River floating on the serene waters of the Chattahoochee River – and while listening to Tony! Toni! Tone!’s “Just Me And You”? Name one place you wouldn’t expect to spot Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Keri Hilson. Alas, the Decatur, Georgia, native happily paddled her way along a stretch of the sprawling Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area with her own curated list of tunes during an adventure-filled day as an ambassador for the National Park Service’s #FindYourPark movement. Aimed at encouraging people, particularly people of color and millennials, to visit lesser-known parks, NPS’s theme falls right in line with Hilson’s recent journey of self-discovery. They couldn’t have picked a better person for the job.
It’s been over six years since the “Pretty Girl Rock” singer released new music. One need only glance at Keri’s Twitter feed to know that her fans are hungry for a follow-up. And while she assuaged their concerns and eager questions, promising that a new album, or two (including the delayed L.I.A.R., or Love is a Religion) is on the horizon (“there’s some business in the way,” she insists), Keri clues us in to the reasons behind her extended break.
“Initially, I thought I wanted to take a year off,” says Keri. “And it just turned out to like, I really loved my freedom, I really loved my life.” Grinding since the age of 17 when she sold her first big hit to season two American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, and then penning songs for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Ciara, Omarion, Britney Spears, herself and countless other artists, Keri barely saw a break. Turns out, she also barely saw the sun. “I was living completely nocturnal. I wouldn’t see light for years, or unless I had to do something or fly, something like that. But literally I was nocturnal, following school buses home every morning, and sleeping during the day and going back to work at night. That’s no way to live.”
Not eager to crash and burn like many artists have done, Keri’s time away gave her clarity and the opportunity to engross herself in something other than music. “I started to fall in love with myself in a way that I had never done,” she asserts. “Learned a lot about myself during that hiatus and I just didn’t want to stop growing, I didn’t want to stop learning. Not to say that if I didn’t release more music that that wouldn’t have occurred, but you know, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have had the time to explore myself and really, really grow.”
The “spiritual hiatus” and eye-opening experience, during which Hilson also healed from a relationship with former boyfriend, NBA player Serge Ibaka, taught Keri that she also prefers a little mystery when it comes to her personal life. “I like my privacy and I’d rather you guess than to know everything and be able to throw darts or infiltrate my psyche, my peace, you know what I mean?”
Now, Hilson’s life is completely reversed. She works in the day time – writing and recording music, and even screenwriting, her newest passion - and fills her nights with “a sense of normalcy.”
As for what fans can expect when Keri’s next album finally drops? Hilson insists that only one word comes to mind when describing her new music: innovation. “I really experimented because there was no pressure. I was creating without the pressure of it coming out tomorrow, you know what I mean? So I feel like I widened the parameters of what people know Keri Hilson as. But then of course, there are some Keri-isms that will never go away. It’s just my style.”
Until then, you can probably find Keri somewhere outdoors, exploring the ATL. “Who knew you could go rafting in Atlanta?” she asks. The singer encourages everyone to #FindYourPark.