There’s one thing H.E.R. was not, amid the mayhem of her first Grammys week: a deer in headlights. On Saturday night, you could find the singer upstairs in the Beverly Hilton, prepping to perform at Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammys Gala. An entourage of friends and family sat around the bed as she was preened by hair and beauty. Downstairs everyone from Lana Del Rey to Travis Scott, Barbra Streisand to Joni Mitchell walked the red carpet.
H.E.R., aka Gabriella Wilson, talks with the calm of someone who has practiced for this moment forever. She was signed to RCA when she was 14. At 21, she received five Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist (she took home two at the 2019 ceremony, for Best R&B Album, for H.E.R., and Best R&B Performance, for “Best Part”).
“It’s funny,” she tells EW. “Me and my mom had a meeting here at the Hilton when I was nine, and they were sound-checking for the Clive Davis party. I saw a bunch of celebrities. I met [producer] Rickey Minor and asked him for a picture.” She works with Minor now, and she recently showed him the 12-year-old photo. “Now here I am performing. It means that much to me. A full circle moment.” She deems it fate and claims that as the key to her nerveless energy. “It was already written,” she says. “It was already supposed to happen because I was here. My outfit is poppin’, my hair’s about to be good, and I’m zen-ing out.”
The music H.E.R. has released over the past three years has indeed been super zen; all lilting pianos, beats that creep like oozing molasses, and low-slung vocals about love and lust. The most astonishing thing about her Album of the Year nomination is that H.E.R. is actually a compilation of her two EPs: 2016’s Volume 1 and 2017’s Volume 2. “It’s an EP! Like, What?!,” she says, laughing. “I put it out to see what would happen. ‘Let’s see how this goes.’ I didn’t think I’d be nominated for Album of the Year.” Though it’s not strictly a debut LP, it is perhaps reflective of a forward-facing Academy, who are starting to recognize how younger artists develop.
For H.E.R., Grammys week was “hectic.” She bagged a $10,000 massage chair at a gifting suite, which was unexpected. Even more shocking was her run-in with legendary producer Quincy Jones at a Spotify showcase. “Oh my gosh,” she says, processing it all. “Apparently he stood up — and he’s really old — during my guitar solo. He said I was special. He doesn’t say that often.”
A vital part of H.E.R.’s story has been anonymity. She’s spoken to the press rarely and hides behind sunglasses. Little has been communicated about her personal life, with the focus instead put on her work as a pianist, guitarist, drummer, bassist, singer, songwriter, and child prodigy. She doesn’t party, but she made an exception this week when her team threw a celebration attended by Ty Dolla Sign.
The anonymity is going to be tougher now that her star is rising. “At this point it’s out of everyone’s hands, which is a blessing,” she says. “I knew it was gonna be hard to maintain. Sometimes I don’t believe the stuff that’s happening. It’s surreal. My show sold out? It still hasn’t hit me.” The fact she’s so low-key is a choice. “Artists like Prince and Janet Jackson maintained their mystique because they weren’t going to the clubs. You’d see Prince with a guitar in his hands if you saw him out. That’s me. I’m out to play music. Ain’t no turning back now.”
Of her first Grammys experience she had zero expectations. “I expected it to be fun and magical, but I wasn’t prepared for how this is feeling. I’m trying to live in the moment. I’m in it.” Later on Saturday night, at the pre-Grammy Gala, she played a cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Make It Rain,” beginning it acoustic before her band joined in while she shredded through a guitar solo. There was a standing ovation and Davis commended her as a “great, great talent”. She considered the performance a chance to impress the people to impress. “It’s crazy!” she says of the list of attendants. “A lot of important people in this room. The fact they get to see me do my thing is cool.”
H.E.R. first heard about her Grammy nominations while she was on tour in Houston last December. She slept through the announcements. Then her manager called their crew to an emergency meeting. He came in and yelled: “You have five Grammy nominations!” “We were all crying, I called my mom, I lost it,” says H.E.R. “Couldn’t believe it.” She shared her Best New Artist category with friends Chloe x Halle (Dua Lipa took home the award on Sunday).
The nods were fitting for a young artist like H.E.R. who says she’s always maintained an “I can do anything” attitude. “There’s no limitations on what I can do because I’m black or a woman,” she says. “Young women should pick up the guitar if they want to. Chill out and be who you are.” And what is her take on being a female at this year’s awards following Recording Academy President Neil Portnow’s comments last year that women needed to “step up”? “We’re here!” she says. “The time is now.”
Her mentor, Alicia Keys, has been a shining example. The fact that Keys hosted this year’s ceremony was another full circle moment for H.E.R.. “All these things are proof that I’m exactly where I need to be,” she says. At Staples Center you could feel a sensory shift in the room as she performed “Hard Place” with a full band and a flawless vocal. As she collected her award for Best R&B Album, she looked emotionally stirred. “First thing I wanna say is this is unbelievable!” she said. “And second: it’s not even an album, it’s an EP!”
The nominations have influenced H.E.R.’s approach to her debut record, which she’s light on details for. She’s making it in New York. Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins is involved. “My idea of the album process has shifted,” she says. “The nomination helped me because now I don’t overthink it.” She wants her debut to reflect how much she’s evolved. “I’m changing every single day. I’m turning 22. I’m not the same person I was,” she says. She also has a song she wants Stevie Wonder to collaborate on. “I’m trying to manifest that,” she says. If there’s any time to put something into the universe.