Singapore musician Weish speaks to Grammy Award-winning artist Lalah Hathaway ahead of Sing Jazz 2018
"I'm most thrilled about Lalah Hathaway," gushed Chew Wei Shan. Known by her musician moniker, Weish, the Singaporean first responded to our request for a quote on the artist she's stoked about seeing at Sing Jazz 2018. "I first heard her in Snarky Puppy's Family Dinner sessions, and have been in love with her ever since," the fellow Sing Jazz recruit continued. "Something about her tone, melodic choices and expression make her voice so magical."
We put two and two together, and connected Weish on a phone call with Hathaway, who was in her home in Los Angeles. Any Singapore musician worth his or her salt would be familiar with both Weish and Hathaway, who we each consider to be the musician's musician. Daughter of soul icon Donny Hathaway, the Chicago-born five-time Grammy winner's career dates back to 1989 with the release of her first song, 'Inside the Beat'. Her eighth album, Honestly, was released last November, featuring a title track video that referenced recent pivotal events in America — from the murders in Charlottesville to the Black Lives Matter movement. In person, Hathaway's performances are a joy to watch, something which Weish herself admires about the artist.
This Singapore daughter isn't so bad herself. If you've seen her live, you'd have been immediately taken to her multi-layered performances, which combine singing, vocal percussion, and her signature live looping. One half of electronic duo .gif and a member of progressive rock outfit sub:shaman, Weish has also composed a soundtrack for Sandi Tan's Sundance-winning documentary, Shirkers, which will premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival in June. No stranger to the festival scene, Weish's gig at Sing Jazz comes after performances in Baybeats, Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix as well as BIGSOUND festival in Brisbane and Singapore: Inside Out in London.
Performing on Sing Jazz's Main Stage on 6 and 7 April respectively, Weish and Hathaway talked about the importance of music education and stripping things back, as well as their shared love for ramen.
Weish: Hi Lalah! You're fresh off The Honestly Tour. How has the entire journey been? Lalah Hathaway: I met a lot of people at the beginning of their career making music and that was great. We just had a ball. It's always fun for me to be on the road. That's my favourite part of what I do — being able to travel, meet people and take the music to people live.
I'm very inspired by your collective, The Real Music Rebels, with legendary musicians I've long admired such as Robert Glasper, Thundercat and so on. What's it like being in such a community? Do you guys hang out and jam all the time? It's interesting. You sort of have to find your tribe and everybody's so busy. We don't have a whole lot of time which is why when we were doing festivals or cruises, we get to hang out for two or four days. On certain weeks when we do gigs, those are most fun. I just did the Blue Note cruise and it was with Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and Ambrose Akinmusire — so many people I get to see and have dinner with so we get to hang out for a few days at a time.
So much good vibes. Being a strong advocate of quality musicianship, has it ever frustrated you at all to witness the success of mediocre music? All the time. You can't knock the hustle, so I don't begrudge anyone for their success. It's really more about my standard for myself. Everybody doesn't have that standard and that's okay. I don't know how it is anywhere else in the world but I know in the United States, music is this kind of throw-away thing. When I was a kid, it was a very important thing to have in the house, in each part of your day and family. My grandma had a piano and there was a piano in your church, synagogue or temple. People took piano or violin lessons, and everybody learnt the Suzuki method. If you didn't learn piano, you had a recorder, or instruments in school, and what people don't realise is that it made my generation smarter.
Oh, I fully agree. It made us better in math and science, understand how to socialise, work and play with others, and I think part of that is missing right now. Music has turned into this thing that is not really... (pauses) music was such a tangible thing for me growing up. It was a big deal. To get the Jesus Christ Superstar album, to have it in my room and look at it... that's kind of gone.
That's really sad and strange. I feel the same thing down here on the equator. I've been a school teacher before turning to music full time and I'm particularly drawn to your work with young musicians. You're a staunch advocate for children of colour learning music... Children in general. Particularly for children of colour, where there's so much attached to the music of their tribe and their people. R&B music is a story of our people in this country and I think it's super important. It's going to be way more comprehensive than any history book and it has such influence on kids, so I think it's important to teach kids music for a number of reasons. It's still very much a luxury that less privileged children all over the world find hard to access. It's sad though because those are the kids that really need it the most. So many times people would say, "Music saved my life". That's a huge deal, you know.
Keep fighting the good fight. You've worked with so many of the world's greatest. Were there any particular collaborations that were most memorable? I don't have a "most". I've been a really really lucky girl. Lets see. Kendrick Lamar, Prince, Herbie Hancock, Take 6, Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg... my resume is awesome sauce. I don't even know how I got so lucky, ever. I feel like a student.
Are there any other artists that you'd like to collaborate with? The beautiful thing about music is that you could do it everyday till you die 17 times and there'll still be more. I'd really love to work with Sting and Timbaland. There are so many artists that I think are so cool and musical that I still have so much to learn from. The thought of music still excites me. It's brand new for me all the time.
I would love to see those collaborations too — my money's on it. Thank you.
"You have to stay in that stripped back place too, because the other stuff is just bullshit. Once you get to the essence of who you are, you are the greatest." - Lalah Hathaway
My friends have gawked at and replayed so many of your live performances and each time you do a vocal render, adlib or scat, it feels entirely fresh and different. You always bring the melodies to all these crazy places that are always surprising. Do you actively decide which notes come next as you go along, or do they just kind of flow out? I don't know where it's happening and I don't know what to say about that. There are times when I'm singing and maybe I'll sit back, and I've had a solo and take a moment and think, "Good grief, where did it come from?" Where in your head does it live before it comes out? It's a split second decision. It's faster than that even. It has to do with your soul, spirit and brain, and actual instrument and facility. Where is it living in your head? How can I sing a song that I haven't heard since I was 13 and still know the guitar solo? I don't even know my home phone number.
You've previously announced, "I know who I am", and I remember you advising artists to learn who they are. What was that process of learning your identity like, or were you always sure-footed in knowing it in your heart? I'm still learning. I have a very clear vision of who I am musically, but even within that, there's so much space and so many places to go. What I tell people is that if they can get on the path towards what feels authentic and real for you, just stay on the path. I try not to overthink it too much. The blessing and the curse is that I can do many different things. People often ask if I am a solo, R&B, jazz, blues or gospel singer. What is it that I do? Really what I am is a musician. I'm always trying to figure out how to make the tone more beautiful, how to get around the changes with more agility, what my instrument can do that nobody else's instrument can do. I just happen to be on my path early and I'm staying on it.
We're so much about labels and genres, and sometimes we forget that we just need to strip it back to the sound and the soul of it. You have to stay in that stripped back place too, because the other stuff is just bullshit. Once you get to the essence of who you are, you are the greatest. There's nothing else like you. There may be other things that look, smell, taste or sing like you but they will never be you, so as soon as you figure out really who you are, you're the greatest of all time. You're in front of the line.
Thanks, that was very much needed. Take heart in that. I take a lot of comfort in knowing that I am the greatest of all time.
There ain't nothing like Lalah Hathaway. Yeah! There's nothing like you either.
Seeing as it'll be your first time in Singapore, do you have a favourite Asian dish or anything wild you like to try while you're here? I don't know if you know this, but I'm a super ramen nut. I'm really into Tonkotsu ramen. I'm a foodie and I cannot wait to get there, eat the food and see the people. My boyfriend is going to be with me. He's from Nebraska and is a really simple eater — he likes meat and potatoes. When I'm on the road, I have to sneak away and eat whatever I want to eat and come back because he's not going to try anything new, so I'm really looking forward to getting there.
What are you looking forward to from Sing Jazz 2018? I'm like a student at all times. I'm just going to be there with my glasses, put on my regular shoes so I can stand up all day, hoop and holler and I look forward to meeting everyone and hearing the music. Again, for me it's so much fun, getting to meet people that are like-minded and just creating music.