One of the most exciting singer-songwriters of our generation, H.E.R. had already snapped up four well-deserved Grammys and an Oscar for Best Original Song before releasing Back of My Mind, her first full-length album earlier this year. So how does this modern R&B legend feel about her meteoric rise to stardom? Sitting down with her idol and superstar, Alicia Keys, the 24-year-old opens up about the pressures of fame, her latest album and being exactly where she wants to be.
Check out the interview below now…
(LEFT) Jacket and trousers by CHRISTIAN WIJNANTS and shoes by GUISEPPE ZANOTTI.
Jacket and trousers by CHRISTIAN WIJNANTS and shoes by GUISEPPE ZANOTTI.
AK: Hi sis, I’m so happy to get to do this. H.E.R: Yeah, me too!
AK: Congratulations on Back of My Mind. How does it feel to have this music that you’ve been working on out in the world now? H.E.R: It feels great. As you know from being an artist, good things take time. This album took nearly 3 years [to finish] and there’s certain songs on there I wrote in 2017! To me, this body of work is a combination of all the projects that I’ve released thus far but elevated with a different perspective and a different musical approach which is more organic. There are live instrument elements in there and I think people are receiving that now. It’s such a great time to be in music and I’m just ready to perform. Honestly I’m just like, ‘Get me out and get me on stage!’
H.E.R.: It feels great. As you know from being an artist, good things take time. This album took nearly 3 years [to finish] and there’s certain songs on there I wrote in 2017! To me, this body of work is a combination of all the projects that I’ve released thus far but elevated with a different perspective and a different musical approach which is more organic. There are live instrument elements in there and I think people are receiving that now. It’s such a great time to be in music and I’m just ready to perform. Honestly I’m just like, ‘Get me out and get me on stage!’ AK: I love the way you’ve been releasing music ever since you started. I think that you’ve actually broken a lot of rules and created new ways for the rules to be written and because of that, you already have four Grammys and an Oscar. It’s pretty fresh and pretty unique to be able to have these accolades precede your first full-length album. But I realise in my own life as an artist, you do find yourself wanting to be accepted right? You create music because it’s true to you, but then you’re hoping that other people relate to it and understand what you are going through. How did that feel for you in regards to this idea of acceptance, especially on the heels of so many accolades and so much success? Take me into your mind…
H.E.R.: Well in the Back of My Mind… [laughs] pressure is definitely there especially with the accolades. Especially because I’m still at the beginning of my career so everybody doesn’t praise everything I do. As you know, when you reach a certain level of success there’s so much push and pull where one minute everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, you deserve it all!’ And then the next minute, it’s like, ‘Oh, no, that was whack.’ Nobody can see it from what I like to call a ‘bird’s eye view’ so it’s my job to see it from a bird’s eye view because this is my baby. I gotta do what I do without forgetting my roots, but also think about where I’m going. In my artistry, I love to challenge myself. I love to do things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from me, nobody expected me to be on a DJ Khaled album which is why I wanted to put one of those records on my album. In the beginning of the process it’s about just being in my own world, paying attention to what’s going on, but not looking so far right or so far left that I forget where I’m going. AK: Do you have a way that you’re able to tune into yourself? Because that’s one thing I know is so hard for so many, just to actually hear your own self.
Eyewear by GENTLE MONSTER and jacket by ST. JOHN.
Eyewear by GENTLE MONSTER and jacket by ST. JOHN.
H.E.R.: I think it’s a lot of prayer like ‘God show me where I need to be because I feel like I’m being pulled each way.’ But also I like to be alone. As an artist, you’re either alone a lot or always with people, there’s no in between. That’s a hard thing because sometimes you can still feel alone in a room full of people. So I think it’s just being happy with that loneliness sometimes and being okay with sitting with myself. Sometimes when I drive I come up with the best ideas, because that’s when I reflect. AK: Yeah, that’s a really good point. One of your songs, “I Can’t Breathe” is super beautiful and powerful quoting the dying words of George Floyd. I do feel like this is a time of great awakening. Some of us have been thinking about police brutality for our whole lives. For others, it hasn’t been a big part of their lives so they’ve just started thinking about it. How did this song come together?
H.E.R.: I was on a FaceTime call with Tiara Thomas, who is like a big sister to me and who I write with a lot. We were just talking like, ‘Isn’t this crazy what’s going on?’ We felt guilty if we ignored everything going on, and we felt guilty if we were just trying to be positive. With the death of George Floyd, why all of a sudden are all these people wanting to be like ‘Oh, we’re here for you.’ It’s like, ‘But you chose to be blind to what was going on before.’ All of those thoughts came at the same time, right? And for me, I question a lot in life. I’m very observant, and the lyrics in that song are simple, [reflecting] things that I actually felt: ‘How do we cope when we don’t love each other? What is a gun to a man that surrenders?’ I have this old Martin guitar sitting next to my bed in my mom’s house that I’ve been writing songs on since I was 9-years-old and I just started singing, ‘I Can’t Breathe/ you’re taking my life from me.’ And Tiara was like, ‘That’s the chorus, that’s the hook.’ When we finished the song I sent it to D’Mile who went and produced it. The guitar that’s actually in the track is the guitar that I recorded on my original voice note! The song really just came from a natural conversation that [eventually] turned into somebody telling me their Jewish father has now changed their perspective because of that song. I didn’t think that would happen, so it’s a beautiful thing. But I never feel an obligation to anything. I think some people are like, ‘Oh, we have to be activists in our music.’ I think we are obligated to say how we feel, and if you don’t feel something when you watch something like that then you can’t be human. I feel an obligation in my music to say the things that I feel. I’ll never forget what you told me, ‘All you need for a song is three chords and the truth.’ And that’s what “I Can’t Breathe” is. AK: I’ll never forget when I got told that either. It was just so eye opening to me. It’s so simple, but that’s really it! But when you have these strong points of view as an artist that’s something that can also be quite oppressive. It’s a beautiful thing that you can express how you feel to the living world on [social media] platforms. It’s your space, and you can say what you want and feel how you want but often – as I’m sure you’ve seen and I’ve definitely seen – there’s dissenting views. Do you find that that makes you take pause sometimes on how deep you want to go? Or do you say, ‘I don’t give a fuck, this is how I feel, love me or hate me.’
H.E.R.: That’s a great question because I’ve been reflecting on that over the past few years of my life. I’m only 24, and the perspective I have today is not the one I had yesterday. The more that I see and the more that I experience, the stronger my perspective becomes and the more I question life. I’m very careful and I will admit that sometimes I’m too careful of what I say because talking about your perspective in real life is so different than on social media. So I think we’re okay to be too careful, because there’s always somebody that wants to play the devil’s advocate. I don’t even think they believe in their stance. Other people have very educated opinions and have something great to say, but it’s a shame that we can’t always hear each other out. Somebody said to me, ‘It’s like because you love apples, you hate oranges.’ That’s exactly what social media has become. It’s like, ‘Oh, because you love this, you hate that.’ That’s not always the case. Life is not black and white and I don’t know why we keep saying that it’s not and then when it comes down to it… AK: We’re acting like it is! I feel you. Were you always lyrical?
H.E.R.: I started writing silly poems when I was 5-years-old and my mum would collect them and be like, ‘You should write more.’ She collected all the poems that I wrote for two years and she got them published in a book. When I got a little older my mom would write song titles on a notepad, give them to me and be like ‘Oh, you could write a song about these things.’ I would pick certain things, and I would write songs about them. I remember one time she wrote, ‘Keep On’ and I wrote a song that went like [starts singing] ‘Keep on going, don’t give up on me.’ I was 7-years-old. AK: Wow, I love that! What type of artists spoke to you as a kid?
Eyewear by GENTLE MONSTERS, bodysuit and tights by PRABAL GURUNG, jacket by BRANDON MAXWELL and shoes by GEDEBE
Eyewear by GENTLE MONSTERS, bodysuit and tights by PRABAL GURUNG, jacket by BRANDON MAXWELL and shoes by GEDEBE
H.E.R.: Listen, I was the biggest Alicia Keys fan. AK: [Laughs] I didn’t say that to elicit that response!
H.E.R.: [Laughs] I know, but it’s the truth. That’s why I’m so happy to be speaking to you because you have played such an integral part in my artistry. There were no other women playing piano and singing the way that you were and I was so inspired by that. Every talent show I was singing “If I Ain’t Got You” or “No One.” When you had braids, I had braids. You were the foundation of who I wanted to be. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, you remind me of a little Alicia Keys. I was like, ‘That’s exactly who I want to be!’ I even studied your “Unplugged” video. I knew the arrangements, I loved your background singers and that whole moment was just like ‘Wow! I want to be there one day.’ So you’re responsible! AK: I’ll accept that responsibility and I’m super grateful.
H.E.R.: But my dad was also playing Prince concert DVDs in my house and I was trying to figure out how to play guitar. He was showing me the blues scale and listening to BB King and also Carlos Santana, Lauryn Hill, Eric Clapton and people like that. It was such a mix of things. AK: I actually hear the Eric Clapton in your writing style.
H.E.R.: Oh wow. AK: It’s light, but it’s in there. I love when I hear it, I’m like, ‘Man these melody choices are really fresh!’ So do you think that child would have envisioned the success you have today? Do you feel surprised at the success?
H.E.R.: I do, nothing could have prepared me for this. I knew I wanted these things, I created a vision board in 2016 and all of those things are pretty much checked off. I keep surprising myself, and it’s coming at me fast like, ‘Oh wow, okay, what else?’ One thing that I really wanted when I was young that still just feels crazy is the respect of some of the legends and for them to know who I am and what I do and to hopefully love my songs. You being one of them is still surreal to me, that moment that we shared at Global Citizen is one of the top five moments in my entire life. I felt like that little girl again but also like a superhero. The other day, I saw an article and Barbra Streisand mentioned me, also Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and the amount of love that they show me…these are the people that I grew up trying to be like. I’ve memorised their freakin’ arrangements! I’m exactly where I want to be. So for me in this place in my life the word that I use is ‘gratitude’. AK: Yes, I love that. I’ve always been really fascinated with this idea of fame, the idea that success and fame go hand in hand. It seems like you haven’t really been too faded by the fame game. You’re big on privacy and just recently we’ve been seeing your face pop up for the first time. How do you feel about fame and how are you handling it?
(LEFT) Eyewear by BONNIE & CLYDE, dress by KENZO and jacket by WHO DECIDES WAR. (RIGHT) Dress by 2MADISONAVE, tights by DKNY and boots: STUART WEITZMAN
Eyewear by BONNIE & CLYDE, dress by KENZO and jacket by WHO DECIDES WAR. Dress by 2MADISONAVE, tights by DKNY and boots: STUART WEITZMAN
H.E.R.: The way I come out with my music and the way that I’ve presented myself is not my face, it’s my art, right? That is at the forefront if it but there comes a time where people want to connect to me – that comes with such a cost. In the last year, my career has gone up a lot and I haven’t had to feel that yet because we’ve been wearing masks for the past year. Sometimes I am afraid because I will have to sacrifice certain privacies and I’ve seen that a lot of people are unhappy when all they want is to be famous. Then some people love it, they love paparazzi! But I don’t know anybody who really wants to be followed around, it gets old. I’m in that place where I’m learning how much to give and how much to keep for myself because it is a balance. I know that whatever is meant for me is going to happen, you know, I’m not going to say I don’t want to be famous… AK: You’ don’t need to be afraid of it. I think some people do have to be afraid because they’re a wreck, you know, they’re a damn mess. God only knows where that’s gonna take them! But you’re already a balanced person, and you have your head on your shoulders so you definitely don’t have to be afraid of anything great that’s coming your way. That’s definitely something that I’ve learned over time, I do think I used to play down everything because I just didn’t want it to go too fast or too far and in actuality sometimes that blocks your blessings. So what do you want to prove as an artist or to represent as an artist?
H.E.R.: Because my music is so me in my entirety, it’s hard to say because I’m still owning that and what that means. But I will say right now, I would just love for people to know that there’s no mould for what a woman is or for what an artist is. Sometimes they’re thrown at us and we overcompensate and we think, ‘Oh, I gotta do this, I’ve got to be this.’ But all you got to do is work hard at being you. I hope to make instruments cool again because I feel like for a minute there, people didn’t want to be in a band. I hope that I’m responsible for people wanting to pick back up the guitar, bass, keys, drums or whatever. I think all the lessons that I give to people are lessons that I’m learning myself and have had to learn myself. You’re not more of a woman because you’re dressed this way or less of a woman because you wear your hair like this [pulls at her own hair]. By the way, this is personal right here. Nobody gets to see this, this is my disguise. When my glasses are off nobody recognises me… AK: It’s gorgeous. You’re absolutely gorgeous from in and out all the way around. The people want to know, when is the AK and H.E.R. collab happening? The people they keep asking, harassing me…
H.E.R.: I must be the people, because I want to know! AK: Oh, man, I can’t wait. We’re gonna do something really awesome. I’m looking forward to connecting on that level too.
H.E.R.: Can I ask you one question to finish this off? AK: Yes, of course.
H.E.R.: What are you most proud of in your career thus far? AK: 100% I can answer this in two seconds, I am most proud of being a real person. I am a completely relatable, clear, honest, genuine individual. I haven’t been jaded. I’ve learned a lot and definitely had to claim myself for sure, but nothing was taken from me. It’s been 20 years and I’m still that same girl from Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem. If you knew me then, you know me now. I think that is something to be really proud of.
H.E.R.: Hopefully in 20 years I can say the same thing. AK: I have a feeling you absolutely will.