Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Keri Hilson: Perrrfect timing

Keri Hilson
Keri Hilson Keri Hilson Keri Hilson Keri Hilson

Born Keri Lynn Hilson in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Georgia in 1982, the Southern US nativeâs determined musical spirit first materialised before sheâd even hit her teens, with her impressively penning her first song (âNever Let Goâ) at the tender age of 12!

Going on to join short-lived local girl-group DâSigne 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 âShock Valueâ - most notably on the international Top 10 singles âThe Way I Areâ (a pan-European Number One) and âScreamâ.

With Hilson going on to successfully pen significant global hits for the likes of Usher (âLove In This Clubâ), Britney Spears (âGimme More) and The Pussycat Dolls (âWait A Minuteâ), 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 âIn A Perfect Worldâ¦â.

Nurtured and overseen by two of contemporary musicâs 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 âThe Way I Areâ and âScreamâ) are mostly replaced by a more soulful R&B vibe on cuts ranging from the irrepressibly-head-bobbing recent American smash âTurnin Me Onâ and sparsely driving âGot Your Money Upâ; to the hypnotic slow-jams âMake Loveâ and âTell Him The Truthâ.

Meanwhile, with the melodic bounce of the skipping âKnock You Downâ currently giving her that all-important breakthrough global smash, a charmingly receptive and visually-stunning Ms. Hilson (whoâs also supporting Ne-Yo on his UK tour this summer) conducts a breezy-yet-informative introductory chat with âBlues & Soulââs ever-attentive Pete Lewis.

The thinking behind the title to her debut LP âIn A Perfect Worldâ¦â

âI deliberately used the ellipsis to make it an incomplete statement, to show that no-oneâs world is perfect. Because, in a perfect world, we all have SOMETHING about our lives that weâd change if only we COULD - be it body image, or financial status, or love-life⦠You know, everyone has that SOMETHING!â

Whether the title-theme is reflected in the albumâs song lyrics

âOh, absolutely! Lyrically itâs a very vulnerable album. You know, I definitely didnât want to paint myself as perfect on this project. Instead, I wanted it to be something that was very relatable, especially to women. Because thereâs 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 whatâs really going on on the INSIDE! And so thatâs what I really wanted to TALK about! Because I think that thereâs nothing wrong - in fact I think thereâs a certain STRENGTH actually - in embracing your insecurities, your vulnerabilities, and just those things in general that make you imperfect.â

How Keriâs LP is generally more R&B/midtempo-flavoured than many may have expected, after her initial breakthrough on Timbalandâs uptempo, pop-flavoured âThe Way I Areâ

âWell, Iâm 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 Brownâs âRoniâ; Atlantic Starrâs âAlwaysâ⦠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 âThe Way I Areâ. 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.â

Her working relationship with chart-topping Atlanta urban producer Polow Da Don

âWell, our working relationship is like brother and sister. In that we BICKER, and we donât AGREE all the time! You know, weâre both very strong-willed; weâre both very passionate about music, and about making DECISIONS in music⦠Plus the things that we gravitate towards are pretty different. Iâm a ballad lover, like I said, while heâs a hip hop head. But whatâs 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 âLondon Bridgeâ and âGlamorousâ, or with Usher on âLove In This Clubâ. 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.â

And her simultaneously-ongoing relationship with all-round super-producer Timbalandâ¦

âNow, 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 âFolkloreâ into âPromiscuous Girlâ! 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 Iâm 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.â

How Keri came to take the unusual step of having a fellow female R&B star - Keyshia Cole - guest on her album

âKeyshia 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 âYou are really dope, plus youâre DIFFERENT!â... Which is something I appreciated her telling me, âcause I feel the same about HER! You know, sheâs a no-holds-barred kinda girl in real life. And, just like me, sheâs very soulful and very comfortable in her own skin and not afraid to show the world her true self. Which I feel is something thatâs missing in a lot of artists today. So, halfway through the tour, she came to the studio one night when I was recording - and thatâs 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.â

Bringing the various male guest artists on boardâ¦

âActually, when I was first about to turn the album in, there was only Lil Wayne on âTurnin Me Onâ and Timbaland on âReturn The Favourâ - 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) âKnock You Downâ 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!â

Keriâs early background

âWell, I grew up in an all-black neighbourhood in Dekatur, Georgia - a kinda lower-middle-class area. My mother - whoâs from Iowa - owns and runs her own day-care centre, while my fatherâs a developer. And my musical influences, I think, came from my fatherâs 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 dadâs 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.â

How Polow Da Don first hooked Keri up with Timbaland

âOne day Polow just walked up to me and said âYouâre DIFFERENT! Whoâd UNDERSTAND you, and who could PRODUCE you?â⦠And I was like âTIMBALAND could!â⦠But little did I know that, even before that conversation, heâd already told Timbaland about me! You know, because Polow had already seen me performing in a previous group Iâd been in, heâd told Tim âSheâs a songwriter, plus she can sing her ass off! I think you should MEET her!â... So then, next thing I know, Polow hooks up this phone conversation between me and Tim! And, after Iâd sung for him down the phone, straightaway Tim was like âLetâs DO it! Iâm DOWN!â! So I was like âBut donât you even wanna MEET me?â... But again he was like âYeah, whatever! Letâs WORK!â⦠So my immediate reaction to myself was âOK, so clearly nothingâs gonna come of this AGAIN!â⦠Because back then I was used to singing to people over the phone all the TIME - and nothing would ever HAPPEN! You know, thatâs just how things were going at that point in my career.â

How she eventually started working with Timbaland

âWell, 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! Iâd just gone to sleep when Polow called me and was like âTimâs in town! He wants you to meet him NOW! Get up, get dressed!â... So I got up, and just collected some songs that I thought heâd want to hear that Iâd written for other artists⦠And, as it turned out, he LOVED them! He was like âYOU ARE DOPE!â⦠There was one song in particular called âStrange Angelâ where he was like âThis is your âCry Me A Riverâ! I know what to do with a song like this! Can I work on it?â⦠So I said âYeah!â - and next heâs like âSo what are you doing tonight?â⦠Iâm like âNothing! Why?â... So he says âWell, Iâm going back to Miami to work. Can yâall come?â... So he bought us tickets; we hopped on the six oâclock flight... And I guess the rest is HISTORY! Tim and I began working together THAT NIGHT!â

Keri first coming to worldwide attention via her guest vocals and songwriting being prominently featured on Timbalandâs globally-successful 2007 LP âShock Valueâ

âLike you say, that was the way the world got to hear about Keri Hilson. And Timbaland was the vessel through which people - whoâd otherwise not have heard of me - got to know my name! Which was definitely very cool. But what many people DONâT 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 DIDNâT! You know, a lotta people at that time felt for Timbaland. Because, up to then, heâd always been creating and building artists, and making money, for other labels that he had no vested interest in. So he was like âIâm TIRED of doing that! I wanna create something of my OWN! I wanna feel that Iâve taken something from zero to a million!â... 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 didnât retire! So Iâm very grateful that I was there to see his whole reinvention, and to know that I was PART of it.â

How world-conquering tracks like âThe Way I Areâ and âScreamâ felt to write and record

âOh, working on tracks like âThe Way I Areâ and âScreamâ was truly awesome! Because they felt so fresh to DO! I mean, when youâre at the core of why you do something - and youâre sitting there KNOWING that - itâs like âWow! Iâm in this room, and the reason Iâm on this earth is for this feeling RIGHT HERE!â! You know, it truly was an amazing feeling thatâs 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, heâll even SAY it! Like when we working on the âShock Valueâ album together, he was like âIâm going for the WORLD with this one!â⦠And thatâs exactly what he DID!â

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 todayâs producer-driven urban market

âWell, 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, Iâm definitely pleased that we have created more awareness about urban music songwriters, as opposed to just producers getting most of the credit.â

The single âKnock You Down Ft. Kanye West & Ne-Yoâ is released June 2. The album âIn A Perfect Worldâ¦â is out now. The next single âEnergyâ follows September 7, all through Mosley Music Group/ Z IV

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