Atlanta-based singer and songwriter Keri Hilson says she likes to keep her life low-key.
When she’s home, fans are more likely to catch a glimpse of the hot new R&B singer at Harlem Bar or Django rather than hobnobbing with the red carpet crowd at mainstream joints. But when it comes to her career, Hilson, 27, easily sheds her behind- the-scenes persona to step into the spotlight.
Much has been made of her transition from songwriter to singer over the past year, but songwriting — the skill that has given her so much industry credibility — was always her plan B.
“It wasn’t that I woke up one day wanting to perform. It was a thing I pursued before songwriting,” said Hilson by phone days before she earned two Grammy nominations for best new artist and best rap/sung collaboration.
From the first grade, when her rendition of “Home” from “The Wiz” took first place in a local talent show, Hilson stayed on stage as much as possible. She sang and danced her way into two girl groups while she was still in Tucker High School.
Hilson enjoyed the experience, but found group dynamics a bit frustrating. “I felt myself always being on a soap box about how hard we needed to work and that was really draining at times. Couple that with non-success, and any group is bound to implode,” she said.
Hilson studied theater at Emory University while honing her skills as a songwriter, a move that would lead her to pen hits for artists such as Britney Spears, Ciara, and Omarion. By the time her breakout moment arrived years later, Hilson had a lot of industry experience and knew exactly who she wanted on her team.
Polow da Don and Timbaland produced Hilson’s freshman effort as a solo artist. Her goal was to find her own way visually and audibly. “I knew I would get comparisons to a lot of people,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to find my own sound.”
Jan Smith, owner of Jan Smith Studios Inc., the Atlanta-based vocal producing and artist development facility, has worked with Hilson for at least 10 years and said the singer had already begun to distinguish herself from other artists back in her girl-group days. “In most of the girl groups she was in, she kind of carried the weight. She was the strongest vocalist and a contributing songwriter working with producers,” Smith said. As Hilson evolved as a songwriter, more vocal opportunities came her way.
“One of the cool things Keri did because of the songs she was writing with great producers was to be on the hooks of those songs. I think that gave her a different entry and it established in people’s minds that she wasn’t just a singer. People knew immediately that she was a part of the song,” Smith said.
But Hilson had to prove herself to music fans who have become inured to the glut of female solo R&B artists currently on the scene. The first two singles from Hilson’s album, “In a Perfect World…,” didn’t exactly burn up the charts in the U.S., but “Knock You Down,” a collaboration with Kanye West and Ne-Yo, would become the single that Hilson points to as her defining moment.
“ ‘Knock You Down’ was my biggest song and the song that solidified me as a solo artist, not just in the States but around the world in non-English speaking countries,” she said. The song earned her a Grammy nomination, capping off a big year on the awards circuit. Hilson’s name popped up four times in nominations for both the BET and the Soul Train Awards. She took best new artist at each, and best collaboration from the Soul Train awards, though she lost the American Music Awards’ female R&B artist award to Beyonce.
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