For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
When H.E.R. rented a place in Brooklyn to work on her latest album, Back of My Mind, engineer Ayanna Depas was there. The engineer even remembers how in control the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter was.
“She’ll come in and be like, ‘I like what you did here but it’s not really me, so I’m going to switch the words up like this.’ She was like a little boss who knew what she wanted,” Depas told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the engineer remembers helping H.E.R. with math homework, a 3:00 a.m recording session that resulted in a Grammy win, and her favorite unreleased song from the artist. Read below!
How did you get started working with H.E.R. and her management team MBK Entertainment?
I came across Gabi [Wilson], well H.E.R., when she was 10 years old... I was on YouTube just finding new artists and came across her. I was blown away like, “Wow, this little girl’s voice is so mature for her age.” Fast forward, I went to IAR (Institute of Audio Research) in 2010, graduated in 2011, and a few months after that I got an internship at Quad [Studios], which is how I first met a lot of people at MBK because before they had their studio. They were doing lockouts at Quad and they were doing them with Gabi. I remember going there and being like, “Oh my god, that’s Gabi Wilson,” and everybody at the studio was like, “Why are you excited over this little girl? Who’s this little girl?” I’m like, “She’s dope.” On the last day of her lockout, the songwriter invited me into the room with them because on my first day at Quad, he had a session there and there was no engineer to do it. I wasn’t really qualified to do it, but I faked the funk for a few hours before he realized, “Oh, you’re just an intern.”
What do you remember about a young H.E.R.’s studio etiquette and process?
She was very well-mannered and very polite. She was like, “Hi, my name’s Gabi.” We were talking about ‘90s music and I forgot how old she was because her music knowledge was so crazy, she was able to follow the conversation. I think I said something about a walkman, and she said, “What’s a walkman?” I was like, “You don’t know what a walkman is?” I explained it was like an iPad where you play your CDs. I was impressed she was able to follow the conversation.
How did you get to engineer on one of H.E.R.’s projects?
I was there for almost every single song of H.E.R. Volume 1 unless she did it out of town. I was mostly acting as an assistant. How I got to record on the project was because of this one night. She had a key to the studio and when I tell you I was always in the studio, I lived there. I had a suitcase I pretty much lived out of and stayed in the studio until I ran out of clothes. She came in one night and was like, “Can you record me?” It was 3:00 a.m in the morning and I was so tired. That’s actually what I named the session, “3:00 a.m.” It was one of those songs she didn’t feel comfortable recording with the regular engineer because we’re closer in age than she was with him and I’m a woman. We’re recording it and it was a really new situation because I was vocal producing too. She was asking me, “What did you think about that?” I kept my cool even though I was new to it. The song ended up going on the project and it was called “Pigment.” When we found out H.E.R Volume 1 was nominated for a Grammy she told me, “I bet you’re glad you stayed awake and recorded me now (laughs).” The engineer wasn’t there for another session and I ended up recording “Free,” as well.
How did you influence “Pigment”?
I helped with the pacing of the poem she does at the end of the record. I helped her say it with more emotion than just sounding like she was reading it. That was my contribution for the most part. It wasn’t a traditional song. That song was when she started being more personal in her lyrics as far as about relationships. It was her stepping out of her comfort zone.
What was your favorite session from working on Volume 1?
I loved the sessions she worked with the singer/songwriter Ambré. I think “U” was one of them. They had such a playful vibe. I think it may have been the first time she was able to collaborate with someone her age. They were just so silly. We were working for over a week and they could not stop speaking in British accents (laughs). It was cool to see her have fun and not be all work.
What do you think you bring to H.E.R. songs and her creative process?
In terms of comfortability, especially in those vulnerable moments, I was able to be someone who she felt safe enough to talk with about certain things. I just had a flashback (laughs). When she was young, she was still in school and I was just out of college. I started working for MBK when I was 22. She had math homework and I felt so bad because she needed help but no one was able to help because they were all so much older and it was over their heads (laughs). I sat there and was like, “OK, we can do this.” I think that’s why we’ve had such a close relationship because it started there. It started when she needed help with things like that. When we were working on stuff for the new album, it came up in conversation while we were talking about old stuff. She was like, “Oh my god! You did used to help me with my homework!”
What is your favorite unreleased H.E.R. song?
There was this ballad of some sort. It was one of those kinds of records I could hear an R&B vet sing. It was so big and sounded amazing. I don’t think she felt the sound of what she was doing at the time. I think they were going to pitch it to another artist.
How was it making her latest album compared to her previous work?
What made the Back of My Mind sessions different was the fact instead of working at their regular studio, she ended up renting out a spot in Brooklyn. It was supposed to be for about five days and then it ended up being nine days. It was supposed to be 10-hour sessions, but we did 16-18 hour sessions where we would take a nap, shower, and come back. She was going back and forth between rooms. What made that cool was the fact she booked two rooms. She was going back and forth between rooms, and she had producers in one room and writers coming through. It was a vibe. She’ll come in, hear something and be like, “This is dope,” and then they’d work on it. She’ll come in and be like, “I like what you did here but it’s not really me, so I’m going to switch the words up like this.” She was like a little boss who knew what she wanted. She would start vibes on her own too.
How has H.E.R.’s recording style changed over the years?
Her recording style hasn’t changed that much to my knowledge. The only thing that is different now than in the past is she’ll come in and record a lot more demos, and then move on to the next song so we can get more stuff done. Then, she’ll come in later and record the real vocals. There have been times when the demos were the actual record. I think “Hard Place” was one of those records. I worked on the backend of the mixing of it because the guy who mixed it is my mentor. I believe she did that in Nashville at a writer camp. If I’m not mistaken, I was told they liked the emotion of the demo and so they kept it. I thought that was pretty cool.