An Interview with H.E.R., Who's Getting Back to Her Younger Self

“I didn’t think that my diary was the same as somebody else’s.”
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H.E.R.’s music basks in a knowing warmth. Her flavor of R&B is lithe and electric, the type of vocal performances and writing that makes your whole body tingle. On her latest offering, I Used to Know Her: Part 2, H.E.R. explores love, sidesteps the shame of admitting she’s not okay, and enters the political arena with a sobering commentary on just how much is plaguing our world. There’s an immense emotional weight to Part 2, but not so much that the precious quality of the album is crushed. If anything, this weight acts as a base for H.E.R., who never succumbs to an emotional exhaustion even when pouring her heart out.

“You know, it’s therapeutic,” she tells me of making music. “It’s not like it’s labor; I don’t feel emotionally exhausted when I create. It does the opposite for me. I create because I love it and it’s therapy for me. I don’t think I ever get emotionally exhausted unless I’m working and moving a lot. Other than that, sometimes you gotta feel whatever it is you’re feeling and then create it later.”

What began as therapy sessions and songs written by a younger H.E.R. who could not imagine others share in her emotional woes has turned into a national platform. “I’ve gotten a crazy reaction… People saying: ‘Oh, I feel you on that. I relate to this. It seems like you’re reading my diary.’ It’s become me being a voice for young women, me being a voice for all women, actually. I didn’t realize that I could do that and be that, in the beginning, because it was even hard for me to be honest, but that’s what happens when you stay true to yourself.”

In the beginning—and to this day—H.E.R. was giving us the pages of her diary. Now, at 21, she’s shocked to find that her diary is not unlike the diaries of her fans. Where music builds community, H.E.R. is a master craftswoman. The secret to her uncanny ability to connect? She’s going back to her roots; she’s going back to who she was in her youth. “We didn’t have insecurities as kids. We didn’t overthink. We just did. And I’ve been trying to get back to that, to get back to my younger self.”

DJBooth’s full interview with H.E.R., lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: With so many churn-and-burn releases, what possesses you to release music in a series with a cohesive narrative?

H.E.R.: I’m always creating, and everything is like my diary. Even [H.E.R.,] Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, each project is all cohesive to one story but specific to one time and one feeling. That’s what I was doing with I Used to Know Her: The Prelude and this [I Used to Know Her:] Part 2.

Why do you think the series format works so well?

Because we have a short attention span nowadays with social media, and people are coming out with music really fast. We don’t wait two years to listen to someone’s album, you know? We forget about artists so quickly [laughs]. We can’t wait that long, so this is the best way for me to keep my fans and to keep people aware [of me] and to keep releasing music because I’m always creating anyway. It’s more fun for me, too.

How does working in these pieces impact your creative process?

I don’t know if it really impacts my process because I don’t like to create based on what the next release is gonna be. I create, then decide what it’s gonna be. I’m definitely all over the place, I don’t like to be boxed or anything. I may create a certain amount of songs in a week, and then the following week, I’m creating another vibe—obviously still me. Then I see what happens, like, “Oh, well this song and this song should be on this project because they’re specific to a certain sound.”

Did you build this EP around a certain song?

I think I Used to Know Her: Part 2 was a continuation of The Prelude. Some of the songs I wrote even before I had The Prelude. It was kind of like, this song is still special to me. When I’m putting together a record, it’s about the feeling that it represents and with I Used to Know Her, it’s all about my perspective in love and in life, and it’s not too specific.

How do you keep from getting exhausted from all the emotional labor you do in your music?

You know, it’s therapeutic. It’s not like it’s labor; I don’t feel emotionally exhausted when I create. It does the opposite for me. I create because I love it and it’s therapy for me. I don’t think I ever get emotionally exhausted unless I’m working and moving a lot. Other than that, sometimes you gotta feel whatever it is you’re feeling and then create it later.

Which song was most important for you to create, for this moment in your life?

One of the songs I’m really happy I wrote was “Lord Is Coming,” because of everything that’s going on in the world right now. It needed to be said, for me. It came from a very passionate place and music is a language everybody speaks. It brings everybody together, and that’s one of those songs I think could do it.

That spoken word segment on “Lord Is Coming” is wonderfully arresting. What first sparked you wanting to tackle so many issues at once?

The idea of “Lord Is Coming,” you hear people say, like, it’s Armageddon, it’s the end of the world. I really felt like there’s so much happening in the world right now that needed to be said, that’s not acknowledged. I wrote the spoken word as an introduction to what the song is about.

Did it feel good to go back to the spoken word roots?

Absolutely! I’m always writing anyways.

Was there any fear in releasing such a socially critical track?

I think I found that balance of not being controversial and political. I don’t take sides or try to… Like I said, music brings people together and it should always be that. I tried to walk that line of touching on everything without being controversial or being too political.

How do you stave away the depression that comes from all the terrible news you listed on the song?

Like I said, it came from passion. I do get very sad thinking about what’s happening in the world. I think about how heavy it weighs on me sometimes. Music is therapeutic and it’s kind of that way of getting it out.

Earlier this year, you told Elle that your honesty originally came from a “selfish” place. Where does it come from now?

I said that because in the beginning, I think everybody can relate in that when we go through things and we deal with anything emotional, we feel alone. We feel like nobody understands it. We feel like the only one that deals with whatever that is. In the beginning, I didn’t think anyone could relate to a song like “Losing” or a song like “Focus.” I just thought those were specific feelings that I had. Being 17 years old, you don’t think about other people having those same feelings.

Now, [with] those songs being released, I’ve gotten a crazy reaction… People saying: “Oh, I feel you on that. I relate to this. It seems like you’re reading my diary.” It’s become me being a voice for young women, me being a voice for all women, actually. I didn’t realize that I could do that and be that, in the beginning, because it was even hard for me to be honest, but that’s what happens when you stay true to yourself. Now I’m feeling that rewarding feeling of making someone feel like they can be comfortable with themselves, and their vulnerability, and their stories, and living their truths. That’s what it’s turned into.

What does it mean to you, to be so understood by your fans?

Maybe not understood, but relating to. So, you understand because you’ve been through the same thing. It’s interesting that everybody has said: “You’re reading my diary.” I didn’t think that my diary was the same as somebody else’s.

Does that ever cross your mind when you’re creating?

Yeah, but I guess how I discovered that was by writing my own stories. When I wrote songs like “I’m Not OK,” I did think about how I’m not the only person that’s felt this before. So, I know this is gonna resonate with people. I know someone is gonna be touched by this song because we’re afraid to say we’re not okay sometimes.

Is that empowering?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Two projects into this series, what does being known mean to you?

The name of the project, it’s not so much about being known or being popular. It came from me thinking back to my younger self and thinking back to who I was when I was doing music and being kind of fearless on stage. Just in general, we didn’t have insecurities as kids. We didn’t overthink. We just did. And I’ve been trying to get back to that, to get back to my younger self.

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