I’m a little worried that my interview with H.E.R. is going to have to be conducted behind a screen, like a protected witness in court, or using the voice of an actor, like Gerry Adams in the late Eighties.
Actually, I’m surprised that we’re meeting at all. The Californian R&B singer wants to keep her true identity a secret, ironic considering that her stage name is an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed”.
Keeping mum has enabled an impressive rise since releasing a seven-song EP, H.E.R. Volume 1, in September 2016, accompanied by no extra information other than a photograph of her in silhouette on the cover. It’s sad, smouldering break-up stuff, modern in its production while sticking to the familiar territory of relationship troubles in its lyrics.
A second, eight-song EP, Volume 2, followed last summer, then a collection uniting all of her sparse, slow-moving material to date, which took the track total to 21. Without a chart hit, the music has made her popular enough for three sold-out theatre shows to constitute her first ever London appearances this month.
She looks every inch the star when she is led by her minder into the spiffy bar of the Bloomsbury Hotel, child-sized and big-haired in a black tracksuit by designer Daniel Patrick. In the end, although her people try to determine my questions before the meet-up, it’s nowhere near as strange an encounter as I’ve been expecting. She won’t take her sunglasses off, and there’s a slightly awkward moment when I say, “Hello, I’m David,” and she says, “…” but aside from the name thing she’s as forthcoming as anyone.
“I chose not to put my face on the music because you put it all out there when you’re someone like me, who writes about stuff that I actually go through. It’s scary and uncomfortable releasing music that is close to you,” she explains when we sit down. “But all kinds of things go into someone’s judgement when they listen to music. An older woman might say, ‘I can’t relate to this because it’s about a younger woman.’ I decided to name this project H.E.R. because I wanted all women to think, ‘I am her.’ That was the idea: us all having this thing in common, being that girl.”
She pronounces it “her”, not as the initials. Her goal, to write about her specific issues and make them universal, seems to be working. Six of her songs are currently on eight-figure Spotify play counts, including the harp-led number Focus, which took off when Rihanna used it as background music for an Instagram video last year.
“I’m only 20 years old. I guess 16, 17, 18, that whole period was a dark time for me. I guess it was a hormonal thing, going through all those changes as a young woman, learning who you are and being comfortable with yourself, and also, which goes along with that, boys,” she says. “It was definitely an unhappy, ‘Who am I?’ period. ‘Who am I gonna be?’ All those insecurities come around that time. Those first songs all represent that dark period, all those emotions. How it feels like the end of the world but really it’s not.”
However, during that time she had a better idea of who she was going to be than most teenagers. Her musician father encouraged her interest in the piano from her toddler years. As a child she could trick her piano teachers into believing she could read sheet music because she was so good at playing by ear. She signed a major label record deal with RCA at just 14, sharing management with Alicia Keys, and spent the rest of her education shuttling between high school in the Bay Area of California and writing and recording sessions in New York. “People at school knew that I sang and that this is what I was gonna do, but I was pretty private and low-key. I’ve always been kind of a loner.”
I know all this about her early career because she told me, and also because of another strange aspect of her identity concealment: three seconds on Google tells you without a doubt that H.E.R. is Gabi Wilson, a precocious multi-instrumentalist who was already successful enough to have performed at the BET Awards, and can be found on YouTube performing an Alicia Keys cover on American breakfast television’s Today Show at the age of 10. Even H.E.R.’s Wikipedia page offers her real name.
So we know who she is, and she knows that we know who she is. She just won’t admit it. Both H.E.R. and Gabi Wilson maintain separate Twitter accounts and don’t acknowledge each other. Wilson hasn’t tweeted to her 24,000 followers in six months. H.E.R.’s account has 74,000 followers but doesn’t follow anyone, tweets daily about her music and tour and includes lots of photos of her with sunglasses on and a hand over her face as though she’s trying to conceal a burp.
Why not just give up the pretence? “I don’t think there should be a ‘ta-dah!’ moment. I don’t think anyone cares that much. It’s not like I’m Superman,” she says. “I’ve had people hear the message and now it doesn’t matter whether you can see my face or whether you know my name or not, because people already love the music.”
We discuss the way that everyone presents a tightly controlled image of themselves to the world today, most commonly with a perpetually partying Facebook feed. H.E.R.’s is just more extreme than most. “I’ve been a musician since I was really young, so I’ve been around. Sometimes people have a hard time accepting that people grow up when they’ve known them for a long time,” she tells me. “I don’t want people to attach my past to now because I’ve grown up. This is a new chapter in my life. There are a lot of internet detectives but a lot of other people say, ‘I don’t care, I just love the music.’ And through the music you know exactly who I am. A face is not attached to who I am at the core.”
In concert, again the sunglasses stay on, and her lighting man is instructed to keep the stage shadowy. She performed the first of her three London shows at Koko last weekend, where Janet Jackson stopped by to offer support. “I didn’t even think I’d be performing the songs from these EPs. I thought I’d create an album straight afterwards. But this has turned into something absolutely ridiculous. It’s insane how it’s grown.”
After this tour she’ll carry on working on her debut album proper. She mostly writes in her current home in Brooklyn on piano or guitar and produces herself as well, though she has also worked with producers including Swagg R’Celious, Scribz, and the UK’s Grades and MNEK. “It’s very rewarding to think that something that I’ve worked towards for my entire life is happening,” she says. More and more fans are looking her way every day. This anti-star is going to need bigger shades.
March 20, Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527, koko.uk.com); March 21, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk)