H.E.R. is a Grammy Award-winning American singer and songwriter who’s been in the business since she was 14 years old. Her catalog consists mostly of contemporary R&B ballads and her songs have been described as “downcast post-breakup material that sounded vulnerable and assured at once.” On this episode of The Carlos Watson Show, she talks evolution, success and other random bits of goodness you won’t find anywhere else. Excerpts are below, or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
Where It All Began
Carlos Watson: So how did you get into music? Were you one of those kids, Michael Jackson style, who was singing at 3, 4, or 5?
H.E.R.: Yeah, I definitely was one of those kids. I used to perform a lot when I was young. Music was just a given for me. My dad, he had a cover band in the Bay Area and they used to rehearse in our living room. I was there and soaked it all in and went to the mic during the breaks and was sitting on his lap when he was playing piano. He showed me how to play the blues on guitar. And when he played “Musicology” by Prince, I wanted to get up on the drums and I learned that very young.
Watson: And when did you realize you were good?
H.E.R.: I got signed to MBK RCA when I was 14 years old. So it was like, “Oh, well, maybe I could really do this.” But I was just a regular kid.
Watson: So how did you end up with H.E.R.? What made you move your name to that?
H.E.R.: I actually wrote a song called “Her” when I was in high school, but, basically I wanted my project to be called H.E.R. and I wanted to just have a silhouette as the cover for people to not know my name and not know anything about me. I really wanted the music to shine. I felt like with social media, it just felt like we were getting caught up in focusing on the wrong things and I think we started listening with our eyes instead of our ears.
H.E.R.: So me and my team, we got together and it was like, “Oh, you know what? I should just be H.E.R. I’m going to just be her. I think the music is the message. I thought it should be an acronym for “having everything revealed” just because I have everything revealed in the music without really knowing anything about me at all.
What Made Her H.E.R.
Watson: And what do you just listen to? When you’re just sitting back and enjoying.
H.E.R.: Oh, everything, everything. It can go from the Migos to Donny Hathaway, to Led Zeppelin, to Coldplay, to Rihanna, to Alicia Keys. There’s really no boundaries. I love jazz. I love African music. I love all kinds of things. My playlists are a melting pot.
Watson: And what about performers?
H.E.R.: Prince is probably one of my biggest influences, as far as a performer. To me, he’s the greatest.
Watson: Any of your contemporaries impress you, or do you learn stuff from?
H.E.R.: Bruno Mars. Silk Sonic. I think Anderson .Paak is probably number one, as far as live performers. He’s incredible.
Watson: Now, were you an introvert growing up or were extrovert?
H.E.R.: I think I’ve kind of been an introverted extrovert. I’ve always been really different. I’ve never really been shy, but I always kind of was low-key and just the person who doesn’t need the most attention in the room, but you know, you feel my presence.
Watson: When did people start in school knowing that you were starting to break? Because I assume at that point people started treating you maybe a little bit differently?
H.E.R.: When I dropped Volume One, it was after I graduated high school. So it was 2016. I graduated high school in 2015. But you know, people always knew that I was a musician. They always knew I was going to do big things. They always believed in me.
Watson: were you doing talent shows or anything like that?
H.E.R.: I was actually like the musical director for my middle school talent show, and I was like playing piano behind everybody. And I just saw a Tweet recently. Somebody was like, “I’ll never forget when H.E.R. played piano for me and sang backgrounds for me at the talent show in middle school”.
Watson: Did RCA believe in you from the beginning? Have they been with you all the way through?
H.E.R.: Absolutely. Everybody around me, they’re all my day-ones. They’re like my family.
Watson: Hey, what did you think of last year and everything that happened in terms of Black Lives Matter? Did you come out of that feeling like real change is going to happen?
H.E.R.: I felt hopeful. I already knew we had a lot of work to do. I think last year opened the conversation and made it even more uncomfortable. And we dug a little bit deeper because we had no choice and people felt guilty that they weren’t part of the conversation, which I think is an important part of change is that accountability.
I know I’m doing my part and I know I’m holding people around me accountable to do their part, but at the end of the day, we have to look inward. They say the revolution will not be televised. People really think that was literal, it’s on TV. But I think what he was really saying was the revolution will not be televised because it starts in the mind and I think that’s what we all need to think.
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
Watson: How did you get involved in the movie? I was so happy for you when I saw that you won. And so, congratulations on that.
H.E.R.: Judas and the Black Messiah, Archie was working on the soundtrack, was working with Shaka King and everybody at the movie. And they called me and said, “We really want you to make the theme song for this movie.” And I was like, “Oh, I would love to.” I didn’t know much about Fred Hampton. I knew the name, I knew of course of the Panthers being from the Bay Area. But I didn’t really, really know. So then I watched the movie, I learned so much. I was like, “Oh my gosh, the fact that I didn’t know this,” and the fact that it’s not even taught in schools was just so sad to me. So I was really excited to be part of it. I felt like it was such an important film and when they called me, I literally said, “I feel like I can make a masterpiece.”
I went in the studio, watched the movie and created the song and just thought about all the themes of it. I was listening to Marvin Gaye. I was listening to Curtis Mayfield, all my favorites and Sly Stone or “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” and all those songs and really got into the vibe and melody, and just thought about how what was happening then is so similar to what’s happening today and yeah, “Fight For You” is just the theme. I felt like continuing to fight for those that came before us.