H.E.R. Wants to Remain a Mystery, Even in Spotlight

Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha (Los Angeles Times / TNS)
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Since making her debut last fall, the woman who goes by H.E.R. has gotten a great deal of acclaim for slow-burning, vulnerable records anchored by her velvety, rich voice.

Inside a North Hollywood rehearsal space, musicians playing the drums, keyboards and harp compete with an industrial-sized floor fan attempting to bring relief from the 90-plus degree heat.

They are losing.

The only sound not being drowned out is the voice of H.E.R., the mysterious young R&B singer-songwriter who is seated on a wooden stool in the middle of the dimly lighted room.

She pushes her curly, shoulder-length light brown hair away from her eyes so she can see the band and give them the cue to begin playing her new single, “Every Kind of Way.”

“Baby, the sound of you, better than a harmony,” she sings, her voice stilling the room, lifting high about the grating hum of the fan.

Since making her debut last fall, the woman who goes by H.E.R. has gotten a great deal of acclaim for slow-burning, vulnerable records anchored by her velvety, rich voice.

And, as was no doubt her intention, there’s been just as much attention given to her anonymous persona — H.E.R. is an acronym for Having Everything Revealed.

Rumor assumed that she is, in fact, singer-songwriter Gabi Wilson, who landed a deal with RCA at the age of 14, but H.E.R. has never confirmed that, or ever sat for a face-to-face interview.

Until today.

“Whether you know who I am or not, you don’t really know who I am,” she says during a break from a recent rehearsal.

Dressed in black, she’s curled up on a sofa inside a lounge in the studio. A handful of tattoos mark her fingers — the word “soulmate”; the name of a cousin who passed away; the outline of a pen — and though she’s bubbly and chatty, she’s guarded when questions turn to her identity.

When her record label, RCA, sent out an early stream of her first project — simply titled “H.E.R., Vol. 1” — to select music press last fall, there was a catch: The identity of the artist would remain secret.

Publicity stills didn’t show her face, there was no biographical information offered, she didn’t film music videos, and previously the singer agreed to only a few phone interviews.

She is 19, she says now, but beyond that she prefers the focus to be on the music, not herself, understandable given this social-media-driven era of oversharing. “I’m not going to confirm my identity,” she says, laughing.

That enigmatic approach isn’t new — the Weeknd, Sia and Dvsn have also chosen anonymity to an extent — but those around H.E.R. say it’s about giving her the freedom to create without having to deal with the pressures that come with navigating the music industry, and not a gimmick.

“Coming out in this kind of way has made her freer so that she can just concentrate on making music, and having people judge the music for what it is,” said Jeff Robinson, H.E.R.’s longtime manager. “She wanted to touch people without dealing with anything else.

“In today’s society too many people are caught up on the superficial,” Robinson continued. “‘What does she look like? How do they dress? Who are they friends with?’ It should be back to being about the music — like it used to be.”

The music quickly caught fire. H.E.R.’s debut project hit No. 1 on the iTunes R&B chart, has been streamed more than 12 million times on Soundcloud, and the singer is up to 1.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify without her music being pushed to radio.

Rihanna, Usher and Bryson Tiller are among her famous fans, and she even spawned a copycat act, with a male vocalist putting out a “response” EP under the name of H.I.M. that included a re-creation of the glowing silhouette she used for her cover art.

“She’s bringing back real R&B music,” said Tiller, who invited H.E.R. on his forthcoming summer tour.

H.E.R., the concept, was birthed in the studio while the singer was in the throes of heartbreak over a toxic relationship, she said during an earlier interview (back when she wouldn’t show her face).

The singer set out to record a project that would be about coming of age, and her first EP is a brief, diaristic tracing of a broken relationship with songs that explore yearning, courtship, copulation, friction and conflict over dark soul grooves she wrote and produced in private before fleshing out with collaborators, including executive producer Darhyl “Hey DJ” Camper.

“She is the truest testament to what special is,” Camper said. “These days, words like ‘special,’ ‘rare,’ ‘classic’ are thrown around loosely, without proper validation. But H.E.R. is all of the above, and more.”

Earlier this month she released “H.E.R., Vol. 2,” another deeply intimate collection of confessionals.

Co-produced by the singer and Camper, the EP also features production work from Tiara Thomas, Hue “SoundzFire” Strother, David “Swagg R’Celious” Harris, Grades and Mike “Scribz” Riley.

“Everything was a lot more optimistic and a lot more fun. Still very vibey, still very emotional, but just in different ways,” she says of the inspiration behind the new music.

Though her performances at the BET Experience and the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards marked her first public appearances, H.E.R. is a seasoned pro. A former child prodigy, she plays several instruments including the piano, drums, guitar and bass, was mentored by Alicia Keys, and has been recording music since she was at least 14.

“People think that she’s just this wavy stuff. They have no idea what she can do,” Robinson said of the singer’s music. “She grew up being that young girl at studio just watching and learning and picking up things. If you really listen to her music, you’ll hear Brandy riffs, Alicia’s passion, K. Michelle’s sass and Tiara Thomas’ street swagger because she’s been around all of them. She’s caught the perfect storm.”

It was a soulful cover of Drake’s “Jungle” first released in 2015 that made it easy to link H.E.R. to Wilson when the track appeared on her debut EP, and with the arrival of “Vol. 2,” H.E.R. wants to be seen as much as she’s been heard.

“This was the best way for me to present myself. A part of it (was) to get away from my past,” she acknowledges. “People are obviously going to see my face more, but I’m still H.E.R.”

The singer recently authorized director Sean Frank to build a short film, “Every Kind of Way,” around her music, and she’s eager to film her own visuals and work on a full-length album.

For now, though, she’s just taken aback by the attention her music has received.

“Being anonymous, I thought I’d just release the music and see what happens organically,” she says. “It hasn’t even been a year and everything is happening so fast. It was almost like I was forced to reveal myself — like, ‘OK, it’s time.’”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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