Just as Sia hides behind peroxide blonde bangs, H.E.R. didn’t want over-exposure to cloud her actual music. Born Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, the R&B newcomer from San Francisco performs under the stage name H.E.R. (in a twist of irony, the acronym stands for “Having Everything Revealed”) and shields the majority of her face with a pair of oversized sunglasses, framed by her black, curly hair. After releasing her first EP in 2016, touring with Bryson Tiller, and debuting her first full-length project last year, she landed a spot on several notable “Top R&B Artists to Watch” lists.
More recently. H.E.R. embarked on her second solo tour across the country and unveiled a two-part E.P. called I Used to Know Her in October. This past Friday marked another milestone, in which she nabbed five Grammy Award nominations, including one for the oft coveted Album of the Year (a feat even Taylor Swift’s Reputation didn’t get this time around.)
When it came time to unveil her identity at the tail end of 2016, H.E.R. didn’t feel apprehensive because she had already been in the industry long enough for people to truly understand her music. “I knew it was gonna happen organically,” she tells CR. “At that point, I wanted people to know because I knew they loved my music for what it is and felt attached to my story and connected to my lyrics. That’s what makes it really special. It doesn’t bother me at all, whether you notice me or not.”
While it was H.E.R.’s enigmatic introduction that first made headlines, it was her evocative songwriting about adolescent heartbreak and common insecurities, as well as her genre-bending, eclectic sound that made her fans relate to her and stay. Here, CR caught up with the singer about coming clean about her name, her collaboration with Tiller, and what she sees next for her career.
Congratulations on your nominations! What was the moment when you found out?
“My manager woke me up at 8 a.m. and had the whole tour squad come to my room because he said there was an ’emergency’ and we may have to cancel the tour. I didn’t know what was going on. When everyone got to the room, he dropped the news that I had not one nom but five. Tears immediately came down my eyes and I was screaming because I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I’m still on a high. No words can describe the feeling and nothing could top this besides a win.”
What was the inspiration behind your latest EP I Used to Know Her? Why split it into two parts?
“It’s a sneak peak to my album, both parts one and part two. We live in an age where people are constantly dropping music, and I have hard time getting in the studio now because I’m so busy, because I’ve been on tour for like a year and a half straight now. And I really wanted to give something to the people in the meantime, from my album. The goal is to be genre-less, and make music for everybody. It’s not just about love anymore, it’s about my perspective in life thus far. I’m only 21 years old and I’ve experienced so much and I’ve gained this perspective. I’ve traveled everywhere, and have gone through things in my life and this [album] represents that.”
Why did you decide to go by a stage name in the first place?
“It came from a period of time when I was trying to figure out how I wanted to present my music and a period when I was creating songs that were dark and specific to being 15, 16, 17, and 18 years old. Being in high school and experiencing heartbreak and all of those emotional, hormonal things. When you’re becoming a young woman, you learn and make mistakes and I always said I’d never be the girl who falls for this guy, or does this, and I became that girl. I wanted to present my music in the most honest way and I think that was the way to do it. I didn’t want people to see my face and know what I looked like or how old I was or anything like that. I just wanted people to accept the music for what it was and listen to what I had to say, not the superficial stuff that didn’t matter to me.”
Do you think it shielded you from the pressures of the music industry, especially as a female artist?
“Absolutely. There’s a lot of pressure of being a female artist in this industry, but I guess it was the best way. I still feel the pressure. So many artists are doing great things right now and it’s easy to look at them and say ‘Oh I should be doing this.’ At the end of the day, people want authenticity or people who stay true to themselves and that’s more identifiable, more relatable than anything.”
Is there anything you’d like to see change in the industry?
“I’d like to see more diversity–especially behind-the-scenes, the people who are running urban music. There should be people of all colors running the behind-the-scenes stuff, record executives and things like that. I really just want to see more people not be afraid to go against the grain, who don’t chase trends but create them.”
How would you describe your own sound?
“My sound is multiple things. We live in this world now where everything isn’t specific to one genre. Everything is inspired by so many different things and sound choices–it’s just limitless. Right now, Volumes 1 and 2 are that vibe of R&B, with a little bit of trap influence, but still melodic and telling a story. It was very inspired by Drake and Aaliyah and Lauryn [Hill]. When you listen to ‘I Used to Know Her (The Prelude)’, it’s a bit more open and music with a lot more instrument. Part Two is even more musical and you hear organic sounds, more live instruments. I think my sound is not boxed to one thing: it’s R&B at its core but I strive to be genre-less. It’s pure and it’s honest.”
How did your song “Could’ve Been” with Tiller come to be?
“We’d been wanting to work together because we went on tour last year and I actually made the song while I was in Miami. It just felt right. I made the song and then thought ‘Oh theres no one else I want on the song. He’s the perfect person.’ Then he heard it and loved it, so he did his thing.”
Is there one song on the EP in particular that resonates most with you?
“All of them have a special place. There are songs like ‘Lord is Coming’ that really go against the grain. It’s completely different from Volume 1 but is still very me and there’s spoken word on there that talks about issues going on in the world today. I think it makes it very special. People see a different side of me and experience even more of who I am in that song.”
When you say your songs are honest, do you write them after that emotion has passed and you’ve gotten perspective or when you’re in the middle of it?
“Most of the time I’m in it, but sometimes I revisit it. I’m very good at going back to a certain place I’ve been before. It’s very easy for me to do that, but sometimes I have to go through it first because you don’t have the words in that moment. It’s just in your mind, it’s just going, and it’s what you feel in that moment. I can write it in the moment or I can write it after the moment, but I’m always emotional about what I’m writing about.”
What made you want to get into music?
“Music is something I did as a baby. I didn’t even think it was something I wanted to do, I just did it. From the time I was born, my dad’s a musician and did it just for fun. They had a cover band in the Bay Area, and they would rehearse in our living room, so I was surrounded by it from a young age and it took over my life. I was performing at a young age and I eventually got signed to RCA and the rest is history.”
Did your dad influence your music today?
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t be the same person without having that. I used to wake up to Prince videos on TV, and playing Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy and BB King videos. All of that stuff helps me with live shows today and those influences are so obvious in my music. Some people say it gives them that old school vibe, it’s so reminiscent of a lot of things and nostalgic. I really have my father to thank for giving that to me. I was very attached to the pureness of R&B in the lyrics and the emotion.”
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