Keri Hilson: Perrrfect timing
Born Keri Lynn Hilson in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Georgia in 1982, the Southern US native’s determined musical spirit first materialised before she’d even hit her teens, with her impressively penning her first song (‘Never Let Go’) at the tender age of 12!
Going on to join short-lived local girl-group D’Signe at just 14, by 18 Keri was already arranging songs, cutting vocals and engineering sessions in her hometown - before eventually running into chart-topping Atlanta producer Polow Da Don (Fergie; Usher) in a local recording studio.
Polow, meanwhile, in turn went on to introduce Keri (by this time already established as an urban hit songwriter as part of writing/production collective The Clutch) to world-conquering super-producer Timbaland. Who in 2006 signed her to his then-new Mosley Music Group label, while bringing her on board to contribute high-profile lead-vocals and songs to his globally-successful 2007 LP ‘Shock Value’ - most notably on the international Top 10 singles ‘The Way I Are’ (a pan-European Number One) and ‘Scream’.
With Hilson going on to successfully pen significant global hits for the likes of Usher (‘Love In This Club’), Britney Spears (‘Gimme More) and The Pussycat Dolls (‘Wait A Minute’), the highly-anticipated international launch of her career as an artist in her own right meanwhile finally arrived earlier this year, via the release of her US R&B Number One debut LP ‘In A Perfect World…’.
Nurtured and overseen by two of contemporary music’s most influential and successful producers - the aforementioned Timbaland and Polow Da Don - said album proudly boasts guest appearances from Platinum-selling rappers Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Trina; plus chart-topping R&B singers Ne-Yo, Akon and Keyshia Cole. While the uptempo, synth-pop grooves of her two previous Timbaland hits (the aforementioned ‘The Way I Are’ and ‘Scream’) are mostly replaced by a more soulful R&B vibe on cuts ranging from the irrepressibly-head-bobbing recent American smash ‘Turnin Me On’ and sparsely driving ‘Got Your Money Up’; to the hypnotic slow-jams ‘Make Love’ and ‘Tell Him The Truth’.
Meanwhile, with the melodic bounce of the skipping ‘Knock You Down’ currently giving her that all-important breakthrough global smash, a charmingly receptive and visually-stunning Ms. Hilson (who’s also supporting Ne-Yo on his UK tour this summer) conducts a breezy-yet-informative introductory chat with ‘Blues & Soul’’s ever-attentive Pete Lewis.
The thinking behind the title to her debut LP ‘In A Perfect World…’
“I deliberately used the ellipsis to make it an incomplete statement, to show that no-one’s world is perfect. Because, in a perfect world, we all have SOMETHING about our lives that we’d change if only we COULD - be it body image, or financial status, or love-life… You know, everyone has that SOMETHING!”
Whether the title-theme is reflected in the album’s song lyrics
“Oh, absolutely! Lyrically it’s a very vulnerable album. You know, I definitely didn’t want to paint myself as perfect on this project. Instead, I wanted it to be something that was very relatable, especially to women. Because there’s just so many LAYERS to a woman. I mean, on the exterior we often look like we have it all together - we throw on a pair of heels and some make-up, we do our hair - basically to just to cover up what’s really going on on the INSIDE! And so that’s what I really wanted to TALK about! Because I think that there’s nothing wrong - in fact I think there’s a certain STRENGTH actually - in embracing your insecurities, your vulnerabilities, and just those things in general that make you imperfect.”
How Keri’s LP is generally more R&B/midtempo-flavoured than many may have expected, after her initial breakthrough on Timbaland’s uptempo, pop-flavoured ‘The Way I Are’
“Well, I’m a midtempo lover, true-to-heart. You know, I grew up in the Babyface era. So a lotta the songs I love are those ballads from the Eighties like Bobby Brown’s ‘Roni’; Atlantic Starr’s ‘Always’… And so Timbaland knows that, even if he gives me an uptempo track, I am gonna put some soul factor on it. Which is actually what I think people appreciated about ‘The Way I Are’. You know, for it not to be overshadowed by the synths or whatever else was going on in the production, there were certain things I did - melodically and vocally - that COUNTERED that. And, with this first solo album, I wanted to kinda dive further into that vibe. I wanted to let people know that, while I can do pop, I am a bit more soulful than they might imagine.”
Her working relationship with chart-topping Atlanta urban producer Polow Da Don
“Well, our working relationship is like brother and sister. In that we BICKER, and we don’t AGREE all the time! You know, we’re both very strong-willed; we’re both very passionate about music, and about making DECISIONS in music… Plus the things that we gravitate towards are pretty different. I’m a ballad lover, like I said, while he’s a hip hop head. But what’s so great about working with Polow is the fact that he knows just how to take a basic hip hop track and make it instantly acceptable in the pop music world. Like he did with Fergie on ‘London Bridge’ and ‘Glamorous’, or with Usher on ‘Love In This Club’. And the fact that he knows how to blend those two worlds together so well is what I most appreciate about him as a producer.”
And her simultaneously-ongoing relationship with all-round super-producer Timbaland…
“Now, with Timbaland he and I agree a lot more than I do with Polow - though he is very strong-willed as well! Which is I guess is why our chemistry is so great. Because with Tim there is something hugely special about how he can take a completely pop track, and then make it totally acceptable to the hip hop world. I mean, look at what he did with Nelly Furtado - he took her from ‘Folklore’ into ‘Promiscuous Girl’! So overall, I guess the best way to explain my relationship with both producers is that the two of them blend those two cultures together very well, and I’m then somewhere in the MIDDLE! You know, Polow is more at the hip hop end; Timbaland is more at the pop end but with an ongoing absolute love for hip hop - and I in turn just try to counter BOTH of them.”
How Keri came to take the unusual step of having a fellow female R&B star - Keyshia Cole - guest on her album
“Keyshia Cole and I got to know each other on tour - not WELL, but we got cool. Like she watched my show a coupla times, came up to me, and was like ‘You are really dope, plus you’re DIFFERENT!’... Which is something I appreciated her telling me, ’cause I feel the same about HER! You know, she’s a no-holds-barred kinda girl in real life. And, just like me, she’s very soulful and very comfortable in her own skin and not afraid to show the world her true self. Which I feel is something that’s missing in a lot of artists today. So, halfway through the tour, she came to the studio one night when I was recording - and that’s how our collaboration came ABOUT! And, as you say, for two females to collaborate together in R&B is still something that happens very rarely. I remember when it was shocking for me to see Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige bond together, and the same with Brandy & Monica. I mean, to me it says something about the persons involved. And so I definitely wanted Keyshia on there to bring that feeling of camaraderie.”
Bringing the various male guest artists on board…
“Actually, when I was first about to turn the album in, there was only Lil Wayne on ‘Turnin Me On’ and Timbaland on ‘Return The Favour’ - and that was it, feature-wise! So the other guests literally all happened in the final hour. I mean, I was particularly keen to do a song with Akon. Because he was actually the very first producer I ever worked with - like 12 years ago, when I was just 14 years old! So, on that score, I was really excited that things had come back around full-circle! Then to me, having both Ne-Yo and Kanye West guest together on (the current international smash single) ‘Knock You Down’ was just perfect! Because, while Ne-Yo is so used to playing-up the gentleman side to him, at the same time Kanye is used to playing the villain who lets things slip through his fingers, makes mistakes and talks about it! So to have both of them feature on that one particular song I felt was just ideal!”
Keri’s early background
“Well, I grew up in an all-black neighbourhood in Dekatur, Georgia - a kinda lower-middle-class area. My mother - who’s from Iowa - owns and runs her own day-care centre, while my father’s a developer. And my musical influences, I think, came from my father’s side of the family. You know, my grandmother would sing in the choir; while my dad - while he was in college - sang and recorded with a quartet. So yeah, it was definitely my dad’s Southern side that impacted on me musically. I mean, the guy is INCREDIBLE! You know, anything I can sing - including the most complex runs - he can whistle! I mean, my dad can even whistle along with Kenny G! Plus he always had music playing - people like Sade, Anita Baker, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Take 6, Lisa Stansfield… So growing up those were the artists that stood out to me. Plus he obviously also introduced me to the greats like Stevie Wonder.”
How Polow Da Don first hooked Keri up with Timbaland
“One day Polow just walked up to me and said ‘You’re DIFFERENT! Who’d UNDERSTAND you, and who could PRODUCE you?’… And I was like ‘TIMBALAND could!’… But little did I know that, even before that conversation, he’d already told Timbaland about me! You know, because Polow had already seen me performing in a previous group I’d been in, he’d told Tim ‘She’s a songwriter, plus she can sing her ass off! I think you should MEET her!’... So then, next thing I know, Polow hooks up this phone conversation between me and Tim! And, after I’d sung for him down the phone, straightaway Tim was like ‘Let’s DO it! I’m DOWN!’! So I was like ‘But don’t you even wanna MEET me?’... But again he was like ‘Yeah, whatever! Let’s WORK!’… So my immediate reaction to myself was ‘OK, so clearly nothing’s gonna come of this AGAIN!’… Because back then I was used to singing to people over the phone all the TIME - and nothing would ever HAPPEN! You know, that’s just how things were going at that point in my career.”
How she eventually started working with Timbaland
“Well, as it turned out, Timbaland had been genuine and he had remembered me. So, when he next came to Atlanta, we met up at The Ritz Carlton. I remember it was early as hell in the morning! I’d just gone to sleep when Polow called me and was like ‘Tim’s in town! He wants you to meet him NOW! Get up, get dressed!’... So I got up, and just collected some songs that I thought he’d want to hear that I’d written for other artists… And, as it turned out, he LOVED them! He was like ‘YOU ARE DOPE!’… There was one song in particular called ‘Strange Angel’ where he was like ‘This is your ‘Cry Me A River’! I know what to do with a song like this! Can I work on it?’… So I said ‘Yeah!’ - and next he’s like ‘So what are you doing tonight?’… I’m like ‘Nothing! Why?’... So he says ‘Well, I’m going back to Miami to work. Can y’all come?’... So he bought us tickets; we hopped on the six o’clock flight... And I guess the rest is HISTORY! Tim and I began working together THAT NIGHT!”
Keri first coming to worldwide attention via her guest vocals and songwriting being prominently featured on Timbaland’s globally-successful 2007 LP ‘Shock Value’
“Like you say, that was the way the world got to hear about Keri Hilson. And Timbaland was the vessel through which people - who’d otherwise not have heard of me - got to know my name! Which was definitely very cool. But what many people DON’T know is that, when I first met Timbaland, he was actually about to retire! And he now credits me as part of the reason he DIDN’T! You know, a lotta people at that time felt for Timbaland. Because, up to then, he’d always been creating and building artists, and making money, for other labels that he had no vested interest in. So he was like ‘I’m TIRED of doing that! I wanna create something of my OWN! I wanna feel that I’ve taken something from zero to a million!’... And so, with me being the first time he actually had his own artist on his own label, I was very much part of the reason he got his drive back and didn’t retire! So I’m very grateful that I was there to see his whole reinvention, and to know that I was PART of it.”
How world-conquering tracks like ‘The Way I Are’ and ‘Scream’ felt to write and record
“Oh, working on tracks like ‘The Way I Are’ and ‘Scream’ was truly awesome! Because they felt so fresh to DO! I mean, when you’re at the core of why you do something - and you’re sitting there KNOWING that - it’s like ‘Wow! I’m in this room, and the reason I’m on this earth is for this feeling RIGHT HERE!’! You know, it truly was an amazing feeling that’s very difficult to describe. And the fact I was doing it with Timbaland made it so exciting on a personal level too, because Timbaland is always trying to just conquer the world! Every time he does a track he gets this gleam in his eye, and you can SEE it! I mean, he’ll even SAY it! Like when we working on the ‘Shock Value’ album together, he was like ‘I’m going for the WORLD with this one!’… And that’s exactly what he DID!”
Whether Keri feels her high-profile writing (penning global hits for the likes of Britney Spears/Usher/The Pussycat Dolls) has helped bring more attention to the contribution of songwriters themselves in today’s producer-driven urban market
“Well, one of the reasons why I initially started the songwriting team The Clutch was to do just that. And so yeah, I do think that the work of myself - alongside that of people like The-Dream, Ne-Yo and Ryan Leslie - has in recent years helped turn things around. In the sense that, though business-wise R&B music today is still very much a producer-driven game, people are now getting to know more about who the actual songwriters are, and are becoming more aware of what we actually CONTRIBUTE. Though, having said that, I also feel there is a tendency for this new generation of songwriters to be thought of as some kind of new phenomenon, or even a trend. Whereas in fact it can be traced all the way back to people like L.A. & Babyface in the Eighties! But - looking at the big picture - yeah, I’m definitely pleased that we have created more awareness about urban music songwriters, as opposed to just producers getting most of the credit.”
The single ‘Knock You Down Ft. Kanye West & Ne-Yo’ is released June 2. The album ‘In A Perfect World…’ is out now. The next single ‘Energy’ follows September 7, all through Mosley Music Group/ Z IV
Words PETE LEWIS