When rising R&B musician H.E.R. was ten years old, she sat stiffly at a piano while an adult woman leaned over to wrap her in an awkward hug. They were on the set of NBC’s Today show, in 2007, where H.E.R. – then going by her given name, Gabi Wilson – would pound out a well-rehearsed, precocious cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.” And one of the show’s three hosts couldn’t get enough of how this child in front of her calmly spoke about her love for music, without giggling or fidgeting or doing anything else a typical kid does when they’re being filmed on live TV. At one point, while Gabi spoke about her friends “being really supportive” of her musical pursuits, the co-host cut her off, scoff-shouting: “I love you! Oh, I love you. Oh my God, oh my God – what a grownup,” before pointing at Gabi’s Filipino mother and black father, yelling: “you did such a good job.”
Now, if you know much about H.E.R., you know that the California-born and New York-based 21-year-old has earned millions of streams and video views, for her intimate, softly-softly music. You’ll also know that she always appears in public wearing sunglasses, often swathed in hoodies and jackets, her waist-length curls framing the few facial features you do get to see. It’s in a bid to centre her music, rather than appearance, in how people discuss her work. Publicly, she doesn’t speak about her “real identity,” which is completely her prerogative. But I bring up that childhood video, labelled on YouTube as a Gabi Wilson performance, because she plays some of the audio from it to a packed west London room in early November this year. H.E.R. has just been named one of Apple Music’s “Up Next” artists (a generally young talent who they highlight, on host Julie Adenuga’s show). And on this night, fans who had to sign up for tickets, and stood in a queue that snaked around the venue for two hours before her set, enjoy both a short film about her journey so far, then a live set.
One of the Today show hosts’ “what do you wanna do when you grow up?” wafts out of the speakers in Porchester Hall, the Grade II-listed house that now vibrates with the start of H.E.R.’s relationship-focused R&B. Next, you hear her voice, as recorded in 2007: “I want to be a singer, a songwriter and a musician.” It almost fades in and out, underneath the live band’s warm-up skittering drums, climbing basslines and perfectly harmonised vocals, courtesy of two backing singers. By the time she’s gliding through tracks like Michael Jackson “Earth Song” interpolator “Fate,” piano and handclap-peppered “Changes” and “Focus” – her biggest single so far – it’s unclear how many of the people in the crowd recognise that she’s made a nod to her “previous” identity. Ultimately, they might not care anyway. Though H.E.R. is trying to control so many factors about her image and “brand,” when she lets the music do the talking, that’s what the fans are really here for.
Once the film plays through, H.E.R. flutters her rounded vocals over the top of “Feel A Way,” from the I Used to Know Her EP she released in August. In the vein of many of her songs, it’s about a particular stage in a romantic relationship; in this case, the grey area that bleeds between no-strings-attached sex and a situationship. As she sings “don’t make me feel a way” repeatedly in the chorus, she verbalises that horrible tug-of-war between being vulnerable and self-protected, when you wobble on the edge of falling for someone you’re non-committedly shagging. Like loads of artists riding R&B’s current, inspiring wave – SZA, of course, Brent Faiyaz, H.E.R.’s own collaborator and friend Daniel Caesar, Justine Skye and UK relative newcomers Ella Mai and Mahalia – H.E.R. deals in the weighty marbles of crystalline emotion. You’d struggle to find more universal stories than these ones, of sexual attraction, romantic love, lovesickness and distrust.
So it’s a bit surprising to see that the crowd don’t really come alive until “Focus” and that Caesar collab “Best Part”, towards the final third of the set. British crowds have a reputation for closely following the rules of what an audience “ought” to do: clapping and whooping in between, singing along to the big hooks – nowadays, Insta Storying the big hits. But at pop shows like this, they sometimes hold back from the sort of call-and-response exchange that Mahalia recently described to me, thinking back to her recent US tour. There, she felt “like you’re moving together through the set, as opposed to ‘you the artist,’ and ‘them the audience,’ where you’re playing a load of songs and they’re enjoying them and clapping, listening, clapping, listening.” English crowds don’t always tend to interject with the “uh-huhs,” the “go ons” when they’d rather not miss a second of the artist’s voice. As indie guitarist and songwriter Lucy Dacus recently put it to Noisey’s Lauren O’Neill, “I don’t know if you know this but the UK and Europe have a reputation of being super-attentive at shows. Just being silent. So like, American bands come and are like ‘Do they hate us?’”
It feels as though that wall breaks down fully when H.E.R. soars into “Changes,” off 2017’s H.E.R. Volume 2 and H.E.R., the 21-track album that followed it. She and her band go off-script, as she trills the “all I want is youuuuu” hook over and over, in a cascading sequence of falsetto-range vocal runs that send a shiver down your back. At last, the crowd fizzes in an explosion of applause and shouted encouragement. Hidden behind those sunglasses, only a cracked smile at the end of the song indicates that H.E.R. feels their adoration. In many ways, she seems so much like that little girl from the video, still – intently focused, to the point of appearing detached or aloof.
She spent years in “development” at RCA Records. Initially, she didn’t have much to show for it besides a slew of childhood media appearances – on Maury, The View, Today, twice, event red carpets – and a similar run when she hit her teen years. By then, was speaking with people like Sway, in 2014 or Tyrese, for this slightly dystopian piece of branded Coca-Cola and BET content two years ago. In past interviews, and in almost identical quotes she gives in her Up Next film, she acknowledges how people kept asking what was going on, if she’d been presumed a flop as she grew into her teens. It feels like she would’ve had something to prove.
Surely, since releasing music as H.E.R. for just two years, she feels she’s done so. The co-signs she’d been pulling in since she was underage, from Alicia Keys to Janet Jackson, haven’t dried up. She killed a BET Awards performance this year. Spotify reports that she has 6 million monthly listeners on their service. And even though her breathier voice now, far removed from the shouty belt of her childhood, sometimes can’t match the power of her backing vocalists, she draws people in. So, yes, she can commit to her alias, and its costume – as I said, that’s her right. I didn’t dig deep for these old videos, nor am I trying to “out” her. Sia’s shown that you can belt out as many hits as you like, in an eye-obscuring wig, and connect with audiences at the same time. Similarly H.E.R.’s voice, when she lets it out fully, is beautiful. But she carries some scars from being in the industry for as long as she has been. She has a lot to prove. And tonight, at least for the people in this room, she succeeds.
H.E.R. is touring the US right now, and comes to the UK for her I Used to Know Her Tour in early 2019 – see those UK dates, and tickets, here.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.