R&B Singer H.E.R. Comes to the Agora This Week on the Heels of Another Critically Acclaimed EP

Many performers who start in their teens fizzle out before they peak.

Not H.E.R. (Gabriella "Gabi" Wilson).

The 21-year-old R&B singer continues to evolve with every EP and LP. Earlier this year, she released I Used to Know Her: Part 2, an 8-track, digital-only EP that followed up I Used to Know Her: The Prelude EP. The most nominated artist for the 2018 Soul Train Awards, H.E.R. kicked off a headlining North American tour earlier this month; she performs at 8 p.m. on Sunday at the Agora.

H.E.R. says her musical maturation stems from the fact that she grew up in a very musical household.

“Music was around me since the day I was born,” she says in a recent phone interview. “My father was a musician in a cover band that rehearsed in our living room. All the instruments were in our house, and I just gravitated to music. It came naturally to me and was something I did for fun. It took over my life. I performed a lot at a young age with my father. My mom booked me in talent shows and things like that. I just loved to do it. There wasn’t a question about what else I would do in life.”

She signed a record deal at age 14 and dropped her debut, 2016’s H.E.R. Volume 1, when she was 17.

“It was challenging,” she says of that initial offering. “I had been creating songs for a long time, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘Losing’ that I knew I had it. I channeled the most honest and vulnerable part of me. It was frustrating trying to find my voice and find who I was within the music that was happening at that time. But I realized the best songs are the ones that people relate to you and resonate with others. I didn’t know what I wanted to put on the record. It was tricky. It was my baby. First impressions are everything. I was very particular and sensitive about my art.”

Fans and other musicians responded quite favorably. H.E.R. says she was taken aback by her quick ascent.

“The plan was to grow organically,” she says. “I didn’t want people to know who I was, and my face wasn’t on the album. I just wanted people to love the music. Everything happened quickly. I was already headlining and selling out a tour. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller and Janet Jackson and so many people reacting was confirmation that I did the right thing. I was honest and true to myself and it paid off a lot.”

With I Used to Know Her: Part 2, H.E.R. says she didn’t exactly intend to do anything differently. Rather, she just wanted to “elevate.”

“I grew up playing instruments, and I wanted to showcase that more,” she says. “You hear live bass lines and more live drums and more keys and more organic sounds. I Used to Know Her is a feeling and another side of me. It’s not so much different. It’s all still very much me, but it’s another side of me.

On the tender ballad, she whispers “I’m not okay/I’m not okay” over snappy percussion and a gentle piano melody.

“One reason I wrote the song was that sometimes we don’t acknowledge the fact that we’re okay,” she says. “We try to stay strong for everyone but sometimes you have to talk to someone. Sometimes, depression and sadness can become a sickness to your body. It’s important to talk to someone. Sometimes, you have to accept not being okay in the moment and letting it pass. Sometimes, we put the responsibility on someone else to fix it. Sometimes, it’s not really on them. They just need to be there and not feel like they need to fix it. That’s why I was writing that song.”

“Lord is Coming” offers a spoken word analysis of our current times over a jazzy bass riff. “We voted, but did we really get to choose,” H.E.R. intones on the moving song.

“I wanted to dig into things I feel strongly about,” she says when asked about the track. “I didn’t want to be too controversial. I just wanted to make a song that everyone can appreciate and understand. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what religion or race you belong to. This world is in a crazy state. Music  is something that brings everyone together. It’s a language that everyone speaks. We all know right and wrong, and we all have morals. Getting into the specifics can separate us. At the end of the day, we’re all human. It’s never too late to change and look at yourself and realize what you can do to make the world a better place, as corny as it might sound.”

H.E.R., Bri Steves, Tone Stith, 8 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 2, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $32-$125, agoracleveland.com

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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