When the 21-year-old musician H.E.R. talks about her upbringing, things usually travel to her mixed background and childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area — specifically, the city of Vallejo.
H.E.R., whose real name is Gabi Wilson, grew up in the Bay during a time when the area was truly diverse, and residents were exposed to all kinds of lifestyles. She’s half Filipino, half black, and is that rare kind of mixed folk who identifies strongly with both sides, rather than choosing one over the other — or neither. Her home as a kid was distinctly Filipino, she says. You’d walk in and just know: shoes came off at the door, food was cooking on the stove and her grandparents, who lived with her at the time, were fixtures at the house.
But H.E.R. says when the black side of her family came through, you’d also know it, too.
“It’s a whole other thing,” she says, sitting on the end of a couch in Midtown Manhattan. “My dad would throw down with the soul food when we had our black side over. Black culture, to me, is so important and I identify with young black women. I represent young black women, and I’m proud of that.”
Music was a constant in her household as a child. Maybe that explains her prowess and natural talent when it comes to creating tracks. Songs from her combination album “Volume 1” and “Volume 2,” which was released two years ago, are still on the Billboard Top 100 list. She writes her own songs, collaborates with other musicians like Daniel Caesar frequently, and plays five instruments — the guitar being her go-to. Part of that stems from her obsession with Prince, who she says is her favorite artist, and contributed to the foundation of her musical identity, along with Lauryn Hill.
Her father, who’s also a musician, first introduced her to Prince’s music because he listened to “Purple Rain” constantly. When H.E.R. was a child, she’d wake up in the morning to her dad making breakfast in the kitchen and blasting the late musician’s concert DVD on the television.
Indeed, listeners can hear Prince’s signature, funky, greasy notes in her solos — especially the ones she plays live. Live shows are important to H.E.R., for they are when she can engage with fans and experiment with medleys.
“I’m huge on the dynamic of my show and the experience, not just performing songs,” she says. “It’s important to me to make sure that people experience every song, and feel like I’m singing directly to them. Your eyes never want to leave the stage because there’s always something happening.”
One such medley occurred during the BET Awards in June. She brought Caesar onstage, and they sang their acoustic hit “Best Part.” That moved seamlessly into a rendition of Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters.” They came up with the idea for a medley, as she puts it, “organically.” It’s a word she uses a lot to describe her process of creation. It just sort of happens.
For the first few years after H.E.R. — an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed” — came on the music scene, media outlets obsessed over the fact that, in Sia-like fashion, she kept her identity hidden. (In person and in photographs she still keeps sunglasses on to obscure her eyes.) Why did she do that? Over and over again, she explained she wanted her music to speak for itself.
These days, she’s growing into her identity within the industry. She recently dropped a prelude to her upcoming album, which is slated to come out in September. “I Used to Know H.E.R.,” is a short collection of songs she recorded while on the “Heartbreak on a Full Moon” tour with Chris Brown. She says there were lots of tracks she wanted to include on the prelude, but she decided to save them for her next project.
“I’ve been on tour for the past year, and I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to finish my album the way I want to do it,” she says. “So this is just a teaser because I haven’t put out music in so long. It’s a sneak peek into the evolution of me and the elevation of me, because ‘Volume 1’ and ‘Volume 2’ are very much sounds of their own. And ‘I Used to Know H.E.R.’ has music that is very different from what people have heard. But I’m just currently progressing and starting to show more of the musicality.”
The first track on “I Used to Know H.E.R.,” “Lost Souls,” bears strong influence from “Lost Ones,” by Lauryn Hill — but reworked.
“Yeah, a lot of people say that,” she says. “The vibe of it is definitely like ‘Lost Ones,’ but it was just something I felt passionate about. Honestly, I’m speaking to the people who don’t stand by the things that they believe, or don’t know what to believe in — people who are fascinated by a lifestyle, a certain kind of look, a certain amount of followers. They chase trends, chase what’s hot, chase what looks good. The people who try to lead others when they’re lost themselves, confusing the person that they show to the world and the person they have to deal with at the end of the day, when they go to sleep at night. The person that they try to be in front of a huge audience.”
“‘You’re confusing self-conscious with self-confidence,’” she raps, breaking into a line from ‘Lost Souls.’ “Are these things that you feel you really want for yourself? Or is it just because you want to please people, or look a certain way, or be perceived a certain way?”
Who she is from year to year will change based on her experiences, H.E.R. says, but the foundation remains the same. With this knowledge of herself firmly in place, she’s widening her scope of work. She has plenty of upcoming tours (her own, along with a few dates that she’s performing in London and Paris with Childish Gambino), and is finishing up the imminent full-length album. Additionally, she’ll be performing a Janet Jackson tribute at this year’s BMI Awards on Aug. 30. Jackson specifically requested H.E.R. to perform for the show, and is purportedly a fan; during a recent Sirius XM Radio interview, Jackson said H.E.R.’s music got her through her pregnancy. In March, Jackson also attended one of H.E.R.’s shows in London. She blended into the crowd and sang along to nearly every lyric.
H.E.R. is also doing some acting, but doesn’t say more. Then she reveals she’s starting her own charitable foundation pretty soon. It’s her way of staying true to her roots, and her newfound self.
“I just want to give back to the community that raised me now that I’ve gotten to a point where I can do that,” she says.
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