Her songs are streamed in the millions and her music is beloved by Janet Jackson. But who is HER, the songwriter who hides her identity with a pair of sunglasses?
Interviewing HER isn’t quite as odd as it should be. Even though the anonymous-ish slow-jam queen doesn’t remove her mirrored sunglasses throughout our meeting. Even though this means for a whole hour I’m basically looking at my own reflection as we sit in the sweet breeze of an air-conditioned hotel lobby in Midtown, Atlanta. Even though I kind of have to go along with the idea that I don’t know the real identity of HER, despite the fact that the most rudimentary Google brings up her full name, age and detailed career history.
HER is in fact Gabi Wilson, a singer and multi-instrumentalist from Vallejo, California, who was discovered, aged 10, performing on daytime TV in the US, scooped up by Alicia Keys’s management company and signed to RCA at 14. Although it doesn’t seem to have turned her into a Kids from Fame brat, it isn’t hard to work out that this semi-retreat from the spotlight is about her regaining agency over her identity.
Like Sia, Daft Punk and pre-mega fame the Weeknd, HER is as much about the commodification of mystery as she is the music, and like Clark Kent, sunglasses are always worn. This is despite the protestations of her 1.2 million Instagram followers, who are constantly flooding her comments with pleas to “show your face!”. “I wanted to be anonymous,” says HER, dressed down like any other 21-year-old on a Saturday afternoon in jeans, a black T-shirt and trainers, the only concessions to her ludicrous streaming stats and star status apparent in her huge glossy curls and aforementioned sunglasses. The decision certainly wasn’t due to a lack of confidence on HER’s part – just check YouTube for clips of Gabi Wilson performing on telly to millions as a kid, as relaxed as can be. Instead, she says it was down to how open her lyrics were. Though not especially candid, there’s a lot of gloomy heartbreak here: there’s wasted emotions, plenty of “if I can’t be with you what’s the point, really?”. This is music to mope to. Music to dump and be dumped to. This is in no small part down to the first two HER EPs being written from the ages of 14 to 18, a time when even an ignored WhatsApp message can result in weeks of sobbing into a pillow.Advertisement
“Living my truth was very hard – I felt vulnerable,” she says of her reasoning behind releasing music as HER. “Some people ask me: ‘Is it an alter ego, is it another version of yourself?’ But it’s just my inner self. It’s all the thoughts and feelings that sit in the back of my mind and I’m afraid to say.” With this approach to privacy and self-protection, then, it seems strange that HER would want to speak to journalists at all. In fact, it’s only in the past year or so she’s actually felt comfortable talking to the press. “It took me a while to want to do interviews,” she explains. “People always make me uncomfortable when they ask me: ‘Who’s this song about?’ I feel like I let you read my diary and now we have to have a conversation about it! I already let you read it, let’s just leave it at that.”
So what is HER’s life like beyond the music? She has three pet snakes that live with her in her apartment in Brooklyn (she shows me pictures on her phone of her favourite, Mike). She’s all grins when she recounts the tale of how her mother wooed her father by cooking him meals from her native Philippines when they lived in opposite apartment buildings in the Bay Area. And she practically floats when speaking about taking her 12-year-old sister on tour. “When I mean private I mean I don’t have a clique,” she says, positioning herself away from the Justin Biebers of the world. “You won’t see me out with so and so. All the gossip – I’m not about that at all. The drama.”
Yet, despite HER’s commitment to being low-key, the big names can’t keep away. An invaluable co-sign from Rihanna bought her tune Focus to the attention of millions; Alicia Keys has been coaching her for the past decade; and she’s here in Atlanta to pay tribute to her latest fan, Janet Jackson, at a glitzy industry ceremony. It was backstage at KOKO after a sold-out London show earlier this year that HER found the 52-year-old pop icon waiting in the wings to say how much she loved her music. “I’ve had many big sisters in the industry and it’s a beautiful thing to have so many mentors,” says HER, reverentially. “It’s easy to feel pressures being a female artist – pressure to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to conform. And having that support from another woman is confirmation that you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, which is to stay true to yourself.”
But there is a contradiction here. She may be outspoken about how her music can empower women, but she also went on tour with Chris Brown, the man who pleaded guilty to violently assaulting his girlfriend Rihanna in 2009. “He has a past … We’re all human, we’re all imperfect – not excusing or justifying anything – but he admires my art and I admire his, and that’s what it’s about, the celebration of art,” she says of the rapper. Adjusting her glasses, she pauses to reflect on her own approach as soberly as she does on Brown’s. “I don’t focus on the controversy. I don’t focus on anything other than the art.”
That “art” is part of a new wave flooding R&B. Indie and dance have always had a place for the loners – James Blake, Burial, Aphex Twin et al – but it’s a stance that seems at odds with soul’s more boombastic roots. Yet since the Weeknd uploaded his first tracks to YouTube in 2011 under the cryptic username xoxxxoooxo, confusing and delighting music bloggers in equal measure, the genre hasn’t been as reliant on star power as it once was. More recently, there’s been the shy, almost reclusive Bryson Tiller, who guests on HER’s latest EP, I Used to Know Her: The Prelude EP, and SZA, who’s less about TMZ headlines and more about making you cry about your ex from sixth form.
“It’s not even about the glamour and the crazy personality any more, it’s just about what do you make me feel with your music and your words,” explains HER. “[It’s about] all the underdogs, the people who weren’t the most popular in school or the people who were told they weren’t gonna be anything. But they really have a story to show the world and people can identify with them.”
She chuckles throatily when I ask if she’ll ever remove the glasses. Is it part of a marketing plan? Are there meeting rooms filled with label interns figuring out tactics to launch a star? “Eventually you’re gonna have to see my face. But there’s no PowerPoint presentation involved.”