Long before she started calling herself H.E.R., Gabi Wilson was on an almost preordained path to stardom. She sang in her dad’s cover band as a child, and appeared on the Today Show as a 10-year-old prodigy, performing an eerily accomplished cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” before signing a record deal at age 14. Many stylistic shifts later, her first releases as H.E.R. revealed her as a multi-instrumentalist alt-R&B auteur in the tradition of Keys and Prince, with exquisite control of her powerhouse voice. With five Grammy nominations for 2019 and a new album due early this year, H.E.R. is already well on the way to fulfilling her considerable potential at age 22. “I’ve really put in the time and work,” she says. “I’m so happy that everything has been, you know, manifesting.”
What was your journey like from child prodigy to the fully formed artist we heard on the first H.E.R. recordings, in 2016?
It’s one thing to be able to sing well, but another to be an artist and find your own voice within music. And that’s what the goal was for me in my teenage years. I had to find myself. As a young woman, I experienced high school and heartbreak, and the music I started to write was a little bit more poetic, and more inspired by spoken word. The real raw emotional things that sit in the back of our minds, that you were afraid to say? That’s how I started to write my music. And that’s how H.E.R. Volume One came about.
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So you went to regular high school as you were pursuing a musical career? Was it basically like Hannah Montana?
Exactly! Yeah, some people would be like, “When are you gonna be famous?” Or, “Weren’t you on TV? Like, why do you go here?” And some adults would be like, “Your music’s never gonna come out.” I hated a routine life — I wanted to be on tour. I was in class thinking, “I can’t wait to get in the studio.” I really prayed for everything I have now, but I’m thankful I was able to be a regular kid.
You’re a blues fan – what artists do you like?
Albert King. B.B. King. I went to a Buddy Guy concert when I was, like, seven years old. B.B. King, with literally one note on the guitar, does something to everyone in the room — and that’s what I’ve been inspired by as far as playing: feeling instead of technique. Even Donny Hathaway, how emotional his voice is, his tone is very bluesy, very gospel-y. That type of music gives you a feeling you can’t necessarily describe. Music is healing. It’s something you can’t explain, you just feel. And to me, blues does that.
You have a real mix of modern and vintage influences. How did all that come together for you?
When I was a little bitty kid, I was listening to the stuff my parents were listening to. My mom was a huge Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige fan. My dad had a cover band that I sang with, and he loved Parliament, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, the blues, James Brown. As I got older, my uncle played a lot of Nineties R&B – Jodeci, Boyz II Men. He’d pick me up from school, and he was playing Drake, the Weeknd, and Jhené Aiko. A few years later, Bryson Tiller came out, and all those influences went into Volume One. With my music, it’s always me, because I am all these influences, but you never necessarily know what sound you’re going to get.
How’d you get the idea for your transparent Stratocaster?
My stylist and I were talking, because the outfit that I wanted was really sparkly and we didn’t want to cover it up. And we thought, “Oh, instead of making a glitter guitar, why not make it transparent?” It looks so much cooler. And it matches whatever I’m wearing. Playing guitar is part of who I am, since I was a kid. I remember watching a video of Lenny Kravitz and Prince [from the Rave Un2 the Year 2000 concert] when I was a kid. That video changed my life — it made me want to play guitar just because of how rock star it is.t.
On your new song “Anti,” you sing about “scrutiny on a tiny screen,” which whole generations can relate to.
It wasn’t a song for anybody else so much as it was for me. I sometimes have to remind myself not to feed into the pressure of what a female artist should be. People are saying, you know, “Why do you wear baggy clothes? You’re pretty, you should show your face.” I had to remind myself that I’m anti all those things.
On your great single “Slide,” YG raps about wanting a woman “in an apron/Booty all out cookin’ bacon,” which is amusingly contrary to the messages in the rest of your music.
I mean, that wasn’t my message. That was YG’s message! I just put him on the song. I’m not complaining, because I would never say that on a record, but he definitely was just being himself. I asked for YG and I got YG! It’s just a fun song — people hadn’t heard a H.E.R. song like that, where I was just chillin’.
You said your next album is going to be “more musical” – did you mean more chord changes and live instruments, that kind of thing?
Exactly. In general, I definitely want to hear more records with chord changes and more people taking pride in the quality of the sound rather than just taking a loop and putting a beat under it. People like Quincy Jones and even Rodney Jerkins perfected their mixes and made sure each instrument was doing the right thing. They were looking for that feeling, as opposed to looking for that hit.
Your sultrier songs appear on a lot of bedroom playlists. How do you feel about that?
I did a meet-and-greet in France, and a woman came who was pregnant. And she said, “This is your responsibility” [laughs]. I’m like, “Oh, boy, I’m so sorry. But congratulations!” I think it’s cool. Like, you know, I make music for every occasion!
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