NEXT: H.E.R. Is The Future Of R&B (And Then Some) In Plain Sight
H.E.R. doesn’t believe in hiding. “If you know who I am, then you know who I am.” These words flow unflinchingly from the mouth of the singer-songwriter whose bewitching vocals remain unassigned to a face. Holed up inside Bowery Ballroom, away from the hundreds outside itching to witness her in person, she stares at herself in a tiny wall mirror in the artist washroom, prepping to be seen.
Her makeup is professionally done today—elegant falsies flutter with each blink, and caramel skin glows beneath subtle blush and Fenty Beauty highlight—but 20-year-old H.E.R. is a DIY gal at heart, opting to be her own hair stylist. She parts the Red Sea of fluffy waves draping past her shoulders with her fingers, then patiently rakes a paddle brush through each section. She takes her time, pulling each inch-sized bundle of strands out to its full length, finger-detangling it before tightly twirling it around the curling wand. As she makes her way from nape to crown creating the voluminous spirals her fans have come to know, the plainness of the makeshift glam room is reflected behind her. The grungy white closet-like space is bare with the exception of one lone blue bar of soap in a stand up shower she absolutely will not use. Right now, she and her mane are a quiet source of vibrancy.
“The point is not hiding,” she continues, clarifying that her professional presentation isn’t indicative of her not wanting to be known or seen. Smart fans know that H.E.R. (or “Having Everything Revealed”) and Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, who signed to RCA Records at 14 years old, are the same person. So much can be confirmed by perusing her online catalogue of ASCAP songwriting credits. And she’s completely fine with that. Identity is beside the point. “The point is about not being so secretive. Listen to the music and accept that for what it is. Don’t worry about who’s singing it. Don’t worry about who’s sending the message.”
As evidenced by her self-titled 2017 debut—H.E.R.’s 21 tracks fuse two prior EPs plus six new songs—these vivid messages span from shutting down friend-zoned suitors (“I Won’t”), two-timing a two-timer (“2”) and falling for empty “Wyd?” texts (“Free”) to entertaining selfish lovers (“U”), being symbolically walled out (“Let Me In”) and simply wanting to be acknowledged (“Focus”). “There was no pressure when creating [H.E.R.] Volume 1 and 2," she says. "All it was, was pure emotion.”
It’s emotion straight from the heart and, sometimes, straight from the bedroom. A poet by origin, H.E.R.’s risqué requests are gift wrapped in cunning couplets and elegant verbiage. “Baby, the sound of you/Better than a harmony/I want you off my mind/And on me,” she fantasizes on “Every Kind of Way.” ”I think presenting [sensuality] in clever ways makes it universal,” the chanteuse explains. “When you say things that people are afraid to say, then that’s when it touches people the most. My approach is really just honesty and clever ways of saying things that we are afraid to say.”
“Pigment,” which feels more like a tumbling of candid thoughts than a song, is delivered in both measured spoken word and moody melodies, splicing her realizations that in relationships, nothing lasts forever:
I'm still lost, holding in all of the anger at the bottom of the ocean
And I thought you'd be my savior
I was distracted, unaware of his behavior
But when I started drowning I didn't know he was the anchor
Her songwriting is so detailed that it’s easy for listeners to feel included in the specific moment that affected her, confronting the very people who made her feel the way she did. “It’s crazy, because someone that I wrote ‘Losing’ about actually heard the song and said, ‘Are these about real life situations?’” H.E.R. rolls her eyes and lets out a laugh. “That’s the thing about being an artist, you just lay it out. I’m not responsible for what you did. I could tell all, it’s your fault.”
H.E.R. stops brushing and glances away from her reflection often to make eye contact while chatting, invested in the present moment. Listening. Responding. These traits are vital to her creative process (aside from lavender scented candles in the studio). “Conversation is my way of writing,” she says. Whether they occur in the studio—an unplanned run-in and vibe session with Daniel Caesar led to their heart-wrenching ballad, “Best Part”—or in various geographic locations, magic comes from honest and authentic encounters.
It’s one of the reasons she fell in love with New York. “I can walk outside the door and there is inspiration right there,” the Brooklyn resident says, before name-dropping her second hideaway. “But Nashville is one of my favorite places because the people there that I’ve gotten to know just take out their guitars and have a conversation, and that’s how I like to write. Just talk.”
The Vallejo, Calif. native was practically destined to be where she is right now. Music embedded itself into her pint-sized body from both sides of the family tree. “Keep On,” the first song she can remember writing, came from a simple writing prompt her mother gave her. “She said, ‘You should write a song about never giving up’—something basic that you would give a little kid—and I wrote this hook,” she explains. “It was seven-year-old-style, but it was still amazing. People were like, ‘woah, she’s gifted,’ because not many people understand song structure, verse, chorus, bridge and hooks.”
Thanks to her Filipino mom, family get-togethers weren’t complete without karaoke (“They love karaoke. I sing a lot of Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey ballads,” H.E.R. says). In addition to honing in on her vocals, baby H.E.R. was picking up instruments and listening to the blues with her musician father, Kenny Wilson, who founded the local Northern California rhythm and blues band, Urban Bushmen. “Guitar! No, was it piano?” she says, trying to recall the instrument she gravitated to first. During H.E.R.'s live stage sets now, audience members are not only treated to silky soft vocals and choir elite riffs, but electric guitar and keyboard breakouts. “It was definitely piano. I would sit on my dad's lap and I would just be playing anything that came to mind.”
By her own admission, H.E.R. was an outspoken child who knew exactly what she wanted, so when it later came to her growing into music, she knew exactly who she wanted to be as an artist: a multi-hyphenate. “I wanted to be Prince because he played all the instruments. I wanted to appeal to pop music, R&B music. I wanted to be genreless because Prince is genreless. He doesn’t do anything specifically for one genre. I wanted to be Lauryn Hill and touch the women and be empowering. Alicia Keys [is] the same way. She was different because she could play classical piano, sing and also appeal to women. That was what I feel like I modeled myself after.”
Because of that razor focus, H.E.R.’s stage presence is a force to be reckoned with. At Bowery, casually clad in a camouflage adidas anorak jacket, black lace-up jeans, gum-soled PUMAs and white rimmed shades, she comes out strutting, fluffing and shaking her flaming mane constantly. Her shape-shifting aura jumps from gospel devout to neo-soul savant to electric guitar-strumming rock star in the span of an hour. When she’s not bound to her instrument of choice—she juggles time seated at the piano, standing at the mic, with her guitar in-hand and drumming away behind the on-stage production tools—she's dancing around the stage, switching her hips, dropping low and scrunching up her face in delight of her own music.
H.E.R. has a few curveballs in her, too. Halfway through the night’s set, she ducks to the back of the stage, leaving surprise guest ASAP Ferg to turn up with the already rowdy crowd with his 2017 gem, “Plain Jane.” Labelmate Ro James and singers Alex Belle and Isis Valentino of St. Beauty, who left from performing with Jhene Aiko that same night, also look on from the crowd.
New York marks the tenth stop on The Lights On Tour, which started up right after a 27-city late summer stint supporting Bryson Tiller and Metro Boomin’s Set It Off Tour. Between breaths, she tells the audience how blessed she feels to be standing there, drowning in applause all for her. “I’m on my first headlining show and I'm receiving so much love,” she says. "As you should!" an enthusiastic woman (one of many that evening) yells back from the front row.
“I mean, there are definitely times where I’m like, oh shoot, I’m tired,” H.E.R. says, reflecting on her back-to-back time on the road, “but I’m so thankful for all of this stuff that I’ve been waiting for such a long time. I'd rather be busy than be bored.”
Before H.E.R.’s reemergence in 2016, Gabi Wilson had long been waiting in the wings at RCA for her turn. When artists enter a hiatus, speculators immediately assume the worst: They were locked into a contract they couldn’t get out of. More important signees took precedence. The talent lost their actual talent. Failed efforts to launch a career, caused the label to deem them shelf dust. H.E.R. insists that was far from her reality.
“People would say, ‘You’re gonna be shelved.’ I was signed for so long but I needed to find myself,” she says. “It’s not like I was waiting for something to happen, I’ve been working for something to happen.” Aside from being told that she’s too young for the subject matter of her music (“Sometimes it’s hard to receive a message from someone below you and a lot younger than you”), the most hurtful thing she’d heard was that she was never going to come out.
“I’m gonna come out when I’m ready,” she continues. “And I was ready. I’ve been with my management company since I was a little girl. They manage a lot of different female artists: Alicia Keys, K. Michelle, Keyshia Cole. Even Tyrese. Growing up under them and watching them, I was always waiting for my turn. Watching them blossom made me feel like I can’t wait until I get mine.”
And right now is the right time, indeed. When H.E.R. shared her LP last year, she was surrounded by brilliant works released by women unafraid to walk in their truths and put unfiltered thoughts on front street. “I feel like the women are being more comfortable with being vulnerable. We still have all these issues with inequality as far as the sexes, but I think that women are speaking out even more so and that has a lot to do with it,” she says. “There was an Alicia [Keys] and Mariah [Carey] and Lauryn [Hill] at one point. I think we’re the new generation of that. We’re in a place where we can say whatever. You have Cardi B, and people that are unafraid to be themselves and there is just so much room for that.”
Being that transparent and open hasn’t always been second nature, but the time spent quietly maturing, free from outside commentary, allowed her to find that comfort and confidence she has grown to love about herself.
“I love that I’ve grown into someone that is okay with being human,” she says proudly after some thought. “I love that I’ve grown into someone that is honest and comfortable with myself. I think when I was younger, even though I was outspoken, I felt like I had to be perfect. I love that I’ve grown into someone who can celebrate my accomplishments and be happy no matter what the outcome may be. A lot of people take this stuff for granted and I've learned to celebrate. I’m in a very good place.”
H.E.R. wants to keep that same energy going forward with her forthcoming project (which admittedly won’t touch our ears for a while), while also exposing us to the other sonics that makes up her DNA. “[For H.E.R.] I wanted to do something that was for R&B music, but I do so many other things,” she says, acknowledging the neo-soul, alternative R&B energy of her last LP. “But I have songs that can be like Calvin Harris. I have songs that I wanna do with Coldplay. I kinda want to be like Rihanna, who’s genreless. I think there are only two genres: good music and bad music.”
Regardless of how she gives it to you—whether it’s shrouded in mystique, nodding to R&B purism or embracing the hybrid sounds of the new school—expect H.E.R. to give good a** music to you straight. No frills, no chaser.
“Identity hidden or not, it doesn’t really matter,” H.E.R. says firmly, stretching her words for emphasis. “I’m about the music and I’m always gonna be about the music. I’m always going to be me. No matter what, through everything, I want the music to still touch people the same. They can expect the same me through and through.”