Look closely and think hard. You may recognize Keri Hilson from her guest spot on Xzibit’s 2004 hit Mean Muggin’ (Hey Now) and, more recently, on Timbaland’s worldwide smash The Way I Are. But don’t be fooled by her stunning good looks and pop chick persona because this sister is so much more than just a pretty face. With an unrelenting work ethic that’s made her one of the most sought-after songwriters in the business, Hilson’s credits read like a who’s who of contemporary R&B. Think Usher, Ciara, Chris Brown and Toni Braxton, to name a few. At 25, Hilson’s an industry vet who’s making the transition from behind the production console into the limelight. And she proves there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Having been in singing groups since the age of 14, Hilson worked her way up the ladder, honing her craft as a writer while perfecting her vocal skills. With hard work, perseverance and no shortage of talent it wasn’t long before she came to the attention of Ã¼ber-producer Timbaland, who signed Hilson to his label on the strength of a phone call. Her debut album In A Perfect World . . . is due out later this year.
Clutch: What can we expect from your album?
Well, it’s a good mix of everything. It’s what you know from me as a songwriter and also as an artist. Of course, the Timbaland influence is there. Timbaland and his protégé Danja and Polow produced the whole album. It’s one congruent sound. It’s like a movement. Definitely like nothing you’ve heard. It’s hard for me to describe my songs just because I’m close to the music. I do know that, from a songwriter’s perspective, it has the components to be a great album and do very well.
Clutch: What kind of music will it be?
In the same way that you can’t really pigeonhole anything Timbaland works on—like Justin (Timberlake), those are R&B songs but he’s a pop artist, they have pop appeal. I’d say it’s kind of like a girl Justin Timberlake with a little more soul and R&B.
Clutch: Will it be a concept album? What will the songs be about?
The album is called In A Perfect World . . . and by that I mean no one’s world is perfect and mine is no different. I look like I have it all together but at the end of the day I’m a female, I’m emotional. I go through the same things that everyone else goes through and I just wanted my album to depict that reality because everyone has something about their world that they would change. So it’s based upon that idea and I didn’t wanna do an album that painted myself perfect. I’m far from it.
Clutch: What’s your relationship with Timbaland? How did you hook up with him?
Polow da Don introduced me. Timbaland had expressed an interest for Polow to look for a female R&B artist and Polow thought of me. At that time my second group had disbanded and I was just focusing on becoming a great songwriter. I didn’t feel the need during that time to pursue the artist thing full out, as I knew that something would happen because people knew if I was songwriting I was demoing my songs, and they heard my voice as much as they saw me as a songwriter. Tim called and I sang for him on the phone and he was like, “Let’s do it. I’m down.” I said, “Just that easy? You don’t even wanna meet me?” And he was like, “No, for what? I’m ready. Let’s do it!” It happened just like that, just off of my voice.
Clutch: That’s like a fairy tale!
It is! I mean, years and years of hard work. I sang the same song that I sing for every person on the phone but I was used to nothing ever coming of that. But this particular time it did. I couldn’t believe my life at that moment. I was so much on Cloud 9.
Clutch: What have you learned from Tim?
No boundaries! I picked that up very early. Timbaland is so free and experimental and he doesn’t have a care in the world when he’s creative. He’s just that. He’s a blank canvas and he’s ready to go. So I learned not to limit myself to melodies and certain concepts. Just do what you do in your heart. So he opened that part of me up.
Clutch: You’ve written for and sung on tracks by many famous popular chart-topping artists. Have you ever been star struck?
Not really. I’ve been maybe nervous around certain stars but . . . I haven’t met Michael Jackson yet, so I don’t know yet if I’ve been star struck. I was very in awe of Quincy Jones and Babyface when I met them. I think for me it was more that those two have the songwriter thing in common. For me, that’s always what I understood. I grew up reading album credits and I knew who was behind these songs. I don’t idolize artists; I don’t idolize any human. I am inspired and influenced by some but I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a star like, Oh my God! But I’ve been nervous. I’ve bitten my lip around a couple of them.
Clutch: What’s it like being a woman on the other side of the industry? Are you finding it more or less difficult being in the spotlight now?
Being a woman in any industry you have to go above and beyond the next man. To get the same respect in any field you have to be so much better than the men around you for that to be recognized and appreciated. So being on the production side of the fence it wasn’t hard for me to be there. Everyone that knows me knows that when I come to a session I come, I do my work, I leave or I’m on to the next. There was a time in my career that I would work two or three sessions at a time. I was working with every producer in Atlanta and they all know when I’m in the studio I’m working. When I’m done, I leave. It’s not so much a battle now as it was then coming up as a songwriter.
As an artist, it is very different just in the sense that now I have to care about my hair and my body and all these things that didn’t really matter as a songwriter because I was just sitting at a console and the only thing that mattered was that we came out of the studio with a hot song. Now there’s that in the equation and there’s so many more things that I never thought I’d have to worry about. People have this perception of artists that you’re just a cute face and sing and dance, and that’s it. But there’s so much hard work that goes into it. And I’m learning now and trying to adjust.
Clutch: How difficult is it dating when you’re famous?
It hasn’t really been difficult. I mean, finding a guy that understands your job is always hard when you’re doing something different to what they’re doing. But I don’t really like industry guys. I don’t think you’ll see me with any industry dudes. I never have. I’ve stuck to that rule and that’s the way it is. I think I saw too much too soon!
Clutch: What do you do to relax?
I love to bowl. I’m an athlete. I play ball, I swim, all of that. I watch a lot of movies, too.
Clutch: If you weren’t doing music what would you be doing?
I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Clutch: Finally, on a big night out with your girls, what do you carry in your clutch?
My Victoria’s Secret Coconut Craze lip gloss; my new favorite gum, Cobalt and my money/my card!
[Photo Credit: Sheryl Nields & Wire Image ]