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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

R‘n’B rising star HER on maintaining her anonymity in the modern age

After plaudits from R‘n’B peers including Rihanna and Alicia Keys, we catch up with the US talent in Dubai

HER performing at Sole DXB 2017. Courtesy PUMA Middle East
HER performing at Sole DXB 2017. Courtesy PUMA Middle East

The manager’s request was friendly yet firm: “And remember, no photos.”

We are in a comfy camper van that doubles as the green room for HER. The 20-year-old R’n’B singer has just finished an evocative Saturday night set in front of an ecstatic crowd at the Puma pavilion of annual sneaker festival Sole DXB. Her maiden UAE appearance caps off the California resident’s biggest year of her burgeoning career, which saw her release the critically lauded Volume 2 of her eponymous mixtape series..

“I definitely feel that there is a sense of momentum and movement from when I started this tour earlier in the year in the States to here in Dubai,” she says. “A lot of it comes to me just feeling more comfortable on stage and as an artist. I don’t know if there was a defining situation, but once I began seizing the moment, that’s when I really began to see everything coming together.”

Sitting on the couch wearing white tracksuit and large inscrutable sunglasses, HER embodies both the accessibility and mystery that is a hallmark of her work. With no official biography available other than her two EPs, HER – an acronym for Having Everything Revealed – is thought to be Gabi Wilson.

Internet sleuths made the connection earlier last year after discovering a cover of Drake’s 2015 track Jungle recorded under the Wilson moniker months prior to another version released under HER.

While both takes are relatively different, the similarity in their downbeat sounds and floaty vocals undoubtedly points to them being recorded by the same person. HER brushed aside the suggestion and wouldn’t confirm the link. What she is adamant about, however, is that anonymity is no marketing ploy. The decision to live in the shadows so to speak – her EP covers find her in silhouette, while social-media photos have her hands masking her face – is partly down to a reaction to the personality cult surrounding the music industry.

The push to have artists hyper-accessible, she reasons, may result in a fan base with no link to the art created.

“That’s why from day one I didn’t want my face attached to the music. I just wanted the music to shine on its own terms,” she says. “That was the key for me. You are not going to know much about my personal life, what I am wearing and who I hang out with. It will only be about the vibe of the music and the emotion it evokes. It was successful because now whether you know who I am or not, it doesn’t matter because you already love the music and accepted the message.”

While the approach worked – last year’s debut, Volume 1, was one of the most hyped records of the year and earned praise from luminaries including Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Wyclef Jean – it downplays the clever songwriting and idiosyncratic wordplay at the tracks’ hearts.

HER describes the projects as more concerned with creating an emotional state than sharp songwriting.

“The melodies are really simple and the songs are not well thought-out,” she says. “I just wanted to create a vibe where you can relax and chill to.” Indeed, the washed-out hovering keyboards, warm shuffling beats and tasteful guitar licks make both volumes an ideal choice for an evening drive, but they often mask tumultuous lyrics that are strikingly direct.

Where the stark Volume 1 was about the experience of sinking in a toxic relationship, the follow-up is slightly more upbeat, with HER accepting her role in the situation.

In standout track, Facts, HER’s silky croon turns blunt and forceful, as she muses why she is stuck in a broken relationship: “You were the one I was missing / The opposite of fiction / And that’s facts.”

In sultry late-night lament U, meanwhile, she makes a case for herself to be loved, with a beautifully spiralling chorus: “It could be U-S / There’s too many letters / But it’s only U.”

With songs detailing love and heartbreak, it is interesting to note that none of the tracks have bombastic declarations. In HER’s world, love and despair are emotions that seep in rather than strike you. “It comes from me really sitting down and thinking about what it is that I want to say,” she explains. “That’s where you really find those words that are in between the lines of what you are really trying to say,”

With the success of both EPs, HER is now looking to begin working on her official debut album. But she needs to first disappear again for a while. “I can say the songs will be more progressive,” she says. “But generally I need to live some life first. There were a few times where I was in the studio and I experienced a block. I eventually realised that I haven’t experienced enough to be ready. That always comes first because when you are writing a song you need to have something to say.”

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