The identity of H.E.R. remains a mystery, but the authenticity behind her music is crystal clear
Vancouver, BC – It’s a Friday evening in the sunny coastal city, and the energetic lines of youth stretch around UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium. Promising a sold-out concert, Bryson Tiller’s Set It Off Tour has brought Vancouver out in ample numbers to welcome him back for the second time to the West Coast. But among the Trapsoul fans is talk of the opening act who has drawn concert-goers impressively early to the venue. By 7:30pm the floor of the stadium is filling, and H.E.R. quietly takes the stage as the lights dim. The attention is noticeably focused on the budding songstress, and heads swivel in her direction as she voices the first notes to open the evening – backed by a full instrumental band and glowing backdrop.
What little we know about the unidentified and unnamed songstress is only what can be personally dissected from her introductory EPs – H.E.R. Volume 1 & H.E.R. Volume 2. Woven between the lines of these emotionally provocative R&B songs is the story of a woman who is finding herself amidst life, love, and relatable loss. Tracks like “Losing” (which propelled her to notoriety upon its’ release almost a year ago) are brought to life on stage as she effortlessly reaches the highest notes in her set. There’s something undeniably comfortable about the warmth and depth of her voice – as if we’re listening to someone breathe the lines to our own personal love confessions. It’s after her hour-long performance that we connect backstage for our interview.
“Music should make you feel a certain way. You shouldn’t gravitate towards it because it looks ‘pretty’ or it’s ‘shiny.’ Music is a feeling, and it should always be that.” – H.E.R.
She’s wearing a set of shaded sunglasses and her cascading hair frames her facial features (which are even more striking and beautiful in person). We begin to dive into her musical background, to which she divulges, “I grew up playing musical instruments with my dad, and I’ve always loved music. I’ve just been around it for so long – it turned into my life. When I was in school I just wanted to get home and practice. Now that I’m on tour, we’re finally able to show the world how musical I really am.”
She recounts how she was introduced to music at the young age of 6. “I used to perform with my dad’s band in the Bay area – where I’m from. I grew up watching live music and going to concerts since I was really little. I just soaked it all in,” she tells me. These are the first intimate details that she offers about her personal life. Her Soundcloud currently lists New York as her base, so it feels special that she openly considers the Bay home.
The influence of the Bay on her greater sound is something that she’s grateful for, as she points out, “There’s a lot of legends that come from the Bay. The Bay has been mixed with a bunch of different vibes but it’s got its’ own thing and emotion. The Bay area is a feeling – it’s a vibe. I feel like that’s translated in my music.”
Asking her whether the EPs were initially imagined as a 2-part series causes her face to light up with a grin. “I wanted to release the EPs before I released a crazy album. It was something that I wanted to put on Soundcloud and grow organically, and it kind of turned into something else. I didn’t really plan a Volume 2, completely. I planned on doing another project, but after the reaction I got from Volume 1, I just felt like Volume 2 had to be greater. Volume 1 came from one emotion, and Volume 2 started coming from a different one,“ she clarifies.
The two different feelings that she references are reflected strongly in the sonic undertones of each project, to an almost night and day effect. She helps interpret these differences by explaining, “In highschool when I was 15, 16, 17, and 18, I was going through a dark time. All girls go through changes in highschool. I feel like Volume 1 is the intro to that dark period, but it turns out that a lot of older women can relate to it too. Volume 2, however, is so much more bright and a lot more optimistic. It was a process, and two vibes that connect like a story – the evolution of a woman.” It’s these answers which could also lead us to the conclusion that her age is somewhere near her early 20s.
Pressed if she was initially nervous to release the first project, she concedes, “It was tough. I didn’t really expect a lot of people to hear it. I wanted it to grow organically and be low key, but it didn’t happen that way. There were a few songs that I’d play for my friends and play for producers that I work with. I didn’t want to release them and they kind of forced me to put them out there. I had to be out of my comfort zone to release the project.”
Regarding her creative process, she vividly remembers writing songs from the first project, and reveals, “When I wrote ‘Losing’ I wrote it on the piano. I wrote the chorus and I couldn’t think about what to do for the verses. I stepped away from it and went to bed that night. I couldn’t sleep and I ended up writing the verses like a poem. So sometimes it can just come out at random times. I swear that the best melodies come at the wrong times – like I’ll be in line at the grocery store and I can’t pull out my phone at the moment. It’s all just me having to feel what I felt, or what I’m feeling, and really lock in and focus on that.”
“Losing” – the lead single on Volume 1 is comfortably sitting at over 3 million plays on Soundcloud and with many of the other tracks on the same EP sitting at over a million streams each. It’s a remarkable feat for any artist, let alone one who came up without any initial label backing and solely via an online streaming platform. It’s these undeniable results which have earned her kudos from peers and label heads – ultimately securing her the spot as an opener with Metro Boomin for the Set It Off tour. Her relationship with Bryson started over Soundcloud, as she reminisces, “Early on he had been posting my songs on Soundcloud and he had dm’d me to say, ‘I think that you’re really dope.’ So we just built a friendship from there.”
While most artists rely on outside production and songwriting to take their music to an elevated level, she’s adamant that everything we hear is 100% from her. On working with other creatives, she explains, “I like to collaborate. I love people coming in and bringing something different that I don’t necessarily do melody-wise, but it’s all my thoughts and my stories. The chords are mine. It’s me in a project – production, melodies, everything.”
She’s prepared to answer my questions about why she’s decided to remain anonymous, and will continue on without fully releasing her face or name. “The world we live in now, everything is social-media based – who people are hanging out with, who they’re associated with, and what they look like. I feel like that stuff shouldn’t matter when it comes to music. Music should make you feel a certain way. You shouldn’t gravitate towards it because it looks ‘pretty’ or it’s ‘shiny.’ Music is a feeling and it should always be that,” she relays.
Pausing for a moment, she takes a breath before continuing, “And I guess to just to get away from being a little girl. Everyone knows that I play these instruments. I used to sing at a young age – so just to get away from that, and be whoever I want to be.”
Her authenticity comes through in each of her answers, and her direct resolve remains untouched throughout our conversation. Regarding what she hopes for her fans to take away from her music, she emphasizes, “That it’s okay to be vulnerable. That it’s okay to be uncomfortable at times. That you’re not alone in what you’re feeling.”
As our time together comes to an end, we have one last moment to reflect on her journey so far. Whether the tour has been everything she could hope for, she responds warmly, “It’s everything and more. I knew it was going to be fun, hearing stories from different people and even just coming to concerts. I always imagined myself on that stage, so I had been waiting for this. I feel like anything negative that’s happened I haven’t even realized, because I’ve been so busy focused on the positive and having such a good time with the people that I love. Everybody’s been around me for years, so I’m just thankful for that.”
Purchase tickets to see H.E.R. on the remaining tour dates of the Set It Off Tour here.
Stream “Every Kind Of Way: A Short Film Inspired By Music From H.E.R.” below.
Interview conducted by Kira Hunston for HipHopCanada
Photography provided by Sony Music Canada