Love Letter To A Record: Clare Bowditch On Donny Hathaway’s ‘Live’

Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.

In this series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.

Clare Bowditch – Donny Hathaway’s Live

When I was a teenager, back when the internet still took three days to load a single page and there was no Amazon or even Napster, when there were no digital tracks to buy, my older sister Anna took me to a little music shop on Chapel Street, Prahan, to order a CD from far, far away.

The CD she wanted was called Donny Hathaway Live, a work recorded decades before in a small club in Greenwich Village by soul singer Donny Hathaway, who I’d never heard of. Anna first heard it in Amsterdam. We were told it was not available in Australia, it would have to be brought over on a ship from Japan, and would arrive in a month.

It’s difficult still to pin-point exactly what it was about this recording that changed how I thought about albums and live performances and energy, but whatever it was it has influenced me to this day. I think, more than anything, it was the sound of the feeling in the room created by Donny and his players, but also by the extraordinary audience who were right there, loud, with the performers every step of the way. It was the confidence and beauty and broken edges of Donny’s voice, the way he played those keys, his guitarists Phil Upchurch, Mike Howard and Cornell Dupree, and the cradle of his rhythm section: Willie Weeks on bass, Fred White on drums, Eric DeRouen on conga. Together, they took from my very small, very suburban bay-side living room, and transplanted me in a time and place in which I felt I belonged, or one day might belong, once I grew up and found out where Donny Hathaway was playing next. He sounded so alive, I could not even have imagined that by the time I first heard his songs, he was already long gone.

Most of the songs on the album were covers, but I didn’t know that until later. Donny Hathaway Live was, to me, like being at the only Church I’d ever really wanted to attend. Later, this album became a delta that branched off into so much of the covers that I would explore over the coming years. Marvin Gaye’s ‘Little Ghetto Boy’, Carole King’s ‘You Got a Friend’, John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’. The length of the jams, the risks of the solos, the audience singing along in the chorus’ – everything about this sound from this small intimate club lit me up from the inside and made me think, “when I grow up, I want to go find a place like this”.

There is no shortage of terrible cover songs in the world – this is an example of eight exemplary ones. On the recording, with the audience hollering in the background, you hear a master at work: a musician who has taken things he didn’t write, ingested them long and slow, and brought them back out into the world in a completely different context, with a completely different excellence.

Clearly, Donny Hathaway and I looked and sounded nothing alike. We were born in different decades, in different countries. But if you have ever come to my live show, there’s a good chance that the feeling you’re feeling is something that I first dreamt of, first longed to create, the night I heard Donny Hathaway Live for the first time. It is the spirit of that recording, of those nights in which it was recorded, that I have always tried to capture in our live shows. It is the relationship of trust and vulnerability and good hot fun that Donny cultivated with his audiences that I have always tried to cultivate in the room with mine.

Donny Hathaway was an anomaly in his time, and remains so in mine.

Watch the video for Clare Bowditch’s new single ‘Woman’, below. Bowditch will tour this May in support of the release. Head here for dates and details.

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