“It’s been a crazy year of making some adjustments on everything,” laughs Los Angeles singer/songwriter Judith Hill, reflecting on how her life as a musician has changed irrevocably due to the COVID19 pandemic.”It’s been really tough because as a creative person I get my inspiration from going out in the world and seeing and experiencing things, so just being locked up in a house is a little challenging.” 

Despite those challenges, the 36-year-old hasn’t been idle; she’s found new ways to connect with her fans – “I’ve been doing streaming and even Zoom and social media concerts,” she says – and has been holed up in her home studio making fresh music as well as shooting videos for the singles taken from her forthcoming album, Baby, I’m Hollywood, due for release on March 5th 2021. 

The new album is her third, following in the wake of 2018’s self-produced Golden Child and 2015’s Back In Time, her debut helmed by her late mentor, Prince. “It was something that I was writing coming off of touring and there was just this deep desire in me to have certain songs that needed to be written for the show,” says Judith, explaining the background to the new album. “What I really wanted to do was write a record that really allowed me to own my identity and step into who I am.” 

So why the title, Baby, I’m Hollywood? “It’s a statement that can seem a bit pretentious because Hollywood is seen as superficial,” Judith explains, “but what I wanted to do was bring deeper meaning to what it is to be a performer in the limelight and what that journey looks like. The record is like a behind-the-scenes to my life and shows what has carried me through all these years.” 

The album is a smorgasbord of styles, ranging from widescreen cinematic soul (‘Americana’), and searing Minneapolis-style funk (‘You Got The Right Thang’) to simmering blues (‘Burn It All’), psychedelic rock (‘Baby, I’m Hollywood’), pop power ballads (‘Give Your Love To Someone Else’) and sensual R&B slow jams (‘God Bless The Mechanic’). It’s a tremendously varied collection reflecting the singer’s multi-faceted musicality and her myriad influences. “I don’t know if I ever considered myself eclectic,” she muses. “I just think that the reality is that my story and my upbringing has been very diverse and confused – almost like things that shouldn’t go together.” 

She adds: “I’m always going to be a soul singer and that is the through-line of everything I do, but my upbringing has been very much a kaleidoscope of funk, gospel and a little bit of rock, R&B and blues. It’s roots music, which I’ve listened to my whole life, and essential to who I am.”

Judith believes that Baby, I’m Hollywood is her most honest and revealing musical self-portrait yet. “You find, especially in this industry and just in general, when it comes to branding, that you’re required to deny a certain part of yourself in order for you to become a whole of something else,” she reveals. “So I stopped wanting to do that and said to myself, the most authentic truth for me is to embrace all of who I am, and not have to pretend that I’m just one thing and just really celebrate all my aspects.”

The singer also agrees that Baby, I’m Hollywood offers the listener a unique portal deep into her psyche and captures her experiencing many different moods; from euphoria and affirmation to contemplation, sadness and loss. “It takes a step into my inner personal struggles and what I feel like when my world is blue,” she states, “so it does bring an intimate glimpse of my inner emotional journey and how I’ve been feeling during the last few years of my life.” 

In terms of the feelings and moods it evokes, the album is a veritable rollercoaster of emotions – and its two extremes are epitomised by two, very different tunes: the mid-tempo ‘The Wanderer,’ an introspective song about insecurity and being alone, and the title number, which, on the surface, is outgoing and celebratory. But Hill says there’s a deeper layer of meaning to ‘Baby, I’m Hollywood,’ which has just been released as the second single from the album: “It sounds upbeat and jubilant but really it’s talking about being able to put on a strong survival kit around you – like a suit of armour and the protection that you need in order to be a performer. And for the show to go on, you’re going to need that kind of armour.” 

Judith also shows her vulnerability in the album; revealing what she’s like divested of her armour, so to speak, with her guard down. The song ‘Silence,’ a beautifully haunting ballad with a deeply brooding quality, captures the singer in what she describes as a “dark place.”  “I found that the silence was so deafening and very terrifying actually,” she explains. “I was constantly surrounding myself with distractions because the noise brought comfort and a way to escape my reality.”

She says writing ‘Silence’ was a deeply cathartic experience and brought a kind of closure to the feelings that were gnawing at her. “I found it to be therapeutic for sure,” she says. “It’s like I gave birth to something that was stuck there; you can still feel those things as emotions very deeply, but putting them to songs really allows you to have a place, a home. It’s like a spirit that is trying to embody something; and it can be embodied in that song now and can live there. It’s no longer a restless spirit that is trying to find a home.”

Judith drops her guard, too, on the throbbing but playful groove ballad, ‘God Bless The Mechanic,’ whose metaphorical title isn’t hard to fathom. “It’s literally just about sex,” laughs the singer, who, in the lyrics, praises the mechanic’s “special tools.” “Every woman needs a mechanic in their life. It is basically about a one night stand and having those days when you say, man, I just need someone to get down here.”

Different again is the high-octane, uplifting feminist anthem ‘Newborn Woman,’ which taps into Judith’s gospel roots and which she envisaged as a climactic finale for her live shows. “I needed a song where the band can just go through and have a revivalist kind of experience on stage with the tambourines and just rock out,” she laughs. “I just felt it was an empowering thing to say and knew that it was just going to feed my spirit on the stage as a performer.”

Judith says that gospel music had a profound impact on her musical development when she was younger. “It was the bedrock for who I am,” she explains. “As a young girl, I would find myself going to the gospel choir rehearsals at my church. I got very lucky because Rose Stone from Sly and the Family Stone was the musical director so I had a chance to experience her soul and funk every week as a student just watching her. That choir had so many incredible singers, including Tata Vega who went there and was another incredible inspiration to me, and Donna Summer. There were so many people that I got to hear or be around as a kid which I think really inspired me as a young girl.”

The album’s undoubted centrepiece is ‘Americana,’ a brooding psychedelic soul soundscape whose production style has echoes of Norman Whitfield’s ’70s work with Motown acts The Temptations and The Undisputed Truth. The track was released as the album’s first single for which the singer filmed an accompanying video where she plays four different characters, all of which, she says, represent parts of her own cultural and racial ancestry. “‘Americana’ tells what it feels like to be a woman of colour and a bi-racial woman in America during this time,” remarks Judith. “It also shows how tribal America is and how someone like me always feels like someone on the outside; someone that doesn’t really belong.”  

Judith, whose background is part Japanese and African-American, says ‘Americana’ is also an indictment of the capitalist creed that drives America and often disadvantages racial minorities, leaving them as casualties. “The way that capitalism is used in America – this idea of getting your piece of the gold – has been so harmful to people of colour in so many ways,” she declares. “The song addresses the idea of how greed has marginalised communities, and the music video, which shows me as all of these different characters that represent a part of my identity, shows how they’re all endangered in this environment which is very hostile to them.” 

Some commentators will view the song as being overtly political though Hill doesn’t view it that way. “I don’t even really see it as politics,” she says matter-of-factly. “I think that’s a word that gets thrown around in order to avoid the real issue of human rights. I’m just asking; as human beings, how do we treat each other and how do we express empathy and love when someone’s in pain or hurting? I think that’s our responsibility as human beings to look at that. Some people just say, oh, that’s political, but it’s really human and about people. So I’m deeply passionate about human rights and just finding ways to bring unity back into the world during a very divisive time, especially in America.” 

As well as her recording her own music, Judith has been busy working on side projects. She recorded a hard rock style duet with My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way called ‘Here Comes The End’ for the soundtrack of the Netflix sci-fi series, The Umbrella Academy, in 2020. “That was a nice little fun project,” laughs Judith. “He called me and said I just need it to be like (The Rolling Stones’) ‘Gimme Shelter,’ and I was like yeah, I got you, I’ll do a Merry Clayton. I’m a super big sci-fi buff and love superhero movies, so it was fun to be involved with that.” 

She also recorded a song called ‘Thank You’ for the NBA draft commercial in the US. “It’s really a song about appreciating our mentors and where we come from,” she says. “The NBA really connected with my story on that song because that’s what they wanted to appreciate, these young people in thanking their coaches, parents and everybody. So that was a really fun, amazing collaboration.” 

Talking of mentors, our conversation inevitably turns towards Judith’s own music guru, the late Prince Rogers Nelson (pictured right with Judith). “I learned so much from him,” she tells me with palpable enthusiasm in her voice. “There’s so much to say about him but I think that one of the biggest things is the fact that he made me realise that I had to get back to my roots, write the music that I know I love, and just keep writing it. He was very much about ‘you need to put out an album or two every year and just keep going and be somebody that doesn’t stop.’” 

Judith says that Prince’s musical spontaneity rubbed off on her own approach to writing and recording. “He was always very quick (in the studio),” she reveals. “He never over-thought anything. He was always like ‘this is what it’s supposed to be in the truest form of the song and then we move on.’ So, it was a very quick process. He also had been doing it so long that he knew when a groove is going to work or not. He was very much razor-like, straight to the point. It was very exciting.’

For Judith, meeting Prince and collaborating with him helped her to realise that working with a major record label would stifle her creativity. “I was signed to Sony at the time and he pulled me out of that,” reveals the singer, who says the major label did their utmost to stop her leaving. “It was a really intense lawsuit fight with a lot of craziness but I was really thankful that it happened because I was in a system that did not fit me well as an artist.”  

She took great encouragement from the independent route Prince took in 1996 when he left Warner Bros. and began his own record company. “Seeing how he did stuff so autonomously and how he was just so in control of the vision and execution really inspired me so much,” she says. “I realised that was the way to do it because you could be your own leader, your own boss and have your own vision and create a team and a world around you that supports that. That was really incredible. I don’t know where I would have been today if I didn’t get pulled out of that machine.” 

Her first album came out via Prince’s NPG imprint and then in 2018, she founded her own label, Glory Hill. It requires a greater input on Judith’s part, of course, who juggles the roles of performer, producer and label boss, but it has given her an exhilarating sense of liberation. “I think it has allowed me to have just so much freedom and express who I am and be more prolific,” she says, “because when you’re with a major label, you have to sit around and get stamps of approvals and it has to go through the system so you can’t be as prolific. I think we’re in a time when I just want to be able to contribute and just keep writing and just sending-off songs into the universe.”

In the five years since her debut LP, Judith has grown in confidence as an artist and also shown greater maturity. “Now, I feel a lot more clear about what I want: I’m not searching so much,” she states. “When I write, I really hear what the song should be and have an idea of what it’s going to feel like on stage. I don’t really search for it too much in the studio. I take walks and listen to records and go ‘oh right, that’s what I want’ and I go back to the studio and just do what I hear in my head. It’s definitely come a long way.” 

Though the future for all of us is unclear right now, Judith is still focused on creating new music, hoping that one day she’ll be able to perform again in front of a live audience. “I’m at home working on these big passion projects,” she discloses. “On my Instagram, I just shared a lot of classical compositions I used to write back when I was in college, which was really cool.” 

She admits, though, that she has bigger fish to fry. “My bucket lists things include wanting to create an opera experience in a cathedral that infuses some of my orchestral ideas with funk, soul and choral music,” she says. “I really have some grand ideas and projects coming to fruition that really celebrate not just me as a singer but also my music and my body of work.”

From Vanity to Taja Seville, and Apollonia to Jill Jones, Prince nurtured a welter of female musical protégés during his career but none of them – not even the mightily impressive Rosie Gaines – were as accomplished as the multi-talented Judith Hill. As Baby, I’m Hollywood clearly shows, she’s an astounding all-rounder who can sing,  play, write, arrange and produce compelling music in a variety of different styles. The 36-year-old chanteuse is undoubtedly Prince’s finest, most complete apprentice – and she’s staying true to the values he instilled in her. 

“He helped me understand my purpose in life,” explains Judith.  “He was so incredible. There were so many things in the studio I learned from him, just about writing songs for the stage and what kind of stage you want to write them for. He was a real master of all of it.” 

Judith Hill’s new album ‘Baby, I’m Hollywood’ is released digitally on March 5th 2021 with physical versions following later in the year.