In the past two years, R&B/pop singer/songwriter Tiara Thomas has received two of the most prestigious awards that a songwriter can achieve. Last year (in March 2021), she won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year, for co-writing the powerful single “I Can’t Breathe” with H.E.R. (& writer/producer D’Mile), which became a hit for H.E.R. Then one month later (April 2021), she won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, for writing with H.E.R. (and D’Mile) the soulful song, “Fight for You,” which was featured in the acclaimed movie, Judas and the Black Messiah.
These two awards are just part of the success story for Thomas, who is from Indianapolis and now lives in Los Angeles. During the past few years, she has become one of H.E.R.’s main collaborators. Thomas has written many songs with H.E.R., including nine songs on her 2021 album, Back of My Mind. This includes the chart hits “Damage,” “Come Through” (feat. Chris Brown), and “Slide” (feat. YG). Notably, Back of My Mind was nominated for Album of the Year and Best R&B Album at the 2022 Grammy Awards.
In addition to her work with H.E.R., Thomas also co-wrote Mary J. Blige’s recent single “Good Morning Gorgeous,” and she’s written songs with John Legend. She’s also had cuts with Bryson Tiller, Fabolous, JoJo, Rico Love, Fat Joe and other artists.
Notwithstanding her excellent songwriting credits, Thomas is also focused on her artist career. In 2013, she debuted as the featured artist on rapper Wale’s hit, “Bad.” Soon after, she released her first EP, Dear Sallie Mae (in 2013), followed by the EPs Up in Smoke (2015), Don’t Mention My Name (2017) and FWMM (2018). She has posted videos of her singles that have attracted several million views on YouTube.
Thomas, who is managed by MBK Entertainment, has been finishing songs for her upcoming artist project, which will be released this summer. And she continues to write with H.E.R. and other artists.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Tiara Thomas. She tells how she got started in the music business, how she wrote her award-winning songs with H.E.R., and discusses her artist career.
DK: I read that you’re from Indianapolis. How did you get started with singing and writing songs?
Tiara Thomas: I’ve always been into music, and my dad bought me my first guitar when I was 12. So I started teaching myself how to play guitar. I would write little songs here and there on my guitar. Eventually, I got good enough to start playing in talent shows, and I was in the school choir in high school. Also around that time, I was doing performances at little clubs and open mics around Indianapolis.
Here’s the video of H.E.R.’s hit “I Can’t Breathe,” which was
co-written by Tiara Thomas.
Then when I got into college (at Ball State University), I was touring even while being in college. During my sophomore year I met Wale, and from there I developed a working relationship with him. He would bring me out on the road with him, to open for him. When I wasn’t in classes I would tour with him, write songs with him, and eventually I had a song on Wale’s More About Nothing mixtape, where I was featured. It was my first feature, and I started building a fanbase from there. So that’s how I started doing music. I signed a record deal about six months after graduating from college.
DK: In 2013, you had a hit with Wale called “Bad,” and you posted your own video of “Bad” on YouTube. So did you write & record your version of “Bad” before you were featured on Wale’s version?
Thomas: Yes that’s what happened. I wrote that song in my dorm room at college, and that’s when I posted my first YouTube video. At college, I got serious about trying to push myself as an artist. So I wrote “Bad” and I thought it was super dope. Then I was looking for an engineer, and I happened to come across this guy named Kelson Camp who ended up being one my good friends. I said to him, “Hey, do you know how to engineer? I need you to record these songs for me.” Then I met up with him at his house, and we recorded these songs. When we recorded “Bad” and we listened to it that night, we were really happy with it. So we put it up on YouTube. Then after I met Wale, he heard it and wanted to use it (as part of) his single.
DK: As an artist, you’ve released several EPs. Can you talk about your solo releases?
Thomas: I put out an EP with Rico Love, and I put out an EP called Up in Smoke which is one of my favorites. There’s this ode for smokin’ weed on there. I also put out an acoustic EP called Don’t Mention My Name that I love. The last project I put out is called FWMM and that stands for Fuckin’ With My Mind. And you know, all my projects have bangers on them.
DK: In the last few years, you’ve had great success collaborating with H.E.R. How did you hook up with her?
Here’s the video of H.E.R.’s song “Fight for You,” which was
co-written by Tiara Thomas.
Thomas: I met H.E.R. when she was about 15 (nine years ago). I met her through my management (MBK Entertainment); we have the same management. At the time, H.E.R. wasn’t even thought of, you know. She was just this dope-ass 15-year-old that had a really mature voice. She reminded me of a baby Jazmine Sullivan and Lauryn Hill, and she could play guitar well. I’ve been writing songs with her since she was 15, because it was fun and I thought she was dope. And the she ended up blowin’ up…she’s amazing. In my opinion, she’s the most talented artist out there.
DK: What was the first song that you wrote with H.E.R.?
Thomas: The first thing I did with H.E.R. is a song called “Avenue” which on the first project that she put out (in 2017). That song ended up going gold, and that was really cool. Ever since then, we’ve been cranking out records. On her recent album Back of My Mind, I wrote nine songs on it with her, and I’m really appreciative and grateful that we’ve had this working relationship for this long. She’s like my little sister. We would just be in the studio making songs…I never expected them to do what they did. I don’t think writers can predict what a song will do…you just go in and make a song, and kind of let it go.
DK: Your song with H.E.R., “I Can’t Breathe,” is a powerful song. How did you write it with her?
Thomas: We wrote “I Can’t Breathe” on FaceTime during the pandemic. It was such a hard time—there was the pandemic and George Floyd. There were protests going on where I was living, and it was tough, with raw emotions during that time. I remember that I was moving at the time, and I was looking for an apartment, and H.E.R. texted me. She said, “Hey, we were talking about everything going on—let’s get on FaceTime and write something down…get our feelings out.” So we got on FaceTime, and she had her guitar, and we started writing line for line. At some point while we were writing, she started singing the words…I Can’t Breathe, like she does it in the song. And I went “Whoa”…I got goosebumps. I was like, “That’s the hook right there.” And we went from there. Then she said, “Cool…this is really nice. I’m gonna take it and re-record it.” She recorded it herself at her mom’s house. I never thought too much about it after that. I thought it was a beautiful song, but I never thought, “Oh, this is gonna come out and win Song of the Year.” So that was crazy when it did.
Here’s the video of Mary J. Blige’s single “Good Morning
Gorgeous,” which was co-written by Tiara Thomaas.
DK: When you and H.E.R. write together, do you both write the music and lyrics? How does it work when the two of you write together?
Thomas: We both kind of write the same way. We go and do mumbles. We go in the studio and do a bunch of mumbles, and then we figure out the lyrics from there. We bounce lyric lines back and forth off each other.
DK: On “Fight for You,” which won the Academy Award, how did you, H.E.R. and D’Mile write that one?
Thomas: We were working on her album and she texted me, “Hey, are you coming to the studio today? They want me to write this song for this movie called Judas and the Black Messiah.” I said, “Okay, cool.” We were already working everyday that week and it was like, “We’re going to watch the movie at the studio; I have a copy of the movie.” So we sat there and watched the movie. And I’d never heard the story of (Black Panther leader) Fred Hampton…I thought the story was very compelling and powerful. We sat there and watched the movie, and then we sat around for maybe an hour or two, listening to old Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, listening to the percussion in those songs, and the horns and the organic instruments. And from there, D’Mile created a track that had a ‘70s-‘80s R&B vibe. Then Gabby (H.E.R.) and I started bouncing lines off each other. I wrote down a few concepts after we watched the movie, of what could be a theme for the song…like Fight for You. So we wrote down some themes and we went off of that. We bounced ideas, line for line off of each other, and we came up with the song.
DK: Are you writing songs with H.E.R. for her next album?
Thomas: We’re always writing. The songs could come out on the next record that she has. You never know when the song’s going to come out. Some of the songs that we did for her album Back of My Mind, we wrote two or three years ago. The song “Come Through” featuring Chris Brown, I wrote it about five years ago in my apartment, when I was going through depression. I was broke and I didn’t know what I was about to do with my life, and I was just tryiing to come up with good ideas. I wrote that song and I took it to H.E.R. and she loved it. Then she recorded it and we never talked about it after that. We kept doing songs, and then one day my manager comes in the studio and plays the song for us, and it had the Chris Brown feature on it. I was like, “Whoa, Chris Brown’s on this song?” H.E.R. had decided to put it out as a single, and that was totally unexpected.
Here’s the video of Tiara Thomas’ hit with Wale, “Bad.”
DK: More recently, you co-wrote Mary J. Blige’s single, “Good Morning Gorgeous.” How did you hook up with Mary J.?
Thomas: Yeah, that was something else. Mary wanted to work with us—she wanted to do a song with H.E.R. and so we pulled up to the studio that day and it was me, Mary J. Blige, H.E.R. and Lucky Daye. We sat around for three hours, and collaborated on “Good Morning Gorgeous.” It was cool working with Mary J. Blige. She was really down to Earth and nice. She was vulnerable with the lyrics she wanted to write. She knew exactly what she wanted to talk about, and we tried to channel that.
DK: Besides H.E.R. and Mary J. Blige, are there other artists that you’ve been collaborating with?
Thomas: I’m working with a few different artists. I had the opportunity to work with John Legend, and that was really cool. I think for any musician, John Legend has been an inspiration to them. I remember seeing John Legend in concert in 2013, and I was in love with his music and his voice and his musicality. So it’s crazy that my publishing team hit me up and said, “Hey, John wants to work with you,” So I pulled up to his studio and it was just me and him in there writing a song together. He was cool and humble…it was really dope working with him.
DK: As an artist, will you be releasing new music this year?
Thomas: Absolutely—that’s my first passion. While I’ve been working with H.E.R. the last couple years, I’ve also been working on my own project. I’ve got a lot of songs and we’re going to get songs mixed and mastered. So we’re ready to put out some music, and I’m ready to get back on the road and tour. I’m excited about my next project, which will hopefully be out early this summer.