Keri Hilson: Heat Seeker

Atlanta has become the fastest-growing music center in the U.S., particularly as a hotbed for R&B and Hip-Hop. Keri Hilson is heating up the core as one of the few female singer/songwriter/vocal producers our time, and she’s only 24. It’s likely that Hilson has penned a song by your favorite artist somewhere along the line, […]

Atlanta has become the fastest-growing music center in the U.S., particularly as a hotbed for R&B and Hip-Hop. Keri Hilson is heating up the core as one of the few female singer/songwriter/vocal producers our time, and she’s only 24. It’s likely that Hilson has penned a song by your favorite artist somewhere along the line, but it wasn’t until teaming up with Polow Da Don and Timbaland that her career began to take off.Now, several platinum records and number one hits later, Hilson is ready to release her debut album In A Perfect World, which Keri explains “is my way of saying nothing in the world is perfect, and no person in it is either.” We caught up with Atlanta’s silent star as she speaks about being a successful songwriter, working with Polow Da Don, and shares her deepest sympathy for her favorite Atlanta Alternatives: Where are you right now? What are you working on?Keri Hilson: I am in Atlanta at the moment, working on a Pantene commercial and [working with] Blake Lewis [of American Idol]. And of course wrapping up my album in the nooks and crannies of time I steal in the midst of writing for other artists.AHHA: Is it frustrating to not have the time you’d like to focus on your own music?Keri Hilson: No, not at all. It’s all a part of my dream. So if one takes longer, I just fill the time staying productive and staying creative, just keeping my juices flowing.AHHA: That’s good. Do you guys have a release date for your album yet?Keri Hilson: We’re looking to release some time in the first quarter. No set date as of yet.AHHA: I know that aside from working on your album that you’ve done a lot of writing for other artists, like Britney Spears. With all the speculation surrounding her, what was that like?Keri Hilson: Ahh, it was great. She was very focused, contrary to what people might believe right now. She was a pleasure to work with. AHHA: Alright now back to you. I read that “Henny and Apple Juice” would be the first single off the album. Is that correct?Keri Hilson: Something like it. We’re still deciding the single, but it could possibly be that one. Since the beginning we have gone back to the drawing board, but that could definitely be one. AHHA: Now I know that Polow Da Don kind of put you on…  Keri Hilson: Actually, I was alright writing. I had a couple of placements as a writer. I had worked with Usher, Ciara, Ruben [Studdard] and lots of other artists before even meeting Polow. So I was an established artist; however, not much was moving on the artist end. I wasn’t really pursuing it though. I was kind of complacent. I just knew that the artist thing would fall into my lap. And it’s true – shortly after I met Polow, things started moving because of him, definitely. He introduced me to Timbaland who, little did I know, was looking for a female R&B artist like myself. So Polow made the deal happen and lots of other things. AHHA: What is it like working with Polow?  I conducted a very controversial interview with him a little while ago.Keri Hilson: I heard about that interview. Nice. AHHA: I really didn’t intend for it to go in that direction at all. [laughs]Keri Hilson: Oh, I understand Polow so I know it had absolutely nothing to do with you. [laughs] He’s cool. He says a lot of controversial stuff, but he’s really a cool person. In the studio he’s great. He’s a lot more hands-on than other producers I’ve worked with. It’s not because he doesn’t trust that it will come out well, he just enjoys that process as much as a songwriter does. We’ve gotten to a place now where he trusts me and can leave me in the studio to do my thing.AHHA: Now earlier we were talking about how you already had placements prior to landing a record deal with Interscope. What is the process for a songwriter trying to get placements without a publishing deal or a major label situation?Keri Hilson: You know what? That position in this industry – producing and songwriting – the business of selling songs can happen any kind of way. It can happen where the label is seeking you, or the artist. You’ve developed a relationship with the artist somehow. But the name of the game is to get your songs heard by the important people. That can happen a number of ways. There is no protocol, directions. There’s no map, no blueprint for doing something like that, except to say you have to be about your hustle, just like with anything else. If you’re business-minded, you do whatever it takes. I always tell people that I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean, how would you tell a writer how to break into the industry? I would just tell them to be about their hustle, like everything else. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you got to do what it takes to get there. AHHA: As an established writer, is it ever a complicated situation where you have to make a decision on whether to give a song to someone else or keep it for yourself?Keri Hilson: I just kind of cross the bridge when I get there. If I’m in a booked session and summoned by the label or their artist, then I always have to give them first dibs. But if they don’t take it, I have the option to keep it for myself or sell it elsewhere. And of course I’ve sold songs that I would have kept for myself. One of them was “Right Now” for Danity Kane. [Also] “After Love” for Diddy. I actually wrote that for Danity Kane as well, but somehow it ended up in Diddy’s hands. So things happen like that, but it’s only because I’m always giving my best work. Of course I’m going to like something that I’m doing, because I write stuff I like all the time. But I’m in the business of doing both, so that’s what I do, and I don’t feel like my artistry is slighted at all.AHHA: You worked with Justin Timberlake for your album. How was that?Keri Hilson: Great.  Justin is very quick. He’s off the dome, like the Jay-Z of pop music. [laughs] He doesn’t write anything down. He just goes in and does what he does. It was definitely an experience working with him.  He’s one of the artists that I used to always say I would love to just be a fly on the wall at one of his sessions. And I was fortunate enough to do both. He was mixing his album and I was recording stuff for mine, and he just came in the room and we ended up recording a few songs. AHHA: When I think of Justin, I think of these poppy songs. Is it mostly that kind of stuff?Keri Hilson: We’ve got a little bit of everything. It’s a mix between, you know Tim and his hard drums, and Polow and his hard drums, then it has that pop element to it; just all kinds of stuff. Then of course I bring the R&B and soul out. But I can’t say that it sounds like Justin.AHHA: Well that’s always a good thing. So aside from JT, I hear you’re working with some others.Keri Hilson: I have a couple of people on the album, but I didn’t want to flood the album with features because I though it was important for this album to define who Keri is. I’m writing all the material, so it’s all my personal thoughts and everything. We have a couple features though – Snoop, Luda, Tank is on another track, and a guest writer, who we just talked about, Justin Timberlake. AHHA: Okay, your business is about writing and you’re a part of a team of writers called The Clutch, sort of like Diddy’s infamous Hit Men. With a group like that, how does everyone stay involved?Keri Hilson: Well we do split the work up equally because we end up doing equal work.  We don’t have arguments or anything like that. We just collaborate on concepts for songs, and some of the melodies. We may sing aloud in the studio. Everyone sometimes takes on a different section. It’s just a big collaborative effort. AHHA: You’re from Atlanta, like so many artists. How do you think being from Atlanta has helped developed you as a writer, artist, and just the regular, around the way girl?Keri Hilson: Atlanta is a very creative city. I think it has become that [way] because we were considered the underdogs for so long that we turned out to develop these amazing people that didn’t just go by normal standards, as far as how things sounded. I think when you’re around people like that, who are creative and a bit left-field, you can’t help but for some of it to rub off on you. And in turn, it rubs off on you and what your music sounds like. And it’s like, you’re still the underdog so you don’t have anything to lose. But there are so many talented people in the South, and the soul is still there.AHHA: So do you have a favorite artist out of Atlanta?Keri Hilson: Ahh, I feel so bad for T.I., he’s one of them. Poor thing.AHHA: Is there this huge dismal cloud in Atlanta right now, because your tone just changed completely?Keri Hilson: About that? Definitely. That one goes to my heart because he’s a lot smarter than that. I’ve gotten to work with him on a couple of things. Like, he was getting into producing, and we worked on a couple songs together. One was for Young Joc. It didn’t make the album so we may be doing something else with it, but I got to spend a lot of time with him. I just know he’s so much smarter than that from my personal interaction with him. I hope he gets out of this. And you know they’re going to try to make an example out of him, because the truth is with all the terrorism and things going on, you can’t expect to do certain things and be above the law. AHHA: Okay, new subject, you’re getting all sad again.Keri Hilson: ‘Cause that’s my homie. But okay, back on the Keri mood. I’m really proud of The Dream. He’s hilarious. I’ve known him for about six or seven years. Also Akon – I worked with him when I was 14 years-old. He was one of the first producers I ever worked with as an artist.AHHA: It’s funny we have to distinguish between Keri the writer and Keri the artist.Keri Hilson: Exactly! That’s what I do in my head. I have to, for business purposes and just everyday things. The only time it collides is when I’m in the studio, but even then, for the first couple of hours it’s the writer Keri, and then the next couple of hours I hop in the booth and I’m Keri the artist. AHHA:  So when you’ve written a song for another artist, and come up with the concept and everything, do you ever get frustrated like, “You’re not singing it right?”Keri Hilson: Well that happens, but a part of being a vocal producer is pulling out that emotion, or whatever you need, from that artist to get what you need from the song.  If I ever felt like that, you wouldn’t hear it on an album.  It would just mean we’re going back into the studio to work on it, or I will explain what I need out of the artist.  That’s all part of it. I mean, you know, people have their own interpretations of lyrics and concepts.  That’s the fun of it though.AHHA:  So aside from the forthcoming album, is there anything else you’re working on that you’re really excited about?Keri Hilson: Let’s see. That’s an interesting question. I just did Fashion Rocks in London. That should air in the U.S. [soon]. They’re figuring out the network now, I believe. I walked and performed in the fashion show, in Dolce and Gabbana. I got to wear their clothes and be on the same runway with Naomi Campbell, so it was very exciting.AHHA: So are you interested in modeling?Keri Hilson: You know, I did that when I was about 15. It was good money for my summers, so I wouldn’t be mad at that. I would definitely do endorsements and some of that stuff.  But runway, that’s different. You can’t have any curves whatsoever. I don’t know if I would be willing to drop down that much. I’m thin in stature, but I’m not skinny. I’m southern man, I love food. So I’m afraid of that. [laughs] I would do it if they would take me as I am.AHHA: There’s another song you’ve written [“Take Me as I Am”].Keri Hilson: Oh Mary J. [Blige]. It sure is. AHHA: See, I’m on top of it.  Keri Hilson: You sure are.