Words by Kimberly Haddad
PHOTOGRAPHER: Ahmad Barber | @ahmadbarber
STYLIST & FASHION CONTRIBUTOR: Jesse J Guillen @jessjcollections
ART DIRECTION: ABDM | @abdmstudio
MUA: Shenelle Mays-Smith | @shenellemayssmith
HAIR STYLIST: Jodie Rowlands | @sewjodie
VIDEOGRAPHER: Ro | @roemonp
STYLIST ASSISTANT: Lindsey Harr
SPECIAL THANK YOU: Treehouse Studios @treehouse_atl
ENIGMATIC R&B SINGER-SONGWRITER H.E.R. (Having Everything Revealed) is the essence of true beauty—a woman of courage, authenticity and pure sparkling magic. Known as Gabi Wilson, the 21-year-old rising star anonymously debuted in 2016 with her seven-song EP H.E.R. Vol. 1 by RCA records, with minimal production and not a trace of information about the woman behind the soulfully-rich vocals. Quickly earning the likes of renowned artists like Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Janet Jackson and Wyclef Jean, Wilson’s 90s-inspired melodies and fragile, yet ethereal lyrics are the epitome of R&B music at its core. Her captivating follow-up H.E.R. Vo1. 2 was released just nine months later, amassing nearly 700 million streams worldwide across all digital platforms, while standout tracks like “Focus” and “Best Part” climbed Billboard charts. The prolific artist has garnered over 10.5 million views on the three music videos and has made spectacular appearances on The View and Jimmy Kimmel Live. With her latest project, I Used to Know Her: The Prelude released in August and a sold-out tour, she has established herself as one of R&B’s most fascinating new voices. We sat with the artist to talk about her creative process, the pressures of social media and what it takes to be unapologetically H.E.R.
You grew up in the Bay Area and used to perform with your father who is also a musician. What was it like growing up as a teenager and what was your average day like? Did you have any favorite things to indulge in on the weekends?
H.E.R. Honestly, I felt like I didn’t live like a super normal teenager because while I was in regular high school, I was just so anxious to get back to New York to create music. I mean, on the weekends I would definitely hang out with my close friends, but I’ve always been a loner and kind of wanted to do my own thing. I wasn’t really the type to go to football games or parties or anything, I was just anxious to get into the music and travel. Like, I would be sitting in class thinking, ‘Man, I cannot wait to get back into the studio.’ I didn’t really want to be in school at that moment and that was kind of my mentality. Being a teenager was definitely different for me, always has been different.
You were signed by RCA records at the age of 14, but were given time to evolve, both as an artist and a young woman before releasing your music. Can you tell us about this experience and what it was like being in a studio for the first time?
H.E.R. I mean, I was in the studio at 11 years old for the first time and my dad had set up something small in our house. But, I don’t know, it’s kind of been a long time coming. I was super young when I experienced really being in the studio. I had already been around a lot of older musicians and a lot of different artists. Even though I wasn’t the one recording, I was there, learning and waiting for my turn. I really learned from a lot of the people around me. From Brandy to Alicia Keys and Tyrese Gibson, all these people I got to witness first-hand and eventually, when my time came, it was about evolving and trying to figure out who I was. It was just fun for me, all fun. When you’re young you don’t overthink anything, there’s no pressure. It was just like, okay I am doing exactly what I want to be doing right now and then I have to go back to school and then I’d be anxious to get back in the studio. But it was really a blessing.
You released your latest EP: I Used to Know H.E.R: The Prelude, in August, and are currently on tour with Bri Steves. Can you talk to us about how do you plan to expand or explore new territories for future work?
H.E.R. Starting with music, my core, me at my core is definitely R&B, but I love so many different styles of music and I love writing just to instrument, and when you write just to instrument, the possibilities are endless. I really want to make music for everybody. At the end of the day, it’s about kind of like being genre-less. Coming from R&B and coming from soul music and being able to perform like Coldplay and Carlos Santana. It’s so much bigger than what it is right now and it’s going to be so much bigger as far as where I want to be musically. But even outside of music, I am starting a foundation called Bring the Noise, and we’re going to be doing a lot of things, but mostly bringing music programs back in schools. I love acting and that is something I’ve explored in the past, but now I am going to take it more seriously when I actually have the time and am not on the road. There’s just so many great things going on. I have to take it one day at a time. We often unconsciously lie to ourselves and try to protect ourselves from knowing truths that may hurt our egos.
Your music is both vulnerable and authentic. How has writing your music helped you to accept yourself fully and express emotion that may be otherwise difficult to cope with?
H.E.R. It’s interesting because music and writing is just an outlet for me, so unintentionally, I pour my heart out in music because it’s therapeutic for me. It’s kind of been that thing that’s been there for me when nothing else has. I guess becoming a teenager, especially being a loner and keeping to myself, feeling like nobody really understands me and how I feel or where I want to be 10 years from now, it’s like I needed a way to express that. And it was very hard to be all music, as far as what I thought I wanted to release out into the world. There are a lot of songs that I’ve written, that are very personal to me, but at the time, I didn’t want to show the world. But it had to happen in order for me to accept myself even. I have to be completely honest because those are going to be the greatest songs. And it took time for me to realize it. Never sugar coat the truth or try to please people or try to pretty it up. It’s just about the raw, gritty, the real stuff. Songs like “Pigment,” it was like 3:00 a.m. in the studio and this intern was playing me beats. I was just hanging out in the studio in New York all the time because there wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to be. And I wrote to it and showed my big brother, who is also a producer, and I said, ‘Don’t show it to nobody, it’s just something I wrote.’ I tell him everything and we have a good relationship. He said he won’t play it for anybody and ended up playing it for RCA and they were like, this has to be on the project. So, it’s moments like that where a lot of the people around me encourage me to be honest and I had to ultimately, be honest with myself. I had to go there, fully.
Every artist has a story behind a song. Do you have any rituals or habits that get your creative juices going and encourage your music writing process?
H.E.R. It really just depends on the day cause sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not, and I don’t like to force anything. Depending on who I’m working with or if I’m in the studio with a producer or whoever, I just like to talk about life, and sometimes, it just takes time for me to get comfortable with people because I feel like ultimately, you know, I’m telling my stories to them to help me bring it to life. So yeah, I just really like to talk sometimes. I’ll sit at the piano by myself and just start writing my thoughts down. I really just start writing whatever it is I might be feeling at the moment. Sometimes I will sit there and listen to old-school music or what’s out now. It just depends on the day.
In a previous interview you said, “Whether you know who I am or not, you don’t really know who I am.” This is such a powerful quote, especially with how people and influencers present themselves on social media. How do you deal with the pressures of the media while staying true to your music and personal message?
H.E.R. People are always going to try to find negative things and try to pick at something. I don’t know why we do it, but social media is kind of the place where we do it because we can hide behind our user names. For me though, it’s about not looking into other people’s windows or looking at what the next person is doing. It doesn’t matter because everybody has their own paths and I just try to remind myself of the fact that I have stayed so true to myself and remained under wraps and anonymous. It’s like, all I can do is spread my message and make the music I want to create. The minute I start trying to be something that I’m not, or something that I think I should be, is the moment where my music is not going to resonate with people and I won’t make as much of a difference. Ultimately, there’s a little girl out there who feels pressured to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to sing certain kinds of songs, or maybe be too provocative or whatever it may be. And she might just want to be comfortable in sweat pants and a sweater on stage writing a song that comes from her heart. I try to represent that and make people comfortable with whoever it is they might want to be. At the end of the day, everything on social media is a fantasy. It’s not the real stuff and you just have to remember, don’t believe the hype of other people, stay true to who you are at all times and just elevate. Elevate within who you are within yourself.
How do you feel about the Internet in the music business and where do you see the music industry going? Is there something you would change in terms of its direction?
H.E.R. Social media is a good thing and a bad thing, and some people have different opinions on this. Some people say music is in a good place right now and there’s a lot of authentic artists, and there absolutely are, but some people can also say it’s in a bad place because they’re a lot of people famous based on their followers or their looks or whatever it may be. There is always going to be the bad within the good. I think we are in a good place because people now are seeing through a lot of the fantasies and a lot of the illusions that social media has created. We can tell a little more of what’s real and what’s not—a little bit. It’s a great thing though. I keep people updated through my social media, but I don’t know, I guess it’s just good and bad in the way that the world is now, in the way that music is now. What really matters now, is what stays, what’s able to remain when all this stuff, this age of all these challenges and all these trendy things. When that’s over, is your music going to stand? And those are the things that are ultimately, going to tell us and artists, like, where are you? Cause we all have such short attentions spans nowadays, and we want everything right away, you know? And that’s why social media is so easy and the second someone is not putting out music, we are on to the next thing. So, it’s really about consistency and I think people are realizing that. It’s about elevation and some people are going to elevate and some people won’t. It’s about longevity at the end of the day.
What are a few of your favorite books and what are you currently reading?
H.E.R. Oh man, I don’t even have the time to read to be honest with you. I do love to read though. There’s this book I really love called, The Power of Your Subconscious Mindand ultimately, it’s about manifesting the things that you want and planting good seeds and positive thoughts. But there’s so many good books out there. I wish I had more time to read, but when I am reading, I’m thinking about practicing. There’s just so many other things that are therapeutic for me and I wouldn’t call reading one of my favorite things to do, not in this moment in time.
What do you like to do outside of music that contributes to your musicality? Do you have a hobby that you turn to in order to rejuvenate your creativity?
H.E.R. I love to just roam around and explore Brooklyn. I’m not from here, I’m from the Bay Area, but there’s just so much inspiration and authenticity in New York. You walk down the street, and something is happening, whether it’s live music or art or different restaurants or different types of people. It is so diverse and beautiful and extremely inspirational. I just like to wander and ride my bike by the water, under the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s like one of my favorite things to do. I also love to eat. I’m definitely a foodie. Everywhere I go, I am always looking for what’s good to eat.
As a fashion-driven magazine, we are curious, how might you describe your personal style? Do you have any favorite designers right now?
H.E.R. My biggest thing is comfort. I call my fashion tomboy-chic. I mean, me and my stylist who is ultimately, one of my favorite people, we like to make things. We’ll see things and try to duplicate them in our own way. Like Champion, they are always showing me love and giving me a bunch of colorful hoodies, and what we did was cut some of them up and create our own to make it more unique. But yeah, it’s things like that I like to do. And boots, I am such a boot person and a sneaker person.
If you could tell your fans one thing that they don’t already know, what would you tell them?
H.E.R. That’s a great question. One thing that they should know that they don’t already know. Hmm, that’s hard. There are so many things people don’t know about me. I guess that I’m a foodie, that I am proud to be Black and Filipino. A lot of people don’t know that I am Black and Filipino, and my favorite foods are literally soul food and Filipino food.