Most artists would rather live in the song, inviting the listener in to interpret and take what they want from the sonic palette they’ve created. Hopefully, a connection is made with the musical invitation and a journey begins.
That’s exactly where the artist H.E.R. stands. The 23-year old multi-instrumentalist would rather grab the listeners’ ears with a well-crafted lyric sung in her expressive vocal style while sitting at the piano, followed by grabbing a guitar mid-song and ripping a commanding solo that bleeds emotion and burns fire from her fingertips.
For those who need to know the facts though, she was born Gabriella Wilson in Vallejo, California to a musical family. Her father, a weekend warrior musician, performed in a band for fun. She began absorbing the sounds of her father’s band practicing in their living room at a young age, and by the age of three she was playing piano. At six years old, she was playing on stage with her father’s band. Guitar, bass and drums soon followed.
At the age of 10, she landed a performance slot on the Today Show, where she wowed them with a head-turning performance of “If I Ain’t Got You” by her idol Alicia Keys. Her confidence level, poise and maturity outshined everyone in the room, which shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who’s been around determined young musicians. When they’re zoned into the moment, let them go. It may not be an original song, but watching Gabriella’s grasp of syncopation, phrasing, vocal control and showmanship, it’s clear it’s all there. She showed up to do business.
Business followed when she was signed by RCA at 14 years old. She adopted the stage name H.E.R. (‘Having Everything Revealed’), a clever and appropriate moniker which takes her backstory out of the equation. If you want to know me, she’s saying, listen to the music.
With multiple Grammy nominations, two Grammy wins, three #1 R&B chart-toppers (“Best Part,” “Focus,” and “Slow Down”) and a flurry of socially conscious singles released amidst the weirdness that is 2020, H.E.R. has hit a groove and there’s no slowing down.
Tell us about growing up and playing music.
My dad is a musician and he did it for fun. He didn’t really do it professionally. His band performed on the weekends and I used to go watch them. They had all the instruments in the house because the band would rehearse in our living room. When I was six, I started performing Alicia Keys songs with him on stage. Music was kind of around me all the time, it was a given from the time I could talk. I love to sing. And I’m half Filipino and Filipinos love to do karaoke. Karaoke was my way of singing all the time. My mom put me in all the talent shows and I loved it.
There’s been a lot of beautiful things that have happened because of music. My parents got many calls when I was ten or eleven. We went to Los Angeles and I met Jeff Robinson, Alicia Keys manager. Everything aligned perfectly and I’m here.
What music did you listen to growing up?
I was listening to everything from Ozzy Osbourne to Donny Hathaway to Wu Tang Clan to Aerosmith. It was very much a mix of music in my house. There were specific moments, like when I was getting into ‘90s R&B in middle school because my uncle was playing that kind of music. Or Barry Manilow, because my grandparents lived with my family. My dad would be cooking breakfast on the weekends and there would be Prince concert DVD’s playing, or B.B. King, James Brown, Michael Jackson. It was a huge mix. I couldn’t tell you that it was one thing. It’s been a huge melting pot. But soul music is definitely the heart of everything.
I’m sure you must have brought your father some of your own musical tastes.
Definitely! I’m a huge Alicia Keys fan and have been since I was young. When she had braids, I had braids. When she wore a hat, I wore a hat. I really looked up to her because there weren’t many black female musicians then, especially in the mainstream. She inspired me to play the keys and sing.
I picked up a guitar when I was seven years old and learned a blues pentatonic scale. I remember being nine in the grocery store with my mom and “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste Of Honey came on and she was like ‘you should learn this!’ I told her it was a bass-driven song! She took me to Guitar Center that night and bought me a bass and I learned to play. My parents have been huge supporters of my music goals.
Did you have a music teacher? Some of your songs feature involved chord structures.
No, I learned everything by ear and by watching the greats. And watching my dad.
What was the first instrument you played?
There are pictures of me playing the piano when I was three so it would have to be piano. And then I picked up the guitar when I was seven.
I play everything pretty equally. It’s funny, on my first tour I mostly played piano and realized I love to play guitar live too. Then a year or two later, when everything started to grow for me, I was playing guitar more on stage. I play piano equally as much as guitar, but guitar has been a favorite lately. It’s always been the easiest instrument to pick up and be creative and come up with ideas.
It’s slowly changing now, but for the longest time, audiences weren’t used to seeing, and in some cases accepting, a woman pick up a guitar and wail.
It’s been a struggle as a black woman playing guitar. Not so much a struggle but an underestimation. It’s like ‘what is she is going to do with that.’ And then it becomes ‘oh ok. Alright.’ Well, what did you think I was going to do? (laughs)
I just started a live Girls with Guitars group on Instagram to break that kind of reaction. There’s been so many dope girls who play guitar.
Tell us more about this group.
It’s been a cool platform I set up for upcoming artists. I’ve had some legends on it too- Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, Priscilla Renae. And some up and coming artists and people like Tori Kelly and Alessia Cara. It became a jam session for me when quarantine hit. I wanted to connect with other musicians and do something cool. People were loving it. I realized there are a lot of us out there. It’s really to inspire and represent.
What was the first song you wrote and then what was the first good one?
I started writing poetry first. I remember my mom had a group of poems I wrote when I was five gathered together and published a poetry book for me.
My mom used to write down titles and random thoughts and have me write to that idea. And I did. When I was six, I wrote a song called “Keep On” because that was one of her titles. It went like (sings) ‘keep on going/don’t give up/do what you believe.’ So that was a pretty good one!
I’ve always understood song structure. I’ve loved coming up with chord progressions and being creative. It’s always come naturally to me.
What is your writing process? Is there a dedicated time or is it when inspiration hits?
Lately it seems like the best songs come when I’m in the car. If someone sends me a beat or I’m listening to something and then I come up with a melody and have to pause it. My writing process is all over the place. Songs can take five hours to write or they can take three days. I like to come back to it because I like to make adjustments. And I’m a perfectionist.
I love to write stories and be very descriptive without revealing too much, if that makes sense. It makes it universal. I noticed that about Volume One. The situations were very specific. But I’m very good at not telling my business but telling my business at the same time, if you know what I mean (laughs). People related to it no matter what situation they were in because it is universal. I like to tell stories and get to the core of it with asking those honest, raw questions that we’re afraid to ask ourselves and we’re afraid to say.
Do you have a home studio?
I’ve created a vibe in my home studio, which I love. The ambience is important. I like to bounce off the walls with the guitar. There’s a beautiful mural on the wall with a guitar that turns into a tree and there’s Grammys hanging from it and some of my favorite things. Ideally, I like dim lights, candles and good people!
How do you decide which instrument to focus on for a new song?
It depends on the vibe. I’m a producer too so I might start off with the kick and snare on the drums, or have strings on the intro, or an acoustic. I love getting into the mood of the song. I love to make my guitar sing with me.
Do you find yourself changing parts?
Of course! It’s never seamless. It’s all over the place! That’s the beautiful thing about music. The possibilities are endless. I recently had the pleasure of listening to Prince’s demo of “When Doves Cry.” He had it all produced out, with these synths and different parts. And he decided that less is more and pulled a lot of it out of the mix. So, you have to go all the way to know what it really needs to be.
You’ve been pretty prolific lately, releasing songs online. I imagine you’re itching to play them live and have the audience feedback.
Oh absolutely. I miss performing live so much. I’ve just been uncovering a lot of different sides of me lately. Volume One was just the beginning, a moment in time. A peek into who I am and who I was at that time. With I Used To Know Her it’s a little different side. And you’re going to see more sides. I’m about to drop a reggae EP. I just love music. It’s never going to be one thing or one project or one sound or instrument.
You recently did a FaceTime with Elton John. Tell us about that.
I couldn’t believe it! I knew it was coming but it didn’t register in my head. Then when he called me, I said ‘oh my gosh! Elton John is speaking to me right now.’ Anyone can call and tell you you’re special and like what you’re doing. What made it so special is Elton really knew about my artistry. He said, ‘I can tell you listen to the blues.’ Nobody else would notice that except another musician who pays attention. I thought that was really cool. As a songwriter and musician, I look up to him so much.
You also had two songs on the Obama summer playlist. You must be stoked. How does that feel?
It’s pretty crazy. I can stop doing music now and I’d be happy. I made it! I think it’s cool that he’s a fan. They’re both joyful upbeat songs with a positive message so that’s perfect.
And you’ve already won a couple Grammys too. Were you flabbergasted?
For years I would lie in bed late at night, reciting my perfect Grammy speech. And then when I went up there, I forgot all of it!