Lalah Hathaway wanted crab cakes. So while the Los Angeles-based soul singer was in town recently doing promotional work, we got together for dinner at a friendly, down-home joint in Linthicum.
The artist -- dressed casually in jeans and a clover-green top, dreadlocks framing her inviting smile -- was excited about Self Portrait, her new album in stores this week. The CD, Hathaway's debut on the revamped Stax label, is her most fully realized set to date.
With her alluring amber tone and lyrical sensitivity, the daughter of tragic soul genius Donny Hathaway is one of the most distinctive vocalists of her generation. But her recording output since her hit 1990 self-titled debut has been frustratingly slow -- and uneven. She released 1999's The Song Lives On, an acclaimed duet set with jazz-pop great Joe Sample, but Self Portrait is only her fourth solo disc.
"A lot of it is not being set up in the right place where somebody pays for you to make a record," says the 30-something singer-songwriter. "Records just don't come out by themselves. People say, `Why do you take so much time?' It's not that I decide to take four years off and just lay around. It's about finding the right place to make the right music."
Judging from the laid-back, glowing vibe of Self Portrait, it seems the artist has finally found a sympathetic label, whose current roster includes R&B star Angie Stone and the legendary Isaac Hayes. Although in crafting the album Hathaway worked with several producers, including Rex Rideout, Kenneth Crouch and Paula Gallitano, the artist says she still oversaw the process.
"From the ground up, I was involved in everything -- that means the writing, production, where we recorded, the musicians, the engineers, the artwork, everything," Hathaway says, cutting into her enormous crab cake. "It's the natural progression for any artist or person who has his own business: It's not right unless you get it right."
Self Portrait may be too mellow for some. Like an R&B version of Shirley Horn, Hathaway favors molasses-slow tempos where time is suspended, and the lyrical tale gradually unfolds. There's no rush as the singer's luxuriant voice pours over the ebb-and-flow horns and atmospheric synths. Although none of the songs is immediate, each becomes more ingratiating with repeated spins.
"Some things we listen to after they're done, and we think this could be a couple of beats faster or slower," Hathaway says. "I think it's OK that there's a series of midtempo songs or ballads. When people come to see me, they're not trying to get up and boogie. They're trying to hear a story. The music just reflects the songs."
Lyrically, Hathaway focuses mostly on the ups and downs of love. She swears unwavering devotion on the sensual "For Always" but assures herself that, if romantic love never comes, she can "Let Go" and make it "On Her Own."
My favorite cut is the autobiographical "Little Girl," where Hathaway pensively reflects on growing up in Chicago without her famed father, who committed suicide in 1979. Donny's sampled voice haunts the languid tune.
"You know, I still get folks who come up to me and ask, `What does your father think of your music?'" Hathaway says, laughing. "I guess they don't know." She looks down at her food. "Hard to believe. He's been gone almost 30 years."
There's no doubt that her father would be proud of the thoughtful music Hathaway is making. In some ways, Self Portrait echoes the somber tones of Donny Hathaway, the singer's 1971 masterstroke. The new album also finally delivers on the promise of the artist's debut, released nearly 20 years ago.
"It's a matter of time, feeling able to be more vulnerable," Hathaway says. "I censor myself less now and allow myself to express the feelings I have. It hasn't been easy getting to this place, but I'm here. I think you can finally hear that in the music."