"Gimme More" songwriter steps up to the mic

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Keri Hilson is already a successful songwriter. Her enviable list of credits includes songs for Britney Spears (“Gimme More”), Mary J. Blige (“Take Me As I Am”), Ludacris (“Runaway Love”) and Usher (“Love in This Club”).

R&B singer and songwriter Keri Hilson arrives at the 2008 BET Awards in Los Angeles June 24, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Hilson wrote her first song, “Never Let Go,” as a determined 12-year-old. Little did she know that the title would describe her attitude toward the real focus of her creative pursuits: to be a singer.

Hilson’s dream is finally coming true. Her Mosley Music Group/Zone 4/Interscope debut, “In a Perfect World,” bows October 14.

Hilson realizes that industry watchers may be quick to place her in the trendy songwriter-turned-artist ranks, joining a roster that includes Ne-Yo, Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Sean Garrett. But the young woman -- whose childhood nickname was “Keri-okey” -- says she knows what mattered first, and that she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“I knew what my plan A was, but it just so happened that I was blessed with a plan B that brought me to it,” Hilson says. Recognizing that Hilson was more interested in singing than taking piano lessons, her piano teacher-turned-vocal coach challenged her to write a song, which became “Never Let Go.”

“I ended up doing the arranging and producing my vocal,” the Atlanta native recalls. “There was no choice from that day on. I’ve never stopped.”

That led to a short stint at 14 as the lead of By D’Sign, a girl group signed to Elektra. Hilson later joined another girl group, Pretty Toni. When neither of those alliances panned out for the long term, Hilson shifted into fourth gear on plan B. Selling her first song at 18 (to a Japanese artist), Hilson placed a second song with Kelly Rowland for the international version of Rowland’s first solo album.

Hilson’s songwriting forays led to her co-establishing songwriting/production collective the Clutch, whose credits include Jesse McCartney (“It’s Over”), Omarion (“Ice Box”) and Ciara (“Like a Boy”). It was Atlanta-based producer Polow Da Don who was responsible for her fortuitous introduction to super-producer Timbaland. He signed her to his Mosley Music in conjunction with Polow Da Don’s Zone 4.

“I can’t explain it fully,” Hilson says of her chemistry with Timbaland. “It’s just really free; I love his no-holds-barred attitude. That inspires me.”

Hilson was the opening act for Robin Thicke’s major-market promotional tour, which included an August stop at Los Angeles’ House of Blues. Before that, the Emory University theater major played the femme fatale in Usher’s “Love in This Club” video.

Describing her album as “a bit more R&B” than what folks may know from her songwriting, Hilson says that “In a Perfect World” relates to everyone who has something incomplete or something they’d like to change about themselves.

“I didn’t want to do an album that painted me perfect,” she says. “What’s missing in music is just that: showing the vulnerable side of women, the real. Showing women you can be yourself. You don’t have to walk around like your s--t doesn’t stink.”