Lalah Hathaway at Hamer Hall: ‘Nothing sounds like that. Nothing sounds like him’

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Lalah Hathaway at Hamer Hall: ‘Nothing sounds like that. Nothing sounds like him’

Words by Jess Zanoni

Donny Hathaway’s voice has filled up the living rooms, parties and bars of Australian music lovers for the last half a century.

A progenitor of soul, whose influence on contemporary music and performance cannot be overstated, Donny Hathaway never had the chance to tour his music on this side of the world, until the 2022 Melbourne International Jazz festival gave his daughter Lalah Hathaway a call.

“I’m very excited, because I was unsure if I would ever get over there,” Hathaway admits on the phone, while visiting her mother at home in Virginia. “We’ve been doing these Donny Hathaway orchestral dates in parts of Europe, and some in the States. Most of the arrangements are done by my maestro, Vince Mendoza, who’s a very famous conductor, arranger, composer, musician.”

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Widely recognised as one of the greatest living voices of R&B, soul and jazz, five-time Grammy award winning vocalist Lalah Hathaway will arrive in Melbourne this month to treat fans to two, once-in-a-lifetime performances of her father’s music at Hamer Hall with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

The daughter of two singers, Hathaway has carried her father’s music with her throughout her career. Donny Hathaway passed away when she was just 10 years old, but the exceptional resonance of his voice and artistry has always lived on in her own practice. She describes singing his songs as a fully joyful experience.

“I’m not really thinking; ‘what am I giving in this moment?’ I know not to start thinking about it because then I’m in a different space,” she says. “I’m really just showing up for the work.”

Hathaway’s embodiment on stage has often been described as effortless, such is the sublime sense of power, command and profound expression in her live presence. She argues that it is not without effort, rather, it’s an uncanny type of autopilot, one that is so natural it feels “supernatural.”

“It’s an easy show for me because it’s like being the quarterback of a team that is great,” Hathaway shares. “It’s what I’ve been doing all my life and now I’m doing it with songs that I’ve been singing all my life. It’s a really natural, beautiful experience to hear them come to life in this way, fully orchestrated.”

Donny Hathaway released two live albums in his lifetime: Live and In Performance. Both recordings took place at Hollywood and Manhattan nightclubs in the 1970s. The recordings were compiled together in 2004, under the name These Songs For You, Live!  The record is a surreal souvenir of Donny Hathaway’s otherworldly live performance: the incredible colour of his voice, his authentic showmanship, the intuitive nature of his band, and the fervour and belief from his audience. Lalah Hathaway sheds some light on how his songs translate into a formal orchestral setting, in contrast to the sweaty, impassioned Donny Hathaway gigs, that featured her father playing with a group of musicians he knew and loved.

“When I’m standing in front of an orchestra, it’s really just like a big group of musicians,” Hathaway puts simply. “I absolutely approach an orchestra like a huge band. It’s still a group of people with the same objective. We all want to make something beautiful and evocative. It’s just hard to keep from floating away ‘cause it’s always so dreamy,” she laughs.

On top of the successes of her own solo recording career, which began with her first album in 1999, Lalah Hathaway has performed and collaborated with the likes of Prince, Stevie Wonder, Anderson .Paak, Robert Glasper and Jacob Collier. Her performance of the song ‘Something’, with contemporary jazz outfit Snarky Puppy, won her first Grammy in 2013. That performance demonstrates her rare ability to sing polyphonically—a technique that allows her to sing more than one note in unison. Hathaway divulges that singing music that she loves, be it her own, her father’s, or other artists’, feels utterly instinctive.

“Even just trying to figure out how to sing a song, or to interpret a story; all of that is a very natural function for me,” Hathaway professes. “Maybe there are pieces of music I have to learn, but even learning that music as a student, having it inside of me, to then give back out becomes a natural function. If there is a definition for being born to do something, that is what it is for me.”

A homebody at heart, Hathaway confesses to having felt recharged during the pandemic. She enjoyed working with other artists over Zoom, and managed to put together the majority of two records over the last few years. She’s currently on the brink of releasing a brand new single.

“There’s a lot of R&B music emerging here in the States on apps like TikTok, where I’ve found a lot of cool musicians, and I’ve worked with a couple that I’ve found. Phil Beaudreau, Moonchild, and Tank and the Bangers are all friends that have just put records that I really, really love,” she enthuses. “When I’m not listening to classics, I’m definitely checking out what’s new.”

It’s a challenge for Hathaway to piece together a setlist of her father’s music. Varying factors regarding time and atmosphere are a consideration, therefore each performance is its own iteration. What she does know, is that everyone in the room with her at these shows all share the same love that she feels for his music.

“I’m always just showing up as me. Whatever the room is, however everyone is dressed, however everyone is feeling. I really do try to make each place like my living room. I will take off my shoes and try to give you the greatest show and the greatest sound possible.”

Of the songs she feels most connected to in her father’s discography, Hathaway says it’s impossible to say, but her father’s cover of ‘This Christmas’ is one she has a particular fondness for in concert.

“The song was a B-side on his record; it’s a Christmas song. But the arrangement, it’s so visual and cinematic,” she describes. “It’s one of my favourites to play live with the orchestra.”

On the topic of her father’s enormous cultural impact, his legacy, and the special place his music holds in the lives of so many people, Hathaway believes there are two primary things that makes her father’s music so timeless.

“First of all, his sound—there’s nothing like it. He has an unduplicatable footprint. So many people try to imitate it. I think he has fathered hundreds and probably thousands of singers, some of whom don’t even know that that’s who they sound like,” Hathaway says incredulously.

“The second thing is his brutal honesty, with the joy and the pain of his sound. I think that rings true to people. Even on the fast songs, the party songs; you can still eek out both sides of that coin. I think the crucial thing though, is the sound. Nothing sounds like that. Nothing sounds like him.”

Lalah Hathaway will perform with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall on October 21 and 22, as part of Melbourne International Jazz Festival, buy tickets here. 

This article was made in partnership with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.