Christmases round Jillian Hervey’s house must be a picture of insanity. In one corner there’s her mother, globally prized actress, singer and former Miss America Vanessa Williams; in the other, her uncle, Vanessa’s brother Chris [Williams], known for hurtling hilarious gangland obscenities around Larry David’s ‘Hills mansion as Curb Your Enthusiam’s Krazee-Eyez Killa. Count on second uncle Winifred [Hervey], one of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s primary scriptwriters, for choice Carlton quotes too. And perhaps singer Jillian is the next big Williams hope, as she pursues a career in music as one half of Lion Babe.
Lion Babe is Hervey and beat wrangler Lucas Goodman, known to some for his spacey, instrumental hip-hop project Astro Raw. The pair met at a frat party in New York, while Hervey was busy scouting colleges to apply to and Goodman was on the decks. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this? Who is playing this? I’ve never heard this!’,” she shrieks. “Someone said, ‘That dude in the corner.’ And that was that.” “I was playing a track I made called ‘LoHi’,” Goodman adds nerdily. “It was a kinda rock-vibe beat with chipmunk-pitched samples.”
Drunkenly squashed up on a sofa later that night, the pair spitballed mutual obsessions: golden age hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest and Nas, and the sci-fi comic book beatsmithery of Madlib. Growing up, Hervey was introduced to Stax and Tamla oeuvres by her father, once a PR for sixties legends like Hendrix, The Commodores and, trickiest of all, Marvin Gaye. Listening to Lion Babe’s smoky anthems – debut track “Treat Me Like Fire” is Cilla over Dilla with a double coating of vinyl dust – these disparate reference points make perfect sense.
When the pair met, Hervey’s motivation was performance art and, as I learn over the course of the afternoon, her move-busting skills are good-ridiculous. Inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein films force-fed from birth by her theatre-doting mother, Hervey was a classical dance bookworm by adolescence. “I always loved Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey,” she says. “I studied Graham’s technique growing up. It was very modern, so when I became a teenager I joined up with a couple of my friends – we had a little dance troop. I know everyone moves in different ways and I’m inspired even by pedestrian movement, people’s body language.”
After an hour or more pivoting lithely around a concrete park underneath the Williamsburg Bridge – all highfalutin soubresauts and turf-upturning transitions – she explains that dance moves and choreography will one day come into play at live shows. The band’s first music video – for “Treat Me Like Fire” – certainly hints at this. It shows Hervey snarling and crawling on all fours around a forest, dolled in lioness facepaint. One scene sees her teeter and flit around a bonfire like a tumbling ember.
And what of this wildcat fixation? When she was 19 (she’s now 25), Hervey and the fam went on safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. “I was a huge geek back then, taking notes on animals the whole time. I had a moment while staring at a lioness… and that was it,” she explains with a fixed glare. “I actually got asked to come back to work with the tribe as a professional spotter. Our guide said I naturally have a knack for spotting animals, because a lot of the time I would be spotting them before him. If the music thing fails, I’ll head to a safari for sure.”
After we’re done with formalities, the three of us spend the rest of the night inside a massive bottle of Champagne. Beat from dancing in the pair’s hotel room to three as yet untitled tracks – all funk groove-laden, textured and melodic – we hit the streets of East Village to check out their favourite all-night eatery. On the way, a man with Fifth Element dreads hollers “Lion Babe!” in our direction – it seems Hervey is cruising a local celebrity vibe. But what about the international scene? Is fame forecasted yet? They’re working on it: debut album collaborators include producers Jeff Bhasker (Kanye, Drake, Jay-Z), Andrew Wyatt (Coco Sumner) and Miike Snow (Britney), to name a few.
“We worked with Pharrell on a track too,” Hervey chirps. “When I was younger, N.E.R.D was the shit. The crazy thing is that I met him years back as a teen… It was through my mum – she was filming something in Miami and he was staying in the same building as her. I was actually there for a weekend with my girlfriends and we met him in an elevator at the end of the night. I was literally in my pyjamas. When I saw him again, he was like, ‘I remember you from the elevator’. He recalls me as a shy girl and now, years later, he knows me as Lion Babe.”
Lionbabe wears black nylon croptop by Norma Kamali, vintage denim jeans by Levi’s and sunglasses model’s own. Lucas wears vintage t-shirt model’s own and black sunglasses Ray Ban
Photographer: Nick Sethi
Fashion Editor: Rika Watanabe
Words: Jack Mills
Fashion Assistance: Jessica Murray