H.E.R. has music in her blood. Her Filipino mother instilled an early appreciation for karaoke, and the rising R&B star would belt Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and Whitney Houston as a toddler. Thanks to her dad’s cover band rehearsing in her family’s Vallejo, California home, she was surrounded by instruments and learned to play the drums, guitar, keys and bass early. By nine-years-old, she was writing songs, including one called “Curious.”
“It was about people being in my business,” she recalls over the phone, with a laugh about her nine-year-old concerns. The song’s premise reflects a still-important desire for privacy, as H.E.R. has based her still-blooming career off a desire to keep her identity and looks private. She is perpetually seen with sunglasses on and doesn’t even have her legal name listed in the credits for her five Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year. (Sleuthing fans discerned that she is actually Gabi Wilson, a former child prodigy who performed on The Today Show and The View before getting signed at 14 years old.)
Instead, H.E.R. has kept the focus on her music, something that has paid off when it comes to aforementioned accolades like five Grammy nominations and her famous fans. Plus, this is all before the 21-year-old has even released her official debut album, with her 2017 self-titled compilation of her early EPs going up against monster LPs like Drake’s Scorpion and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.
A few days after the announcement of her nominations, H.E.R. spoke with Rolling Stone about her surprise at the recognition and musical journey.
Were the Grammys always a big marker for you of success in the industry?
Absolutely. That’s something that I dreamed about as a kid. Like, I practiced a Grammy speech as a child when I couldn’t sleep. It was definitely something I watched growing up with my family. It’s surreal. It’s a major dream come true.
Do you have any favorite Grammy moments from when you would watch as a kid?
That’s a good question. I gotta think about that one. I remember one year watching Amy Winehouse perform. She performed, and then they announced her win while she was still on the stage. The look on her face…it was just like wow! She deserved it that year. It was really cool to see. That’s probably one of my favorite moments.
You’re a lot of everyone’s favorite artists’ favorite artist. Tell me about some of the biggest moments for you when it comes to other musicians and stars showing support for your music as you’ve been getting bigger.
Janet Jackson was probably the biggest deal for me ’cause she came to my show in London earlier this year, and it was unbelievable. Janet Jackson wants to come see me, like that is crazy [laughs]. You know? Even Rihanna just supporting from afar, and then being on tour with Bryson Tiller. That was my first tour. The support is heavy, and the fact that people didn’t know what I looked like, they just genuinely love my music. It’s exactly what I wanted, and that’s how it happened. It’s a beautiful thing. And five Grammy nominations later, and all the superficial stuff doesn’t even matter. The fact that people are genuine fans of my music and my message, especially those people like Rihanna and Janet Jackson, it’s an honor.
Can you explain further the early decision you made as an artist to keep your identity more mysterious?
We live in the age of social media where a lot of people get the followers and they make the music, you know? It’s just popularity based a lot of times, and it’s about people’s cosigns and what cliques people belong to. I just didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want people to look at me and say “Oh, I’m gonna check her music out.” I really wanted people to just focus on the music.
I think it was also an easier way for me to be honest in my music. If there’s no face attached, I’m not afraid to share my stories. The most honest music resonates with people, and it’s just about creating that movement of “Okay, let’s be about the music.” We kind of lost sight of what’s important: the real story, not just about a quick hit song or a vibe. It’s about longevity. Music that makes people feel something. That’s what I wanted.
What will it mean to maintain the mystery and your privacy as you get more famous?
I’m a private person in general, and I’m pretty low key as far as my life. Obviously there’s only so much I can do, but at this point it doesn’t matter to me. I’m prepared for whatever’s gonna happen as far as my popularity or my privacy, because I did exactly what I wanted to do and made it about the music, so all that stuff doesn’t matter at this point.
You were signed pretty young but didn’t immediately start releasing music. What was the process of formulating your sound like in the time between getting signed and debuting as H.E.R.?
I got signed when I was 14, and I was just trying to find myself and figure out who I was. You’re not the same person at 14 that you are at 16, and I was developing as an artist. I had the time and the creative space to develop, but when I was 16, 17, about to graduate, it was kind of getting tough. Am I gonna really do this? Am I 100% in this? Am I gonna go to college? I thought about going to college. There was pressure even from my family, like, “What are you going to do?” You know what I mean? I finally was writing songs for Volume One and found the sound and who it was I wanted to be and represent: that transition stage of becoming a young woman. I released the music shortly after, and it paid off now.
With this compilation of your early EPs being up for Album of the Year, what can we expect from your actual debut album? Is there a part of you that now considers that compilation as your official debut album?
No, I mean, it was my first project, but it’s definitely specific to that time. I love that people are saying it’s timeless even though it’s specific to a certain time for me. “Focus” and “Losing” and “Still Down,” all those songs were so specific to what I was dealing with three years ago, but it’s resonating with people now, and that’s such a blessing. But it’s just the EPs. That’s 17-, 18-year-old me, so the debut album is definitely gonna be a growth. It’s definitely gonna be 22-year-old me, 21-year-old me.
Other than Janet and Rihanna showing love for your music, what was a moment that made you go “OK, this is real, and I’m able to do this. This is my life now”?
BET Awards this year was one of those moments. It was one of those “I’ve proved myself” moments. A lot of people watched it and didn’t expect me to pull off the guitar, but I was able to show who I was as an artist, not just through my music, but as a performer, and that was a breaking moment for me. A really really dope moment to prove myself. That’s one of my highlights this year.