The hyper-consumable nature of our decade appears to favour quantity over quality sometimes. The hype vs. talent debacle has wildly spread-out to all creative fields over the past years – but in music – once you subtract all the extraneous contents, strip it down to melody, rhythm, and lyrics – it’s not about who’s done the most or the least. It’s about the quality of the interaction.
The ability a song has to establish a bond between two strangers that might share nothing more than the same musical taste. “Music makes you feel something. No one song is better than the other, it’s about how it makes you feel and what you take from it.”
Gabrielle Wilson, globally known for her artistic name – H.E.R. – comments on the intangible and unique ability that only live instrumentation can produce. This is something she knows well, for music has been part of her D.N.A. for as long as she can remember.
“I don’t even know. I must have been a toddler. Sitting on my desk, banging at the drums… I think the piano was the first instrument I was serious about.” – H.E.R. tries to recall which instrument she learned how to play first.
Fuelled by the unwavering support of her parents, her musical abilities developed since she was little, paving the way for her national T.V. debut by the time she was ten. The live broadcast of her covering Alicia Keys’ ‘No One’ on North American Today’s Show pinged on the radar of M.B.K. Entertainment, the same company that managed Alicia Keys the decade prior. Penning a deal with Sony Music’s R.C.A. aged 14, Gabrielle traded Vallejo (California) for Brooklyn, where she would spend the next five years under development.
Given the personal and autobiographical content of her lyrics, I dare ask if there was a particular lyric or song that was hard to write during her journey. “It was hard to pull that emotion out of myself in the beginning. You can feel it’s there, but expressing, it was hard. That’s why I’m thankful for music. It wasn’t a song, it was a process. To be honest. To be vulnerable.”
H.E.R. plays bass, guitar, drums, piano, but also composes and writes and produces her own songs. Her debut E.P., H.E.R. Volume 1, released in September of 2016, and it was the first time she could share years of musical growth with the rest of the world. From Alicia Keys to Pusha T, the seven-tracker earned celebrity co-signs overnight, but all we knew about H.E.R., was her music and the mysterious female silhouette on the cover of the E.P.
H.E.R., stands for Having Everything Revealed, yet no producer credits were available, no interviews, no images, nada. It wasn’t your usual rollout, and the sheer absence of promo created a lot of noise online. Thinking about it retrospectively, she did reveal everything we needed to know about her. Just not the way we’re used to.
There were hidden clues on the E.P.’s production, such as the sampling of Floetry’s ‘Say Yes’ on ‘Wait for It’, that affirmed that was music done with care, and knowledgeable of the genre’s past… and… would soon to its future. All you had to do was close your eyes, allow for the hypnotic harp opening in ‘Focus’, to let your imagination soar, forgetting the outer world while H.E.R.’s warm vocals navigated you through the project.
H.E.R. Volume 1 became the R&B album of 2016 on iTunes, closely followed by Volume 2, the year after. ‘Best Part’, featuring Toronto’s Daniel Caesar, is the most known and widely spread single, but most of the tracks on both these projects remain on high rotation, three years after its release.
“These songs are based on stuff that I felt when I was younger, but I have women in their 40s, divorcing their husbands, telling me how it really helped them get through” – H.E.R. pauses – “That’s really powerful. The way I presented those situations I thought were so minuscule is touching people on a vast scale. That, to me, is the craziest thing about it.”
Last year, her songs found their way into two very different end of the year lists. From relative anonymity, H.E.R was a finalist in five different categories for the Grammys: Best Album of the year, Best New Artist, Best R&B Performance, Best R&B Song and Best R&B album. ‘Could Have Been’, her single alongside Bryson Tiller, made the final cut of ‘Favourite Songs of 2018’ by former American President Barack Obama.
“Being nominated for five Grammys, it’s like, wow. Its really about me not trying to be anyone else but me. What’s personal to you is the most relatable, depending on how you present it, but the universal message – being her, everybody is her.”
Released late last year, I Used to Know H.E.R.: the prelude and I Used to Know H.E.R.: pt 2 announce a new period in her personal life and artistic career. A young woman that’s unafraid of taking a stance at the world, openly speaking about our contemporary society at large. Being of particular relevance considering the political and cultural upheaval we’ve been navigating through for the past two years.
Having just wrapped her second headlining tour at the same time all this was happening in the now, H.E.R. praised her team who’s been with her since day one, and how much their trust and honesty helps her to keep grounded.
“Realising where I came from, the struggles of creating this music, the frustration of getting this music out, figuring out who I was… It’s easy to believe your own hype and to get lost. You need people around you that are going to tell you when you’re bugging out “– she proceeds – “I always surround myself with those people who are going to be 100% honest with me and be very blunt about it all the time. I look at those people.”
She’s also going to give back to the community this year. Her ‘Bring the Noise Foundation’ will seek to bring music programming back to public schools in Northern America so that younger generations may keep on learning. “Art is a form of expression, and everybody needs an outlet. I want to be able to provide music as an option.” – she pauses – “I want instruments to be cool again. There could be a new Quincy Jones or a Prince, there could be a new Miles Davis, and they don’t have the tools to explore that.”
Aside from her busy schedule, Grammy appearance, Coachella performance and a Europe tour with Childish Gambino, as we bid our farewells, she leaves you a message. “We’ll see what surprises I might have. [this year] is about elevation. You can count on good vibes, more honest music, and more collabs this year. I’m going to release an album for sure, but I’m just going with it, enjoying the ride.”
This article was originally written for Volume #29.