In 2013, before "Happy" or "Get Lucky," Pharrell Williams opened a text from an industry friend. The message led him to an amateur music video shot in the woods by four twentysomething college grads. It showed a woman dripping in oil and sunlight with a glorious mane of hair, singing over a threadbare beat. "Come over here, let's talk awhile," she crooned while holding long, yogic poses. The song, "Treat Me Like Fire," flowed like Beat poetry in molasses.
Pharrell was hooked. The Neptunes singer/producer, known for his love of stripped-down R&B, flew the New York–based duo called Lion Babe — singer/dancer Jillian Hervey and producer Lucas Goodman — to his Miami recording studio before they had even released an EP.
"He was just so quick, flipping through sounds on his laptop while he probably had three sessions going at once," Goodman told Rolling Stone. "He made some loops and put them on a flash drive and just said, 'You guys mess around with this and then come back with something.'" It was daunting enough to be in a recording studio for the second time ever (previously, they'd recorded in Goodman's apartment), but Goodman and Hervey were massive fans.
"Pharrell was great about fine-tuning and cutting tracks down, especially since our songs have such peculiar structures," said Hervey. She laughed that Pharrell vetoed a part of a song that, in her words, sounded like something he did in 2007.
"I wasn't completely terrified," Hervey laughed. She was much more nervous singing in front of Mark Ronson, weeks earlier at his London studio on a track called "Lucky Man" that didn't make it on the record. "I was like, 'I'm not Amy Winehouse!'" she mock-cried.
Managed by First Access Industries, the group behind the careers of Iggy Azalea, Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora and Zayn Malik, Lion Babe is well-positioned to bring their soul-inspired hits to the Top 40. Hervey's bravado and empowered delivery, featured to great effect on the duo's new debut, Begin, seems tailored to fill the Brandy/Monica/Aaliyah–shaped niche that has gathered dust since the early 2000s.
Lion Babe has been racking up co-signs from artists such Mark Ronson, Childish Gambino — who guests on Begin's "Jump Hi," a hazy R&B jam that floats on a Nina Simone sample — and Disclosure, which nabbed Hervey's dark, deadpan vocal for their 2015 track "Hourglass."
Touring with Disclosure in 2015, Lion Babe brought new tunes like "Wonder Woman," the track they cut with Pharrell, to major venues like Madison Square Garden and the Sydney Opera House. "I saw a GIF on my Tumblr of Wonder Woman," Hervey told Rolling Stone, "And for the first time, Pharrell was like: 'There is your topic: Go write a song about that.'" The impromptu setup became the through line of Lion Babe's entire album, she said. "I was reflecting on the way so much of soul has these simple, standalone messages that become classics," said Hervey. "I wanted this to be about empowerment."
Onstage, Hervey and Goodman look like they are dressed for completely different occasions. Hervey wears slinky golden rompers with flowing Charo hair while Goodman is in all black, like Kylo Ren in a Misfits T-shirt. They diverge musically as well. Hervey, the daughter of music manager Ramon Hervey II (Babyface, Natalie Cole) and actress/singer Vanessa Williams, grew up hearing Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross and Jimi Hendrix in their wooded Chappaqua, New York, home. Growing up, she always wanted to play drums but was handed a trumpet instead.
Goodman's childhood was more urban. His father, Ray Goodman, founded the CBGB-era clothing staple Trash and Vaudeville on St. Mark's Place. His mother, Daang Goodman, is the designer of punk-inspired fashions Tripp NYC, which recently collaborated with Joan Jett. Goodman says his parents listened to the music their customers made, like Iggy Pop and Led Zeppelin. And, like the Herveys, Jimi Hendrix.
The unlikely pair first met at a party at Northeastern University in Boston. Goodman, a freshman, was DJ'ing on his iPod. Hervey, a high school senior visiting her friend in college, says she was sitting awkwardly on a PBR-stained couch, with only Goodman's strange mashup of the Temptations "Ain't No Mountain High" to focus on.
"I was going through a phase where I was really obsessed with chipmunk soul, like Kanye West's 'Through the Wire' and Cam'ron's 'Oh, Boy,'" said Goodman, sitting in First Access' NYC office. He fell into beatmaking early in college when he had long stretches of isolation in his dorm room, producing under the moniker Astro Raw. His former bandmates, whom he used to play Lou Reed covers with in high school, dispersed to different schools. Prominent beatmakers like J Dilla and Madlib became Goodman's makeshift spiritual collaborators.
Hervey and Goodman didn't reconnect until five years later, when they came home from college. Goodman was working at Truth and Soul, a funk/soul-based record label in Brooklyn. There, he unearthed the percussive core to the song that launched Lion Babe's career, the sample for "Treat Me Like Fire." "The day I made the beat, Jill just started riffing on it with the call-and-response," he said. "My dad was playing solitaire outside the room."
"I had never sung like that before," said Hervey, "I'd go into my room to work on the verses, shut the door, and leave after I gave it to them. I had never done something like that before hearing Lucas's beat." Hervey didn't tell anyone she was thinking about singing, least of all her Grammy- and Tony-nominated mother.
Hervey's plan was to become a dancer. Her childhood dream was to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "As a dancer, you're told not to go into it for the money," she said, "So I was just embracing New York City." Hervey majored in modern/contemporary dance at the New School and hung out at experimental dance spaces like the Movement Research sessions at Judson Church near Washington Square Park in her spare time. "I studied structured improv, where you start from one position and see where it takes you," she said, which is still how she organizes her vibrant Lion Babe choreography. "I like spontaneity. If you set yourself up to do the same thing every night, you may not connect as well to a different audience."
Begin is a circuitous soul/pop album that mixes the energy and breadth of the Pointer Sisters and the winking sex appeal of Timbaland. There's plenty in between. On album single "Where Do We Go," Hervey coos like Donna Summer; on the album's sole ballad, "Little Dreamer," she sounds unfettered. Goodman steps out from behind the turntable playing guitar in stark minor tones. It's not exactly a pretty song. It's about self-preservation, how it becomes a strain to hold onto ourselves the older we grow. Hervey wrote "Little Dreamer" three years ago with her little sister Sasha in mind. They keep in touch by FaceTiming and Snapchatting. "I'll send her a picture of me from when I was her age and just say, 'I swear you'll be fine.'"
Hervey and Goodman are still nobodies when they go to their standby ramen place in Chinatown, where servers skip their table because they know the menu by heart. New York may not be like that much longer for them. When Hervey introduced "Little Dreamer" in the dimly lit Roxy Hotel listening party for Begin, you could hear the person that wrote the lyrics: A girl speaking to her sister, telling her to keep safe the piece of her that she can't lose.