Kourtney Heart is nursing a cold and sniffling under her burnt-blonde curls. "I've gotten older," the 21-year-old singer says with a knowing laugh and an eye roll. "I've got more stories to tell."
Heart's irresistible New Orleans radio smash "My Boy" flooded airwaves in 2010 and 2011 and has more than 1 million views on YouTube. This month, she returns with an ambitious seven-song EP, a far cry from her teenaged, sugary pop-bounce hit, and a preview of what's in store for her 2015 full-length album. Are & Be (out Dec. 17) is Heart's comeback — at 21, she already is a recording industry veteran, having bowed out of a too-soon contract and spent the last few years dialing back to start fresh.
"I took some time to go back to my roots and listen to genuine old soul music and R&B, Funkadelic, funk, things like that," she says. "That's all I listened to. My dad is a big jazz, funk type of guy. He has records, collects records, the whole deal. I went back and researched and tried to figure out how to incorporate that with my inspirations."
At age 11, Heart volunteered to sing first at a talent show. She bombed. "I wanted to be a veterinarian," she says, laughing, "but ever since I lost that talent show, I've been like, 'Yes, this is what I want to do.' I realized I was good at it, and the more I worked on it, the more passionate I got."
DJ Raj Smoove took Heart under his wing, and the pair recorded "My Boy" (featuring the late bounce rapper Magnolia Shorty) when Heart was 16 and a student at Edna Karr High School. In 2010, the 17-year-old Heart signed to Jive Records, which was owned by RCA Records. She recorded a few under-the-radar singles, but by 2011, the label (along with her team) was dissolved, and Heart asked to leave.
"It was a good experience, but it was a good idea to figure out ourselves," she says. "I guess it's all about timing. I tried to tell myself, 'Things happen in your time.' I was blessed to be signed so young and off of one single. That's great. But I felt like it just wasn't my time. ... I was able to walk the stage [at graduation] with my class. That was all I wanted."
She followed up with the self-released A Gemini's Diary in 2012, featuring the down-tempo, piano-driven pop ballad "Runaway." She posted bedroom-recorded covers of pop hits — from Jill Scott to Sam Smith — on her YouTube channel showcasing her growing voice, a full-bodied, dynamic range that can swing from silky lows to Beyonce highs.
On Are & Be, Heart's production team — Smoove, Kenny Flav and Justen Williams — composed stark, dramatic arrangements, with skittering 808 snares, Roger Troutman-esque vocodors and sweat-dripping slow jams that wouldn't sound out of place on the Isley Brothers' Between the Sheets or on a playlist with Ciara's "Body Party" (Heart's "Real Woman" borrows a similar melody).
"Her going back to her roots, really listening to R&B — the sound of the project really pays an homage to that classic R&B from the '80s, '90s," Smoove says. "That was where I came up, so I was super happy that it sounded like that. It's not R&B singers trying to be rappers on trap beats. It's musical. It's artistic. It's heartfelt, but it's not too serious. It's the evolution of Kourtney to the young woman she is right now."
After the love-confessioning single and album opener "Phases," Heart admits a failed relationship on "R&B Love" ("you keep calling but I can't pick up / the things we've been through there's nothing new you can tell me. / Love's not enough"), and on the breathy late-night jam "Hold Me Down" (Heart calls it "sensual"), Heart sings, "You're like a drug, I just want to fiend you."
"I shouldn't be afraid to want to be completely honest and be completely myself. I do see people I admire taking that lane," she says, adding Chance The Rapper, Miguel and Frank Ocean to her current favorites. "I always say my music is feel-good music and I want people to get the vibes, but I was looking around at different artists who are completely honest. Back in the industry, I don't think people would have gotten it then. I'm listening to Miguel, I'm listening to the way Frank Ocean writes, it's all so different — people will say it's different, I call it honest. People are genuinely putting themselves in their creations now, so the more I listen to those types of artists — especially Frank Ocean — I felt more confident I can approach a certain subject, or go about certain situations."
Heart — whose "vocal bible" is Temptations frontman David Ruffin — realized the "dark side" to writing love songs when she first started penning her own songs. "How am I writing about this when I'm 16? The mixtape should've all been in minor chords," she says. "When I'm listening to tracks in the studio, it just starts flowing. Ten seconds ago I wasn't thinking about this, but the track lets me know what wants to be on it."
Heart doesn't shy from her bubblegum past — at 21, she already has performed for nearly a decade. Are & Be is a snapshot of a young artist finding her confidence and sound.
"The album is pretty much the EP times 1,000," she says. "I'm extremely proud of the EP but it took me a while to understand you got to keep the greatness for the album. The EP is a teaser. It's the appetizer before the meal. I just want to give entrees all day."