H.E.R. Music Interview


Can a singer find success without a celebrity-making machine churning beneath them? The goal for a new artist is typically to get her face and name everywhere: press, social media, videos, endorsements. That’s why it was so striking when an anonymous R&B singer-songwriter going by H.E.R. (Having Everything Revealed) mysteriously debuted in 2016 with minimal promotion and no details about the person behind the soulful voice. Her Volume 1 and Volume 2 EP covers are adorned with just a silhouette. Music videos show only a profile or an artfully obscured face. She always wears oversized sunglasses when performing live or being captured on camera.

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As she gained popularity, with songs like “Focus,” “Best Part,” and her cover of Drake’s “Jungle” steadily climbing Billboard charts, promotion from the likes of Alicia Keys and Rihanna, and touring for a year straight, fans eventually uncovered her identity: 21-year old Gabi Wilson, who made waves even as a kid with live performances on The View and The Today Show.

Wilson explained that the point of creating H.E.R. was to not distract from her message. “I think it has allowed me to make the music the focus, and for people not to care about the superficial things or who I’m associated with, what clique I belong to—all those things that don’t matter,” she told ELLE.com. “It’s really made people focus on the music, and that’s what’s special about it.”

In person, the singer wears her usual big sunglasses and never removes them. The shades are extremely reflective, so when you try to look directly in her eyes, you see yourself. It’s fitting—her songs about being in and out of love make you feel like you’re listening to your own diary. Her insightful and vulnerable tracks often drew comparisons to Lauryn Hill, and her latest EP, I Used to Know H.E.R., released in July, only solidified that with “Lost Souls”: a clear homage to Hill’s “Lost Ones,” rapping and all.

The more we spoke, the more evident it was that H.E.R. is more than a rising star. With a tour starting in November and first full-length album in the works, she’s a damn galaxy. ELLE.com sat down with the artist to talk about the pressures of Instagram, how she started writing songs at nine(!), and being a Cancer who delves into the “deepest, darkest places” for her music.

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What was your inspiration for the I Used to Know H.E.R. EP?

A lot of the songs have just come from this place of wanting to elevate, bring out more musicality, and do things more freely. I Used to Know H.E.R. is my perspective in life up to this point: All the things I’ve experienced, all my stories, those things that really have built who I am. The title comes from how people who knew me in high school, who would push me aside or maybe disregard me and consider me a nobody, are now like: I used to know her. They say that a lot.

So many of your fans get Lauryn Hill vibes from “Lost Souls,” in particular—was she a big inspiration to you?

Huge inspiration. Lauryn is incredible. I mean, that album [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] is timeless: the musicality of the album, everything about Lauryn and how fearless and honest she was in her writing. I feel like she has given me that fearlessness and made it okay for me to be honest in my records and really empower women. It’s a beautiful thing.

What are your favorite Lauryn songs?

My dad used to play [Miseducation] a lot when I was little because it came out in 1998. I was born in ’97, so I grew up listening to it in the house. I used to fall asleep to it, when I was nine years old. That’s when I started writing real songs. But I don’t really have a favorite—”Sweetest Thing” is definitely one of them. And “Just Like Water” from her MTV Unplugged concert.

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“I’ve become a voice for young women who are growing up and uncomfortable being vulnerable, uncomfortable with changes, heartbreak—and becoming jaded.”

“Lost Souls” is a really poignant meditation on superficiality—and you’re rapping in it. Where did the idea come from?

This song is definitely my opportunity to say exactly what I’m feeling and what I’m passionate about. I really love spoken word. That’s my background. The song talks about all these people who are lost, trying to lead other people. Like the lyrics say: “Confusing self-consciousness with self-confidence.”

People do things on Instagram and put on a front and try to live a life that they may not really want to live, or don’t truly believe in. And that’s the life that they portray. That’s not the real them. We all have to be more aware of what is that’s really happening inside. Are we really standing for what we believe in?

Your music seems to be geared toward women—seeing them, hearing them. How did you land on that theme?

In the beginning, it was selfish—me releasing everything and being so honest. And then it turns out that all these women are like, “Wow, I feel this like she’s speaking my life.” My diary is also a lot of other people’s diaries. Just in different ways, different extremes. And it became a beautiful thing. It started to make me realize I can be a voice.

I’ve become a voice for young women who are growing up and uncomfortable being vulnerable, uncomfortable with changes, heartbreak—and becoming jaded. It’s about acknowledging it and empowering yourself, and empowering other women, sharing those stories, and making people feel like they’re not alone.

You have such a deep, seasoned understanding of the dynamics of relationships—which is amazing considering you’re writing these songs at 18, 19, or 20 years old. Where does that understanding come from?

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Since I was little, people have always told me, “You have an old soul.” Like I’ve been in this life before. I guess I’m like a sponge. I’ve sat and observed so many people, and so many situations. I look at my mother, I look at my aunts, I look at everybody around me—I’ve taken in and built my own perspective. I’ve been trying to focus on listening to my intuition and really trusting my gut and facing the truth. I think as women, sometimes we lie to ourselves when something is bad or something doesn’t feel right. We still go for it, hoping that it’s gonna be something more. Sometimes you have to face the facts.

Where do your song ideas come from?

My music is my diary. Sometimes it’s an exaggerated version of what I might have felt, and that’s fine. I feel everything so deeply. I’m a Cancer, so I’m very emotional. It’s all things I think about: All of these thoughts I pull from the deepest, darkest places, and I guess that’s why people love it so much—because it’s things that we’re afraid to say.

Do you feel like having more of an “anonymous” persona has protected you from the pressures young women in music face?

I guess so. There’s really no way to fully protect yourself; I’m always gonna feel pressure. I try to always stay focused, and stay true to myself, because as a woman, it’s easy to look at other women and feel like, Maybe I should be doing this. In the age of social media, you look at other women who get attention, or compliments, and we start to question ourselves.

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I think the pressure is not just on me as an artist. I think it’s on everybody. It can be amplified sometimes, with me being under a spotlight. But I just choose to stay true to myself and go against the grain. At the end of the day, I feel like I have a responsibility to encourage younger women to be themselves, and to be fearless, and to think: You don’t have to be a certain way to be okay with yourself. You don’t have to look a certain way. Talk a certain way. You can be conservative if you want to. You can reveal yourself if you want to.

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jimmie armentrout

What is your songwriting process?

I love to talk about feelings, and my experiences. When I collaborate with people, I love to talk. I just talk, and sometimes the song just writes itself because the song is in the conversation. It’s the things that we really want say. Maybe I’m in my room and I’m writing down my thoughts and feelings, and I just go there. Sometimes I deal with something, and I can’t write about it in the moment because I’m feeling it, and I have to wait until it passes. It really just depends. I’ll sit at the piano sometimes, and chords will just come. I just sing, it’s like a freestyle almost. “Losing” from Volume 1, for example. I came up with the chords then I came up with the hook. I went to bed and I was writing the verses like a poem, “Your ambition is attractive, my aggression isn’t passive…” Then I added the melody.

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Who do you want to collaborate with?

There’s so many people that are dope. I really want to work with a legend like Stevie Wonder one day. I think that would be amazing. But I also wanna work with Miguel and J. Cole—he is one of my favorite people.

What are you afraid of?

I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself sometimes. Sometimes the outside pressure doesn’t affect me as much as internal pressure. I’m afraid that sometimes I second-guess myself. I just have to let go, and be free sometimes. I guess right now, my focus is being fearless.



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