Lalah Hathaway leads Joni Mitchell tribute concerts at Kennedy Center with NSO Pops

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Lalah Hathaway at Kennedy Center (Part 1)

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is having a resurgence, from receiving the Kennedy Center Honors last December to “Both Sides Now” sung in the reigning Oscar champ “CODA.”

This week, the Kennedy Center salutes Mitchell again with the NSO Pops concert “Love: A Joni Mitchell Songbook” with five-time Grammy winner Lalah Hathaway on May 25 and 26.

“When someone calls you and says, ‘We’re doing a show, it’s a Joni Mitchell show,’ you just say, ‘yes,'” Hathaway told WTOP. “It doesn’t matter who else is on the show, if it’s Vince Mendoza and the work of Joni Mitchell, you don’t even need to know who else is going.”

Hathaway will join Renée Fleming, Jimmie Herrod, Raul Midón and Aoife O’Donovan in an all-star lineup of performers paying tribute to the legendary Mitchell.

“She’s one of the greatest songwriters that we know,” Hathaway said. “Her use of language and metaphor and her creative way that you can visualize all the words. … They all had color and they all had mood, so to know that she was a painter later on made sense to me. She writes about what people think about. She’s an alchemist, just a poetic human being.”

The entire evening will be arranged by six-time Grammy-winning composer Vince Mendoza, who won Grammys arranging “Both Sides Now” and “Woodstock” for Mitchell.

“It is a beautiful thing,” Hathaway said. “I have been doing some dates over the last couple of years with Vince Mendoza doing the work of my father, Donny Hathaway, so just to be in front of the orchestra is so tremendous. The energy from the musicians — it is a beautiful night, and as soon as the harp starts, everyone swoons and it’s going to be beautiful.”

Born in Chicago in 1968, Hathaway is the daughter of soul legend Donny Hathaway (“This Christmas”), who met her mother while they were both at Howard University in D.C.

“Both of my parents were both musicians, both attended Howard and met there, so I’m kind of like an honorary Howard baby in a way,” Hathaway said.

Sadly, her father died in 1979, but she said she’ll always have musical childhood memories.

“I grew up in a very musical house,” Hathaway said. “My felt sense and memories really all have to do with music. The sense memory of learning music, having piano lessons, my mother having voice lessons, music being played in our household, all of that fills my childhood memories and it’s a big part of what shapes and informs me as a musician now.”

In 1990, she released her self-titled debut album, “Lalah Hathaway,” which included the hit single “Heaven Knows,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart.

“Back in those days, you made a demo, which was a demonstration of your talent, then someone heard it and they would sign you to a record label,” Hathaway said. “This might have been on an 8-track! This was absolutely a cassette-tape demo, somebody heard it and I was signed to Virgin Records when I was 18 or 19 by a guy named Jeff Foreman.”

Her second album “A Moment” (1994) featured “Let Me Love You,” while her third album “Outrun the Sky” (2004) had the Luther Vandross cover “Forever, For Always, For Love.”

After two more albums, “Self Portrait” (2008) and “Where It All Begins” (2011), she won her first Grammy in 2013 for Best R&B Performance for “Something” with Snarky Puppy.

“It’s something as a musician that you dream about all your life,” Hathaway said. “It’s the ultimate nod from your peers and colleagues. … It was such a crazy happenstance that the song that I recorded when I was 17, then re-recorded in a totally different way. That song has legs! It was written for Brenda Russell by Brenda herself and David Foster in the ’80s.”

She won a second Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Jesus Children” (2014), a tribute to the victims of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“I do a lot of work with Robert Glasper, we did a show prior to that record that was a full Stevie Wonder show,’ Hathaway said. “When Sandy Hook happened, it was something that Robert felt really strongly about recording and dedicating the work to their families. We’re proud of that recording and having Malcolm-Jamal Warner do the spoken word piece.”

Her third and fourth Grammys came for the album “Lalah Hathway Live” (2015) and its acclaimed single “Little Ghetto Boy,” a collaboration with rap legend Snoop Dogg.

“Snoop is an old friend, we’ve been working together off and on for over 20 or 25 years,” Hathaway said. “To win a Grammy for a record that’s (a) my father’s record, and (b) a record that I recorded on my live album because he had recorded it on his live album is another full circle moment. I’m thankful to represent my family and family name.”

Her fifth Grammy came for the album “Angel” (2016), but awards alone can’t tell the story of Hathaway, who has proven a knack for collaborations with the best artists today from Common to Esperanza Spalding to Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

“Another record I’m really proud of,” Hathaway said. “Such a seminal record in his career. His new album just came out, which I’m eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I’m excited about [‘Butterfly’]. It featured so many musicians, so that was a blast.”

On the silver screen, she recorded “Surrender” with Pharrell for the “Hidden Figures” soundtrack (2016) and played herself in the hilarious comedy flick “Girls Trip” (2017).

“It was really, really fun,” Hathaway said. “I’m really a student of comedy, so the chance to be on screen and create music on screen is really exciting to me. It’s definitely something I want to do more of. I’m actually auditioning and working and have parts in stuff. I did some work on ‘Family Reunion’ on Netflix with Loretta Divine and Tia Mowry, which was great.”

If you’ve been waiting for new music since her most recent album “Honestly” (2017), you can check out her brand new single “Canvas,” which was released in March 2022.

“I’ve been working with a guy called Juan Ariza,” Hathaway said. “We have a whole bunch of stuff coming out, I have a single hopefully coming out in the next few weeks. A lot of COVID time, a lot of time to sit and think about what the industry looks like and what you want to present, so I have loads and loads of stuff coming over the next couple of years.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Lalah Hathaway at Kennedy Center (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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