Keri Hilson: The Writer and The Performer

Keri Hilson
Sears Centre Arena – Hoffman Estates, IL
April 10, 2009


First there was Ne-Yo. Then there was The-Dream. Now there’s Keri Hilson: the lastest behind-the-scenes songwriter to come out with her own album and enter the world as a performing artist. Read on to find out what Ms. Keri Hilson had to say about working with superstars Lil Wayne, Timbaland, and the real Kanye West.

Who are some “under-the-radar” artists that you’ve discovered and are listening to now that the public should know about? Great question. One is definitely Kevin Michael. Robyn from Sweden. She’s under the radar here I guess with her debut here. Ryan Leslie.

What do you find most difficult about writing songs for other artists? Just trying to imagine how they feel about certain things. You never really know whether they can relate to what you’re writing about; whether it’s something that they want to talk about. When you’re not afforded the luxury of sitting down and picking their brain. Usually, I am afforded that luxury a lot. In the beginning of your career, no one really trusts [you]. You don’t get to do that in the beginning of a songwriter’s career. But later, once people know that you’re capable of writing [and] coming up with something that they artist can really connect to, then they put you in with the artist. Then you get to do that.

What do you find most difficult about writing songs for yourself? Sometimes you don’t want to be so naked. Sometimes you start writing and talking about things. There was that fear at first of me being a little too vulnerable, of being just a bit too bare. I decided I’m not going to care about that. I’ll just talk about what I want to talk about. What’s on my brain; what situations I went through. Leave the rest to the imagination. But there isn’t much to the imagination. I really wanted to do a project that was vulnerable and really showed women in not the pulled together heel-wearing, perfume-wearing light, but the other side. The deep inside light; how we really are.

What is the writing process like for you? Tough / easy? I don’t have writer’s block all the time, but it does happen. For me, writer’s block just means I am lacking inspiration for the moment. So I have to go have a conversation. Go sit down with my girls or go out and experience life a bit. I think it happens from over-working and over-thinking. It’s not really writer’s block; it’s just trying too hard. For the creative process sometimes, that’s the worst thing you could do to yourself is try. Just let it come to you organically. Let life happen and be inspired.

When writing, do you tend to focus on and contribute more with the lyrics or the music and melody? Both. What I do is lyric and melody.

I’ve read that Mariah Carey, if not somewhere that she can record a melody or write down a lyric, will call her voicemail and sing into it. Yes! I’ve done that. I’ve called other people’s voicemails, too.

When co-writing with multiple people, do you find it hard to get your point across? No, that’s the good thing about The Clutch. We are all writers who have individual success prior to and even since forming The Clutch. We write individually and collectively. Some of the projects that you hear about are Clutch records, meaning maybe two of us, maybe three of us – not all five in one room at the same time. When we work together – when we do – on certain projects, it’s down to a system. It doesn’t stunt what you want to talk about. If a song is not going the way that you initially intended, then you just kind of tuck that thought away. Put it away and bring it up later. It’s a collaboration.

What is more common: having a record label hire you to write a track for one of their artists or taking a track you’ve written and shopping it to labels and artists to record? It happens either kind of way. Sometimes it’s not the record label, it’s the artists themselves. Sometimes it’s management. It happens all kinds of different ways. I could be with the artist and accidentally work for them. You never know.

Who did you grow up listening to that has been an influence on the music you like to write and sing now? I’m influenced by none, inspired by many. I say that because no one really influences my sound. There are people who stand out as far as who inspire me, which is Lauryn Hill and Robin Thicke. Before that it was Mariah Carey a lot, Whitney Houston a whole lot, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Those were people that really stood out in the early “performer Keri” days.

How much of the business side of the music industry did you understand before signing contracts for publishing and record deals? Did you understand publishing splits, royalty rates, etc.? (Keriokey Music Publishing) Absolutely! I took my time. I was offered many publishing deals. I did read “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” by Donald Passman. I learned early that you have to know the business. I was offered a lot of publishing deals, and I was the last of the Mohicans as far as everyone that I knew that signed. I was like, “Well, why?” Everyone that I work with has a publishing deal, so my music is being shopped. A lot of writers didn’t understand that you can wait until your worth goes up. Until all the pipeline stuff comes out and you have more leverage. That’s what I did and got everything I wanted in my publishing deal, everything I wanted in my record deal because I was pretty astute in the language. I asked a lot of questions. At the same time I knew a lot of songwriters who were in deals and didn’t meet their requirements; they were in suspension. That was not where I wanted to be, obviously. You got to take care of business.

What’s it like touring with Lil Wayne and opening for him every night? It’s been really cool. Can I tell you? I only see him on stage every night. Except, this was the fifth time. The tour’s over and it was really sad. I never go to see him. I never even know when he’s here. This is the fifth time I’ve seen him this whole four months. Ever since December, so about four months because we had a little break. I paged him like, “This is really sad. We never see each other. I’m going to go visit you.” So I visited him; that’s where I just was. That’s why I smell like smoke. I actually got to watch my record grow. I got to see it first-hand. A lot of artists don’t get to do that because they’re maybe not in a position to tour while their record’s out. I got to see it [In A Perfect World…] grow. More and more I watch people standing up for me and more people cheering and more people singing along with my words. It is awesome.

Who is your favorite person to follow on Twitter and why? Wow! That’s a good question. Right now, Kevin Hart. His thing [Twitter name] is KevinHart4real. He’s a comedian. His [Tweets] are funny as hell. They’re funny! Diddy has a whole lot – he kills me. It seems like he [Diddy] gets more space than we do, doesn’t it? How does he fit it all?

What has been the funniest Tweet you’ve ever read from somebody? Kevin Hart will tell you if somebody’s lips are chapped. He’ll take a picture of it. He’ll be like, “Oh my God, I thought they were about to bleed!” He took a picture of his biggest fan – he was like a thug dude – and he [Kevin] said he [biggest fan] smelled like Bath & Body Works. His Tweets are hilarious; he’s a comedian, so it’s funny.

Do you think you would be where you are today if you had not signed with a label that happens to be an imprint of a major with huge marketing resources? Absolutely. From a resource standpoint, it’s almost like you have to do everything yourself. It’s almost like you’re independent, but for some reason the resources that they do have are [good]. It’s good; they’re abundant. Resources meaning money a lot of times; the marketing staff. You can’t depend on them, though. That’s one thing I’ve learned. No matter what situation you’re in, you can’t depend on that company because they’re only going to do their job. They’re not going to go above and beyond. They’re not going to put anything extra, any pizzazz. They’re not going to put any thought into it. That’s one thing I’ve learned. Not to shun my label, or any other label for that matter, but that is the way the labels work. They do the bare minimum a lot of times because you’re [the artist] just a number. They have priorities and until you’re that priority, you have to grind. You have to spend your own money sometimes. You have to get things done yourself.

What made you ultimately choose to sign with Mosley Music Group and Interscope Records versus any other label that you received offers from? First of all, it’s a joint venture between Polow da Don’s Zone 4 imprint and Mosley Music Group at Interscope Records. It’s [Mosley] not really staffed. Mosley Music is like a glorified production company, and I hate to say that, but it is. I’ve been using Interscope’s resources the whole time. I had better relationships with them. Zone 4 and Mosley Music Group are really like executive producers. That’s how my relationship with my label is – very much creative. Interscope is the business.

When thinking up possible collaborations, how easy is it to reach out to another artist? Do you contact them yourselves or have your management or label handle it? I call them up! I hit ’em, call ’em, text, or email them. I hit ’em up and say, “I really want to do something special for you. If you’d have me in the studio, I’d love to. I think the collaboration would be awesome.” A lot of times it’s really how I feel. I only reach out to someone when I know that I could bang something out for them. I’m in their frame of mind and I’ve been thinking about them a lot, listening to their music a lot. Just kind of tapping into them. That’s awesome, sometimes when that happens.

Who would you still like to collaborate with in the future that you haven’t yet written or performed with? Still Ryan Leslie, The-Dream, Lauryn Hill. She’s never dwindled in my eyes, even though she’s been out of the scene since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It’s been ten years already; almost eleven now since its release. She stays on heavy rotation in my world.

Who is your dream collaboration with – dead or alive? I’m sure. Who would I work with that is not alive? I’m thinking of Elvis, Jackie Wilson, and Frankie Lymon. I was thinking far back. My first thoughts were Elvis. I think it’d be neat to absorb what he does from Frankie Lymon and Jackie Wilson. James Brown!

What are your thoughts on shows like “American Idol” and “Nashville Star,” which give young people record deals? That’s what it looks like, but I think if you look into each person’s journey… It does look like an overnight success, right? But that is their journey. That’s the way that they had to go about showing the world their talent. At first I was like, “Ah, I took the long route. I’m not an overnight success.” I don’t shun them, because that is what it’s like. It’s just a quicker way. But if you look deep into it, their journey is a journey. These are still people that have had a dream for a very long time I’m sure and obviously have had the talent and just not the means or resources. I think it’s awesome. I think it’s good. I used to look down on it, but I don’t anymore. You have to put it into perspective because once you talk to them – the Fantasias, the Jennifer Hudsons, the Ruben Studdards, and obviously Kelly Clarkson. These people do have a story, they do have a journey. That [the show] was their – they felt the only way and it worked for them. It works greatly for a lot of people.

Some artists and bands believe that technology has taken the fun out of music, via using synthesizers and computers instead of instruments. How do you feel about production-based music? First of all, the music that I love is a good mix of both. It’s a good blend of both. Even on “Turnin’ Me On” that was a live trombone. Polow calls in horn players every now and then. Timbaland will do the same – a drummer, a horn player, a choir for something – and he’ll sample the choir and make you think that it was actually an instrument. He’ll use voices like instruments and sample them and program it. That’s the word I was looking for [program]. I like a blend of both. I like where music is right now. A lot of it is programmed. A lot of it is even sampled from older records and they make a sound, sample it, screw it up, make it sound crazy and then program it and sequence it. I think it’s really neat. Music goes in phases. I think eventually it will get back to more live things.

What would you be doing now if you did not possess the talent for writing songs and singing? Okay, so stripping me of that talent… Maybe theater. I’d probably be on Broadway. I’d be on Broadway just doing theater; just acting. Stripped of that talent, I probably would still… I’m a Sagittarius. I guess I loved attention as a child. I’m an over-achiever and perfectionist. I would be doing something creative. Maybe an artist – a painter – or in theater. It’s all expression. I can’t even try to think in the way that other people who have chosen other careers think. I can’t even begin to think that, so it’d have to be something expressive.

What did you study while attending college at Emory University? I studied theater. I have one year left. It’s a performance degree, so you can’t do online. I’m going for the Honorary. What I do every day on stage is part theater; it’s the stage. I don’t know when I’ll get my Honorary degree, I’m just going for it. I’ve been talking to the Dean of the Performing Arts School. We’ll see if they give it to me. It’s not something that they’ll just tell me. We got to figure out how the hours can work. When I’m doing TV and film – heavy into that – she says it’ll be closer. I’m like, “Right now I’m performing. This is performance. It’s theater.” She’s like, “Well, you’re singing more than you’re talking.” It’s still performing! Videos like “Love In This Club” and “Miss Independent.”

Have you found it challenging to prove yourself as a writer being a woman in a male-dominated industry? Yeah, absolutely! I think that’s with any career. I’m not always being PC, but this is how I really feel. Women – especially women of color – trying to be successful in anything that they venture to do in any industry. Most industries are male-dominated. You have to think extra hard and have the one-up on the guy next to you. You have to know a little more, work a little harder. That was definitely something I was aware of. I had to make sure that I came in and did my job to the utmost ability, so that people would take me seriously. It doesn’t help that maybe I’m a bit attractive. It didn’t help. It did not help, because men would try that hand first. I would always, constantly be having to combat that and counter that with “I’m here to do a job. You got to take me seriously, you have to respect me.” I demanded respect and I didn’t carry myself in any other way.

What have you learned about the recording process from working with producers Polow da Don and Timbaland? I didn’t learn that from them, I learned it years before them. I was actually running my own sessions at 17 and 18 years old from beginning to end. I would write the song, arrange the song, and record the song. Then do rough edits in Pro Tools.

I’m currently taking an Intro to Pro Tools class at school. But in a class, you’re not just learning the function. You’re learning the math behind it. You’re probably learning a lot more than you need to know. Like musicians when they have to go to music class. And they’re like, “I don’t want to know all this stuff. I don’t really want to do math right now. I just want to hear the music and vibe.” How about that? Teach me the chords and I’ll take it from there. But you have to know so much more, which is why I hopped right out of Music 101. I was like, “No thank you. I know all the terms.” I’ve taken piano. I kind of can read a staff. I’m cool.

Do you think “Turnin’ Me On” would be as popular as it is if it didn’t feature Lil Wayne? I think so, but you know what? The song was jammin’ even before him. I think he was icing, and I don’t say that because it’s my song. I’m saying it as a consumer. I think it was something that women could relate to. Before they even heard Lil Wayne on it, women were already gravitating, or reacting to it. When I would play it I wouldn’t say, “This is my new single featuring Lil Wayne.” I wouldn’t do the hook and sinker, I would just play it. Women were already like, “That’s so true. Oh my God, I like this shit.” And then when Wayne came on, then they went crazy! But I think it would still have the same effect. I think he was icing. I’m in the studio with Polow. We’re just going back and forth on who would be great – T.I. and we name other people, but it came down to Wayne. Even though he was over-used at the moment, you know when you call certain people that they’re going to murder the verse. And that’s what it comes down to [for] me. I want the best verse. I don’t want the best look. And he happened to be both at the same time. I thought it was an amazing collaboration. So Polow says, “I’ll call him. I got his number.” I’m like, “Call him.” So he calls him. He tells Lil Wayne, “Hey, I got this Keri Hilson song. I think it’s really dope. We think you’ll kill it.” Polow was giving him the spill on the track like, “It’s a ladies’ anthem.” And Wayne stops him and says, “Stop. I’m a fan of Keri’s. I know who she is. I’m a fan of hers. Send me the song.” He sends it. We’re thinking it’s going to take two weeks. No – one hour later we had our Wayne verse. One hour later we were listening down to the whole song with Wayne on it. It was incredible. He went in; murdered it quickly. That surprised me.

What is it REALLY like working with Kanye West? He is a genius. He’s definitely very confident, as people would imagine. But not the other side. Not the arrogant a-hole that he used to appear to be. What I really think of Kanye is this: I think the world was just not used to hearing what artists – the world still isn’t used to hearing what artists – think of themselves. It’s almost like protocol is, an artist has to wait until the world validates them. You have to wait until the world likes you first. He was just like, “No, I think I’m the hot shit. I love my own music. So ya’ll are the ones late. I’ve been on this for years and ya’ll the ones late.” He felt great about himself and his music. He didn’t wait for the world to tell him who he is, or that he’s good. He’s like, “I’m good. I love what I do and this is it.” I think that appeared brash at first. I know that he’s working on his humility. I guess I came in on that – on this Kanye. He is such a joy to work with. He’s very open to all ideas. He’s super-duper creative. I do admire him even more now that I know him. He’s incredible.

What question about your music has become your pet peeve? About my music, in general. Biggest pet peeve is that – and this is lately – people assume that the features on my record are favors. That maybe these people owed me because I did something for them and I called my favors in. No! First of all, everyone on my record: Keyshia – I’ve never done anything for her; Akon – I’ve never done anything for him. Obviously, Trina – same situation. Kanye, Ne-Yo, Lil Wayne – they don’t owe me anything. These are people that wanted to be on the project. As a matter of fact, in the final hour they rushed to get on the album. Before we turned the album in, I only had two features. That was Timbaland, who was home team and that was Lil Wayne. These are people who were eager to work with me I think maybe because of them knowing about me from behind the scenes. I jump for other creative people. It’s one thing to work with an artist who you know you’re going to do a whole lot of work. But when you know you’re working with someone who is behind the scenes too – like a Ryan Leslie, or a Kanye, or a Ne-Yo – who does this for a living too, we share that. That’s a lot more fun at least for me. When it is a collaboration with someone who I respect and respects me. Not to say I won’t write for artists who don’t write, or don’t do what I do for a living. Because that’s fun too. But it’s different when we’re artists too. So that’s my biggest pet peeve: that people are trying to play me like I’m calling in favors on my own album when I was perfectly fine showing the world who I am: really raw, really naked, by myself because I wanted my sound to be defined by me and not by the features. I had none. Timbaland and Lil Wayne was it. Back then it was going to be 16 tracks. We had to cut it down to 14, but back then it was going to be 16 tracks of all me, except two songs. I was happy about that actually. You can’t tell certain people no. You can’t tell an Akon no and you can’t tell a Ne-Yo or Kanye [no]. I mean, come on. When those opportunities come up, you go for it.

To set the record straight: There’s a song called “Promises In The Dark” that is not me. It’s not even me singing. I heard it and I don’t even think it sounds like me. They just put your name on stuff, I guess. Since we’re in Chicago, there’s another song with R. Kelly called “Number One Sex” and that’s not me either. It says it’s me singing to a girl, like I’m a lesbian. It’s [my name on the song] on blogs. It’s like unreleased, underground following, mixtape stuff. “Promises In The Dark” and “Number One Sex” by R. Kelly. It is a writer who was writing for R. Kelly, so she’s singing to a girl because he was supposed to re-record – this leaked before he recorded his part. Everybody’s thinking it’s me and I’m a lesbian. It’s not even me.

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  1. fox says:

    I love that girl. Glad she emphasi how important it is to know your business side of things as an artist. She seems down to eakrth and eager to makee things happe. For herself

  2. Ebony says:

    I lover her!! Good Job Jen!!

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