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When H.E.R. first appeared on national television screens, she was a wide-eyed, soft-spoken 10-year-old. To the clucking of the Today Show hosts, who describe her as someone with a voice “three times her age”, she sits at a piano with professionalism that trumps the attention deficit of most other kids her age. Still, her toothy grin and fluffy pink vest deceive expectations of the voice about to explode from the tiny body, and as she ploughs through impressive renditions of Alicia Keys’s ‘No One’ and ‘If I Ain’t Got You’, all the while tapping expertly away at the keys in front of her, tell-tale signs of her future success begin to rise.
Though H.E.R.’s first national U.S. performance unravelled like the ‘big bang’ of her career, years on, the young artist has solidified herself as somewhat of a mysterious talent, having hidden quietly in the folds of anonymity until the age of 21. It’s a popular and perhaps sanctimonious trope in the world of musical stardom (looking at you Sia, Daft Punk and MF Doom), yet for H.E.R., anonymity lent itself to the idea of placing music at the forefront rather than the brand of the superstar.
Though today one may argue that the last wisps of H.E.R.’s anonymity have faded, the 23-year-old still asserts herself as somewhat of a mystique, popularly hiding behind face-contorting sunglasses and voluptuous black curls. An approach that has obviously worked. Four Grammy wins, 13 more nominations, an Oscar for Best Original Song and countless other awards now grace H.E.R.’s trophy cabinets, and it seems that she’s only just begun. Her latest whopping 21-track album Back of My Mind is a release specifically dedicated to all facets of R&B, and hones collaborations with the industry’s biggest names, from DJ Khaled to Thundercat to Lil Baby to Ty Dolla $ign.
Following these major successes, ACCLAIM was lucky enough to take time out of H.E.R.’s busy schedule to dial in on an international call, pulling H.E.R. from a full day of rehearsals. Despite her hectic schedule, she’s never flustered, and as we chat over the next 20 minutes she answers eloquently and in full thought-out sentences on the importance of R&B, the pitfalls of celebrity, and what it’s been like entering the music industry at such a young age.
Congratulations on the album!
Thank you so much!
So I know you have two full projects H.E.R. and I Used to Know Her, and even though they aren’t technically albums, the latter won a Grammy in 2019 for Best Album. What went into this latest project Back Of My Mind to actually graduate it to an album? Well, I think the idea and the difference between the other projects and this one is H.E.R. and I Used To Know Her were very specific to a certain time period, a certain feeling, and had a specific sound. And this album to me is all of those things in one, all of my perspectives and everything that I’ve felt, and everything that I’ve experienced and the growth musically, from H.E.R. to I Used to Know Her to now, and all of the above. So for this album, it was really important for me to make an R&B album. This project I like to call a celebration of R&B because it has so many elements of different genres but of course, it’s R&B at its core, and it represents what R&B is; alternative R&B, bluesy R&B, nineties R&B, hip hop R&B. So this album really celebrates all the things that make up Rhythm and Blues.
You’ve got an amazing number of collaborations on this album like Ty Dolla $ign, Kaytranada, Thundercat—I actually saw a picture of you hanging out with DJ Khaled’s son as well, did you have a favourite collaboration?
Oh yeah (laughs), working with DJ Khaled was really cool. I don’t know if I have a favourite, each one is really unique and special and each collaborator is just different and brought a different thing to the album and that was the idea, people bringing something really different. So I don’t know if I have an absolute favourite. Each song is so different from the others.
You were saying that you really wanted to focus this album on R&B. You’re now regularly categorized as R&B, in fact, I would say you’ve become a defining artist of the genre. Do you find that you naturally fall into that sound?
Yeah, you know, R&B is in everything, Rhythm and Blues is literally the foundation of music. It all comes from soul, it all comes from gospel and blues, and so I am R&B at the core and I am a soulful singer and everything that I do is rooted in soul music but I consider myself genreless. It was important for me to make an R&B album to show people that R&B is alive. R&B is a huge part of me and of course, that’s who I am but I also have a reggae EP and I also have a Christian song out, and then this album is coming out. I have ambitions to work with Coldplay and people like that, so I don’t like to put myself in any kind of box, because there’s so much that I do and there’s so many types of things that I like to create, you know, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis told me there’s only two genres of music ‘good and bad’ and I’ve always believed that even as a young kid, just because I’ve always listened to everything and anything. So I’ll always continue to champion R&B. I have my own festival Lights On Festival which is coming in September and I did it in 2019 and everybody saw how important R&B is to the culture and to music, just by people coming out and seeing a lot of R&B artists. So yeah, there’s a lot of things that I want to do, and I feel like I had the creative freedom to use music as a playground for me, it’s a fun space so I have to take advantage.
It seems like R&B reached a peak in the early 2000s. Do you think it’s had a revival in the last few years?
You know, I don’t think it was ever dead. R&B has always been really strong, but it being at the forefront is different. Music always changes, the landscape always changes. Pop culture changes, things that people like and gravitate towards and what’s leading always changes, but I’m definitely seeing a resurgence on a lot of different platforms. I see a lot of people comparing a lot of new artists to some of their old favourites, and those old favourites like Brandy and Monica and Aaliyah, they were literally the soundtrack to our most important moments and that’s what R&B is to me. It’s always been the soundtrack to our lives and I think we’re definitely seeing people need that substance and need those kinds of honest lyrics and vulnerable lyrics and I really appreciate artists like Drake who continue to bring it into the world of hip hop and continue to just champion R&B and respect R&B and bring up other artists who are also R&B. Then there’s Jhene Aiko who’s blended it and made it more alternative R&B, and PARTYNEXTDOOR. People like that are the people who I was listening to in high school—but then you have Jazmine Sullivan who’s always been an amazing vocalist and has set the tone for being a great singer.
Tracks like ‘Come Through’ and ‘Damage’ and ‘We Made it’ are incredibly introspective moments, much like songs in your previous projects. Do you even feel conflicted letting your audiences into your life through your lyrics, or is that a side of yourself you’re willing to share?
I feel like in my lyrics I can say everything and tell you nothing at all at the same time because it’s almost like you take what you take from it. It’s general but still specific, but you know, it comes with it and I’ve honestly felt comfort in being able to write. I’ve always written and used music as an outlet and kind of written my diary, so it’s never been something I’ve had a hard time with but at the same time its nerve-racking when you put all your emotions to pen and paper and into music and you give it out to the world. I mean it’s not really something I think about anymore as much.
Do you ever purposely try and keep your lyrics more universal so people can relate?
Not necessarily, sometimes, I think with certain songs, but I never really think about what people think. Like when I wrote the songs, I never think about how it’s going to be taken, you know, it’s all about the emotion that I’m trying to get out, and the story that I’m trying to tell.
Taking it back to the start of your career, you were staying slightly anonymous, letting the music speak for itself. Now that you’re more out in the open have you found that there have been any pitfalls to celebrity?
Well, I’ve kind of been out in the open but I’m still somewhat of a mystique. I don’t really think about it too much, but in the past year, everyone’s been wearing masks now so I’ve still had privacy. So without the pandemic, it would probably be a little different, a different experience but you know it comes with the territory. I’ve always prepared myself for this and you can never be too prepared. I’m thankful that people are connecting to me now. The idea was for people to connect to my music in the beginning and I think now that I’ve done that I’m okay with giving a little bit more, and I’m still finding a balance of what to keep for myself and what to give out into the world. But yeah, it’s important that I organically do what feels right and I reveal myself in a way that’s comfortable for me. And I appreciate that fans recognize me now.
What’s been the most important thing you’ve told yourself that you need to focus on throughout your career?
Man, I’ve always been really focused. I think the idea is just to continue to love it and to continue to have fun because that’s why I did this in the first place. And never forget who I am. It’s easy to overthink when you get a lot of success or become comfortable when you get a lot of success. But I move the exact same way I moved as soon as I started this and I go even harder than before just because of all of the things that have happened, I know that I have to work extra hard to keep it, and to really have a long-lasting career it’s important for me to work really hard at this music thing, and dream bigger.
You’ve been around music for a while now, since you were 14—do you think coming into the music industry so young has affected your psyche in some kind of way?
No, honestly. I’ve been super thankful. I feel like my whole path was honestly destined, everything that has happened has gotten me to this point and I’ve had nothing but amazing full-circle moments in the past few years, and obviously, it was not easy getting to where I am. People don’t see the sacrifice and the hard work and the doubts, they don’t see all of that but you know, everything has been amazing. I’ve been super blessed. I’ve been very protected and very strong at the same time with really great examples in my life, examples of strong women and bossy women. Women that encourage me to be myself and be comfortable within my own skin, and I‘ve taken that with me and I truly believe everything was destined for me.
When you were younger did you think you’d end up where you are today?
I didn’t imagine it looking like this, especially not this soon, being only 23, but I definitely was dreaming big when I was a kid.
You were saying before that you were surrounded by a lot of strong women, could you name a few people specifically who inspired you?
Yeah I mean artist wise, Alicia Keys was a big influence and Lauryn Hill was a big influence. Whitney Houston, a lot of different women. Mary J Blige, and then Aaliyah and Jazmine Sullivan and people like that. But the women in my life, like my mom, my management team, Misha and Jeanine, play a huge role in me becoming who I am today. So I’m forever grateful to them.
I know Janet Jackson is also one of your biggest idols. What is it about her that you love so much?
I love Janet Jackson. I mean it’s JANET! Like it’s Janet, you know. Her whole vibe, she’s got so many amazing songs and also somebody that’s touched on so many different genres. She’s got so many R&B songs as well. You just see Janet as Janet and from the performing — she’s one of the greatest entertainers — to the performances, the lyrics of the songs, the sensuality that was Janet. The mystique that she had and I don’t know the versatility of her songs. She’s one of the greatest, but she actually came to one of my shows in London and she told me that my music got her through her pregnancy which is crazy!
That must have been the biggest compliment.
Yeah, it was insane.
From many of your performances, it’s obvious that you’re an artist with a deep social conscience. You talk about music education in schools as an important issue. How would you like to see music education played out in the school system?
I mean at a lot of different schools, the music programs are cut out because of lack of funds but what we don’t realize is that music and the arts are so important for kids. We could have our next Quincy Jones or Prince, and you know it starts with having the resources. So to me, I think I’m gonna be doing all that I can to revive some of those tools and some of those resources for kids so that they have that as an outlet but also so that they can follow their dreams like I did.
Last question—what do you hope your fans get out of this latest Album Back of My Mind?
Oh man, I think people will understand R&B and how it is so many different things, what it’s made up of. Also just the growth and the importance of musicality in this album and bringing live instruments back, and the honesty and vulnerability that’s the Back Of My Mind and all of those things that we’re afraid to say I think it says it all, but I hope people really enjoy it, enjoy all the different moods of R&B and relate to it and connect to it.