Her time has come: Lalah Hathaway

Boston Globe, November 7, 2008

Patience. Perseverance. Acceptance. They’re among the cardinal values of soul music, black America’s soundtrack of struggle and faith and economic striving. And they suffuse not just the latest album, but the whole career of Lalah Hathaway, one of soul’s most elegant and gifted exponents today.

Now nearing 40, the perpetually under-the-radar Hathaway – who headlines the Dimock Center’s annual Steppin’ Out gala tomorrow – earlier this year released her fifth album, “Self Portrait,” a smooth and seamless serving of midtempo, keyboard-rich, adult-oriented rhythm & blues that is inspirational without being narcissistic or schmaltzy. It confirms Hathaway as one of those fine-wine artists, the kind who develop depth when allowed to mature unimpeded.

This didn’t come easy, and not just because Hathaway, who went to Berklee College of Music, chose the road less traveled in an industry that churns out overhyped and objectified female stars before shifting them to the slag heap.

That would be challenge enough, but Hathaway has also had to bear the peculiar burdens and expectations of her parentage. Her father was soul legend Donny Hathaway, an indelible icon of American music and a troubled man who died of an apparent suicide in 1979 – leaving a young daughter blessed with his musical heritage but laden with the trauma of his disappearance.

“My father died when I was 10,” Hathaway says on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I got signed when I was 17 or 18. People at that time could be really crass.

“Sometimes people would be really heavy-handed, asking personal questions. And as a young person I didn’t know how to let them down [easily]. But with time and space comes maturity.”

And with that comes a new kind of openness, a willingness to invoke her father’s memory in several instances on “Self Portrait.” She says the theme for “On Your Own,” a consolation song for love lost (“I know – because I know, you can make it on your own,” she sings) was brought to her by her father in a dream. “Little Girl” is a sketch of childhood memory, a reminiscence of growing up in Chicago, with “Mama in that big ole Lincoln, frying fish good to the bone,” and “Daddy in that big ole sky, ran fast, maybe too fast sometimes…”

Asked what makes “Self Portrait” distinctive, Rahsaan Patterson, Hathaway’s close friend and co-writer (and a fine soul singer himself) points immediately to the family theme.

“It’s one of the most personal efforts that she’s released,” he says. “It gives insight into who she is and where she’s come from, the legacy she was born into and some of its impacts on her life.

“It must be quite interesting to be in the industry and come across a lot of legends who worked with her dad,” Patterson says. “It’s something that she has to deal with emotionally, spiritually – not having him here, but having him through his music.”

But as much as Hathaway has found peace with her story – her mother, by the way, is also a singer and frequently accompanies her on her travels – “Self Portrait” doesn’t wallow in self-scrutiny. Its universal soul themes, grounded in personal experience, are apparent from the song titles: “Let Go,” “Breathe,” “That Was Then,” “Naked Truth,” and so on.

They reflect not just Hathaway’s private meditations but the conversations she enjoys carrying on with her fans, often through the bulletin board on her website. The opposite of a diva, the down-to-earth singer wants to make “relatable” music.

“No matter how you feel,” she says, “there’s always someone who felt that way.”

Tomorrow’s performance – topping a gala bill that includes Amel Larrieux, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, and many more – returns Hathaway to a city that has held special meaning in her heart since her Berklee days. (Here’s betting her set list includes “Boston,” the ode to the Hub on her 2004 album “Outrun the Sky.”)

But for all its underlying nostalgia, Hathaway’s music also represents a healthy new trend: the revival of mainstream soul that’s resolutely positive in lyrics and message. “Whatever it is, it’s not hip-hop,” she says. “No one is just talking or saying their own name.

“We’re making a turn. The industry is constantly changing. It’s a good time.”