Making 'Something': Learn Lalah Hathaway's special talent

First-time GRAMMY winner details the multiphonic vocal technique she applied to the recording of her Best R&B Performance-winning "Something" with Snarky Puppy
  • Lalah Hathaway at the 56th GRAMMY Awards in 2014
    Photo: Steve Granitz/
    Lalah Hathaway
March 03, 2014 -- 1:10 pm PST
By Lalah Hathaway /

(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. The series' current installments present in-depth insight and details about recordings that won 56th GRAMMY Awards.)

(As told to Roy Trakin)

I was hopeful this year about winning, mostly because of the multiphonic component of what I was able to do, which I don't believe has ever been done in popular music. When Jimmy Jam announced we'd won, my heart actually did stop for one second. It was surreal, pure adrenaline. Every music lesson [I] ever took, all the scales [I] ever learned, the people happy for [me] sitting in that room — [it was] total elation.

The collaboration with Snarky Puppy came about through "Sput," Robert Searight, the drummer for the band, who's also a GRAMMY-winning producer. The band invited me to choose a song I'd either written or recorded before and play it with them in a new arrangement. I flew in, we rehearsed it once or twice and recorded it at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Virginia, in front of a live audience, who were arrayed around the band on the stage like after a family dinner, all wearing headphones. Going seven minutes-plus gave me the room to stretch out and do different things. The hook was that I was able to sing multiple chords at once. On the YouTube video you can see me realizing, in the moment, how to control that process. It took six minutes to get to that point, but it was an incredible, expansive experience. I went to a different place vocally to be able to manipulate those chords. People are still trying to figure out how I'm doing it. And I don't even know. It's just something I've been doing since I was 12–13 years old.

On that particular take, two distinct tones are coming out, and then we change keys and I sing two tones in a different keys. I never really used it before on a record, because I wasn't sure how to control it, and people would probably think it was fake anyway, so I only do it live, and that just happened to be the right venue. The organist, Cory Henry, and I decided before we got to that vamp that he would go wherever he was going and I'd follow him. His playing really encouraged me to come to that space. The great part of the performance is it's a real conversation between musicians. The fact [that] I was able to stretch to that point is a phenomenal gift. And it's amazing we were acknowledged for it. … I think that might've been the second take, but we performed it all the way through, with real musicians, no Auto-Tune, [we left] it as is. We weren't out to make it perfect.

I've asked people on Facebook and Twitter how they [think I] do this vocally, and [haven't] gotten one taker. I've studied the Tuvan throat singers, the Bulgarian Women's Choir and Tibetan monks — these mystical, magical people who are doing some sort of weird harmonics with their vocals. I'm trying to figure out if I can use some of that in what I do.

(At the 56th GRAMMY Awards, Lalah Hathaway and Snarky Puppy won Best R&B Performance for "Something," marking the first GRAMMY win of Hathaway's career. The win also marked the first for Brooklyn, N.Y.-based instrumental fusion band Snarky Puppy. The song is featured on Snarky Puppy's 2013 double-disc album, Family Dinner, Volume One.)

(Roy Trakin, a senior editor for HITS magazine, has written for every rock publication that ever mattered, some that didn't, and got paid by most of them.)

Email Newsletter