H.E.R. Still Finds Inspiration in Prince and ‘Martin’

H.E.R. doesn’t want her music to be boxed in.

“When I was creating it, I wasn’t really aiming for anything,” the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist said of “Back of My Mind,” her new 21-track album. “But when I started sequencing it and putting it together, I realized that a lot of the songs that I created were different moods of R&B.”

The album was her playground, with references to early projects as well as those she hadn’t yet put out; featured vocals by Ty Dolla Sign, Cordae, Lil Baby and Chris Brown; reverb-y Dave Grohl-esque drums and trap beats; and “a bunch of really dope women working with me behind the scenes,” she said. “And all of those sounds turned into a celebration of all the things that R&B could be.”

It has been a heady few months, even for H.E.R. (Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson), who as a child prodigy practiced acceptance speeches. In February, she performed “America the Beautiful” at the Super Bowl kickoff show before winning, in March, a song of the year Grammy for “I Can’t Breathe” and, in April, a best original song Oscar for “Fight for You.” She was only 23.

Now comes the three-part “Prime Day Show” on Amazon, set in a reimagined Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles, which was a hub of Black culture in the 1930s and ’40s. And in August, she’ll take the stage at the Hollywood Bowl, while squeezing in work on a reggae EP that she hopes to release later this year.

As H.E.R.’s star rises, so has her awareness as a role model.

“Now I have this thing that I have to take care of and cherish, this ability to inspire and encourage women who are trying to figure out who they want to become, or who don’t want to fit into social norms,” she said.

“I think anybody should want to think outside the box and be who they are, truly,” she added. “That’s what my album is about. And that’s the message that I carry with me in everything that I do.”

In a call from Brooklyn, where she was rehearsing before heading to Los Angeles (“I live everywhere,” she said), H.E.R. spoke about a few of her own inspirations. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. Fender Stratocaster Black and White Guitar

The first guitar my dad bought me was like a mini one for kids, and I learned to play the blues pentatonic scale. I want to say I was seven years old. I’ve been a Fender fan since then, and we had been having conversations about making my own guitar ever since I performed at the 2019 Grammys, and they created an acrylic Strat for me that was clear. I decided to make it chrome, and it also matches the holographic chrome design that I like to put on my nails sometimes. I designed it and picked all the effects and noiseless pickups. And I became the first Black woman to do a collaboration with Fender.

2. Her Signature Eyeglasses

Most of the time people don’t recognize me [without my glasses on]. I’m like the female reverse Clark Kent. My favorite pair are these black frames that I actually designed in collaboration with DIFF eyewear, and they’re clear, and they’re blue-light glasses so they protect from you looking at screens.

I’ve always loved glasses, but I started to be more intentional about wearing them when I started doing shows in 2017 after I dropped my first project, “Volume 1.” And I thought, let’s obscure the lights and I’ll wear glasses — because my music is the window to my soul, and not my eyes.

3. “Rave Un2 the Year 2000

That’s a Prince concert DVD that I watched growing up. It was on every single weekend in my house, and it inspired me a lot. The moment with him and Lenny Kravitz performing — they did “American Woman” and “Fly Away” together — I was just so, like, “Man, I want to be a rock star.”

4. Her Mom’s Filipino Dishes

Lumpia is like a roll. There’s meat and vegetables in it, and it’s very delicious. It’s a long process to make but it’s what I grew up eating in my Filipino household. Halo-halo means “mix-mix” in Tagalog. I grew up eating it every day after school. There’s jellies and shaved ice and evaporated milk and ice cream and jackfruit and sweet beans and all kinds of stuff. My mom made it, and she taught me how to make it.

5. And Her Dad’s Fried Chicken

I don’t eat other people’s fried chicken. He grew up in Arkansas, and he brought Southern cooking into our house in the Bay Area in California.

6. Prince’s “Purple Rain”

I got to watch the movie when I was a kid, and my dad kind of skipped over the bad parts. It’s iconic — Prince absolutely killed that whole movie. I’ve played a lot of songs, but “Purple Rain” is one of those songs I definitely studied and covered. I wish, I wish [I would have met Prince]. I did get to see him live, though.

7. Apollo Theater

I performed at the Apollo when I was 9 years old. I performed “Freeway of Love” by Aretha Franklin, and it was my first time in New York City, and my family came. They actually threw a little concert in our hometown so that we could afford to stay in New York for days. And then fast forward to early this year. I had the opportunity to go to D’Angelo’s Verzuz that he did on Instagram Live, and he sang “Best Part” with me.

It’s just such a legendary place. Freshly coming from California, for me it just seemed like a world away. And so to be able to go there and perform — and then perform again with one of my favorite artists and a legend, D’Angelo — it just made the place even more special.

8. Golden State Warriors

I used to love going to Warriors games when I was a kid. When I was 10 or 11, I sang the national anthem at a Warriors and Lakers game. And I got to see Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes. They were all on the Warriors at that time of the “We Believe” era. I haven’t been to a Warriors game in a really long time. But I was at a Nets game the other day, and it was fun. Go-go Nets.

9. “Martin,” starring Martin Lawrence

It’s one of those late-night shows for when you can’t sleep. If I’m having a bad day and that comes on, like that, I forget. [Martin plays a D.J. and talk-show host], and it’s about his relationship with his girlfriend’s best friend. And he also plays the Sheneneh character and then he plays a pimp, and it’s hilarious. I still watch it. It’s timeless.

10. Lights On Festival

It’s something that I started in 2019, and obviously I couldn’t do in 2020, but it was a huge success and I didn’t expect it — 14,000 people at the Concord Pavilion [in Concord, Calif.], and the whole lineup was R&B artists.

That proved to me that R&B is still alive, and that people love it and they need it. So I’m bringing my festival back in September. We’re going to keep the music going.

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