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‘I Was Afraid of This Song’: H.E.R. on Her Big New Ballad

To mix sports metaphors, H.E.R.’s new song “The Journey,” which will soundtrack ESPN’s broadcasts of the NBA finals, is a big swing — an old-school, hyper-melodic, live-instrument-driven ballad. And for H.E.R., who sees a gap between the energy of her live shows and her recorded output to date, it’s the kind of song she’s had in her all along. She tells Rolling Stone about recording “The Journey,” explains how it reflects a rough year for her (which includes an ongoing legal battle with the record label she signed to at age 14), and offers a preview of what’s next — from her next album to her role in the upcoming film of The Color Purple musical (in which she will use her real name, Gabriella Wilson.)

You were signed to a label as a teenager, and worked with a lot of people before your career really started. And Diane Warren, who worked with you on “The Journey,” was one of them, right?
We worked together when I was 15 years old, so 10 years ago. Crazy. I got signed really young and I’ve just been developing ever since. It was another session where I was thrilled to work with a legend. She’s been keeping up with me. She still remembers that session like it was yesterday. She was even saying, “Man, she blew me away then.” And it’s amazing what we’re doing now. I’m like, wow, that means a lot for her to say that, because she’s such a legend. 

And the world’s never heard that song you made with her back then?
Yeah, no, the world’s never heard it. It was a song we did a long time ago. I need to hear it again! I don’t think I’ve heard it since then. It’s so funny how it’s a full circle moment for me working with her.

How did you connect with her again for this song?
I had been wanting to work with Diane again. Obviously she’s amazing, and I’m a huge fan of her music. The kind of mood and mindset I’ve been in on tour with Coldplay, being in stadiums, has really influenced the way I make music and the way I hear music. I might have messaged her last fall and said, “Hey, I would love to work again soon.” She’d been dying to get in with me. And we agreed, “OK, cool. When I’m done with touring, and Beauty and the Beast [on TV], and the holiday and all that stuff, then we’ll get together.” 

So I texted her at that time, and she was like, “That’s crazy that you texted me, because I just put the pen down. I’ve been working on this song that I think would be amazing for you.” I went to her studio in January, and she played me the song. I was almost in tears, because the lyrics are so on-point with everything that I’ve been through lately. It felt like a meant-to-be moment. It was very much like God, very much divine timing. We both felt it in the room. Right then and there, I was playing the chords and doing my own things to it. I changed some of the things and made it a “me” song. I got very emotional when I was recording it, very much in tears.

It’s really a showcase for your voice.
There was a big note at the end of the song. It was one take, which is pretty crazy. This is a song where people really get to hear my vocals. They’ve never heard me sing like this on a record. So I’m really, really excited for people to hear it and to experience what they would hear live from me, on record.

And how did this end up as sort of the theme song to the NBA playoffs?
I had been trying to figure out, OK, when is the right time for this song? When should this happen? I’m a huge basketball fan. I was a little afraid of the song, I can’t lie. I was kind of like, all right, I don’t know if I want to release this now. 

Then I thought about the NBA and the playoffs and how appropriate the timing was. A friend of mine, who’s like a big brother to me, we’ve been going to all the games, and we were like, wait a minute, this could be the perfect moment to release the songs. There’s no better timing for me to fully be vulnerable and keep people up to date on everything I’ve been through and my story. As I’ve been allowing people more into my world, just letting people get to know me, I felt like this is the perfect timing. The NBA was the perfect introduction to do the song justice and really impact as many people as possible.

When you talk about what you’ve been through in the past year, what did that mean emotionally?
I had a coming-of-age moment. There’s a time in the music industry before anybody cares or knows who you are, you’re just doing it because you love it. Then it turns into more. There’s so much you don’t know, so much you’re learning about yourself. I was focused on the gratitude, being happy to be here, being on autopilot.

Now I’ve learned how to be intentional about what I want out of my career, what it means to be a leader and director of my own destiny.  Everyone around you is not always pure in their intent, not always on the same page as you. It’s important to look out for yourself, believe in yourself, balance that with what’s the right thing versus what you feel. Opinions come in, success comes, everybody has their thoughts on what it should be. 

I asked myself: What are you doing this for? My ‘whys’ are changing. I’m not the same person I was at 18. I had to make a lot of tough, tough, tough, tough decisions. I had to believe in myself. I had never felt so lost. I had never felt so uncertain. And that was a really hard thing for me.  Now I’m happier, lighter, more proud of the person I’m becoming. I’m in a good place, and on top of that, I’m taking my own advice, being comfortable with vulnerability. I’m living by “What’s bad for the heart is good for the art.” I’ve been trying to live by that, go with how I feel, let the music speak, and bring people into my world.

You mentioned being affected by your shows with Coldplay. That’s definitely something I’ve heard from other artists — when you play big stadiums like that, it ends up changing the music you make next.
I’ve always loved live performances since I was a kid. It’s one of my favorite things about being an artist. Being on tour with Coldplay for a year, in front of 50,000 to 90,000 people every night, is a different sort of experience than being in an arena or theater. The way the delay and reverb bounces around the stadium and how massive it feels is unique. Watching Coldplay’s show, they create an experience, not just playing music. Their mixes and sound choices inspired me in my own music. It’s not about adding more tracks to a song; it’s where everything sits in a song that changes how you hear it. With “The Journey” someone said to me, “This is who you’ve been all along,” and I think that’s true. I’ve suppressed that part of me because people didn’t understand it. Being an artist, no one has to get it. You have to believe in it and everyone else will follow. So I’m excited to bridge the gap between my live show and what people hear on the records and being in a stadium solidified that for me.

What’s going on with your next album?
I’ve been focusing on the songs, getting out everything I feel and want to say. I’ll think about the sonics later or do it as it comes. In terms of being worthy of possibly being on the album, I would say I already have 50 to 100 songs.  I want to take my time, unlike the past few years when I had to worry about deadlines. I’m taking time to create exactly what I want, make 300 songs if I want, then decide later. I’ve been creating all year and living at the same time, which has been inspiring. I can’t wait for people to hear it. But don’t ask me for a date.


You’ve had a reggae album in your back pocket for a while. What’s the status on that one?
I don’t really know when I want to release it. It’s one of those things. I have this great body of music, and as a creative, there are so many projects I want to do. It’s just a matter of when. Those songs are definitely in the chamber. We’ll see when it feels right. I’ve been super-organic about it, but the music exists. 

And are you still shooting the film musical of The Color Purple?
It’s done! It’s out in December, and I’m so excited for people to see it. I got to see a little bit of it and I’m so excited. Like, it’s so beautiful. The experience I had was amazing. The cast is insane. And Blitz [Bazawule] is an amazing director. Everything about it is really exciting to me. And yeah, it’s my acting debut, so I can’t wait for people to see me on a big screen.

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