of late soul pioneer Donny Hathaway has collaborated with everyone from Robert Glasper, Charlie Wilson and Kirk Franklin to Pharrell and Kendrick Lamar, and has five Grammys under her belt. But she says she's still best-known simply for her famous last name — even if not everyone can place where they know it from.
“It’s a weird conundrum," she says. "I’ll meet people and they’ll say I have a famous last name and I’ll end up telling people that my dad was Donny Hathaway. They’ll say they don’t know who that is and I’ll tell them that they do. They just don’t know that they do. As soon as I sing ‘The Closer I Get to You’ or the theme from Maude or ‘Where Is the Love,’ it’ll come to them."
Hathaway describes herself as "the most famous non-famous person you’ve ever known" and adds jokingly, “I’m probably the best-kept secret of all time. I would like for that shit to end right now.”
But rather than chase trends, Hathaway continues to seek recognition on her own terms. Her newest project, simply titled Honestly, is her first studio album since 2011's Where It All Begins and a follow-up to 2015's Lalah Hathaway Live, which won a Grammy earlier this year for Best R&B Album.
“It’s the same motives; it’s the same agenda,” she says of Honestly, which came out last week. “The songs are a little more [connected to] what’s happening in the world." She describes it as thematically similar to A Moment, her 1994 album. "The reason I called it A Moment is because I knew that it just represented that moment in time. So, Honestly represents this moment in time.”
On Honestly's title track, Hathaway's lyrics work both as a document of a relationship on the rocks and as sociopolitical commentary on our troubled nation: “You used to be my heartbeat/Your love was made for me/I could not live without you/You were my destiny/Now that my eyes are open/See how the tables turn/And now I'm not so sure/Call this a lesson learned.” The song's music video makes the political overtones more overt, using children to embody hot-button issues including Ferguson, Standing Rock and Colin Kaepernick.
“The whole visual perspective of it is through a child’s eyes,” Hathaway says. “Seeing the world as it was and what it is and how we perceive it. Because perception is reality. A lot of the themes I’m talking about on first listen feel like love songs or unrequited love songs, as everything relates to love in some ways. The undertone is a commentary on where we are in this society right now.”
Hathaway sees it as her responsibility — and the responsibility of all artists — to tell the truth and speak up. "It’s important, particularly now because of the shit show that is the United States," she says. "We don’t have the luxury of being complacent or nonchalant at this moment.”
Despite the maturity and wisdom that ooze from the 48-year-old Hathaway, there’s a youthful feeling to Honestly, from the 8-bit video game–inspired cover art (she’s an avid gamer, according to her publicist) to her collaborators on the project. Besides the album's lone feature — current top-tier Christian rap artist Lecrae — the album is entirely produced by buzzing singer-songwriter-producer Tiffany Gouché. Before the two began working closely on the nine-track project, Hathaway was already a huge fan of the Inglewood native.
“The music for me was so sensual,” Hathaway says of Gouché's own work. “I loved the sonic quality of the tracks. More than anything, I really loved her voice. She has a very beautiful, chocolatey contralto tone, and I am biased toward those tones. It was something that really spoke to me and I felt like, at the very least, I need to sing with this person, 'cause I feel like it’s going to be beautiful. She has a lot of music inside of her and she’s a very talented young woman. I’m very excited to see what’s ahead for her.”
Though her sound is often described as "old-school," it's a point of pride for Hathaway that her music bridges generational gaps. Her recent performance at the annual Taste of Soul festival featured fans of all types and ages.
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“I think it’s a great disservice when we keep it separated,” she says. “When I was 15 or 16 years old, I knew who Shirley Caesar was and Stevie Wonder was; I knew who Elton John was. I knew music because my parents exposed me to music." Of her millennial fans, she says, "They’re genre-agnostic and listen to music they discover and they like. The radio is a different place than it was when I was that age, but there are so many places to get and find music.”
Now that she's touring in support of Honestly, Hathaway is already thinking about a follow-up to her Grammy-winning Lalah Hathaway Live album. “Yes, you should expect another live album,” she says. “Don’t know when. That was so fun and gratifying as an experience. I think it would be great to put out a record for every show or few shows.
"I just love the experience of live music for people," she continues. "It’s just a dying art. I don’t know who is 20 years old that I would go see in 10 years to hear their music live. There are some, but it’s going to be really interesting.”
Lalah Hathaway's Honestly is out now via all major music services.