CMA Awards 2018

Lalah Hathaway Talks Working With Pharrell, Her '25-Year Overnight Success' & New Single 'Don't Give Up'

Deneka Peniston
Lalah Hathaway

The singer has logged five consecutive Grammy wins in four years.

Even when it’s pouring rain, Lalah Hathaway draws a crowd. Such was the case at the Troubadour in West Hollywood during Grammy Week on Friday, Feb. 10, when a packed and damp house was treated to an exhilarating show featuring Hathaway and longtime friends and fellow 2016 Grammy nominees BJ the Chicago Kid and Terrace Martin plus newcomer Tiffany Gouché.

“We’re part of a new tribe that I call #RealMusicRebels,” says Hathaway of a creative collective that also includes Robert Glasper, KING, Thundercat, The Internet and others representing a new wave of music. Adds the singer, “It’s a movement of socially conscious artists pushing the artistic envelope and advocating quality musicianship.”

Two days later, Hathaway was standing on another stage in downtown Los Angeles. This time she was accepting Grammys for best traditional R&B performance (her hit remake of Anita Baker’s “Angel”) and best R&B album (Lalah Hathaway Live). The double-win gave the daughter of soul legend Donny Hathaway her fifth straight R&B Grammy in four years -- a run that began in 2014 when she and Snarky Puppy won best R&B performance for “Something.”

Since then, Hathaway’s profile has been heightened through song collaborations with Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, Gregory Porter and Charlie Wilson (the duet “Made for Love” on Wilson’s just-released album In it to Win It). Her highest profile to date is her “dream come true” pairing with Pharrell Williams on “Surrender” from the Hidden Figures soundtrack.

Currently recording a new EP, Hathaway teamed up with Lecrae for the first single from that project: “Don’t Give Up.”  Notes Hathaway of her Grammy wins and recent career momentum, “I don’t know if there’s been one catalytic tipping point. I’m just trying to march up and up.”

How would you assess your career to this point?

It’s a weird thing to be this 25-year overnight success. When I was in my 20s, I looked around at the girls that were at my station and wondered why it was happening for them and not me. Is it management, the publicist, the records I chose, the record label, the way I look? I was just trying to figure out ways to make it pop. Then I realized within the last 10 years that I wouldn’t trade what I’ve done and am doing. Some people hit right away and then fall off. Some go through peaks and valleys. I’ve been on this steady rise and feel like I’m getting in that door.

What triggered your collaboration with Pharrell?

Working with him has been on my bucket list since 1993-1994, so it was a dream come true. I saw him across the hall at the Grammys last year. He mouthed “I want to work with you” and I mouthed the same thing back. When we finally got together, he said he’d written a song for me and it was for an important movie. During the sessions, we had a lot of the same ideas and worked together quickly. It was fascinating to watch him work as a producer. I’m looking forward to working with him again.

At Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy Gala, Anita Baker told Billboard that she loves your “Angel” and how the song's legacy remains strong after 33 years. Why is "Angel" so special to you?

This is a song that I’ve been singing for as long as it’s been out, initially into a brush or broomstick and then into a mike. It’s a great song that people know from the first note. When I got the opportunity to perform it during Anita’s 2010 BET tribute, I knew I was going to record it. I remember relating to Anita’s voice and imagining what her story was. She’s a beautiful singer who left a classic interpretation of lyrics to follow. But really the song basically sings itself. So it was a super sweet moment to have music that’s fed and built me up to be acknowledged with a Grammy. She came to my show at the Troubadour when I recorded my live album and said you better record all of my songs [laughs].

Is it intimidating to cover classics done by others, including your dad?

No, because I know the love and intent behind my wanting to sing a particular song. My craft and gift are what they are. If you stand in the light that you are, you will never be intimidated. That’s the one thing I learned from Anita: just show up and do you.

What’s the inspiration behind "Don't Give Up"?

“Don’t Give Up” was written by Tiffany Gouché, whose music I heard on Pandora. Her voice is so chocolate. She’s a contralto like me and Anita. So I hit her on Twitter and we began working together. She and I also produced the record. It will be different for my fans to hear a record from me without bass, guitar, piano. It’s not necessarily vibe music but soul music that’s a little more electronically informed. The lyrics are kind of a call and response to what’s happening in the world right now. Everybody is feeling a certain sense of resignation. So the song’s message focuses on one thing: don’t give up the fight; resist.​​