Judith Hill opens up about cyberbullying and loss, facing 40, and music’s healing power. 

What’s not to like about Judith Hill? On the surface, she seems to have it all; she is supremely beautiful and immensely talented, and a Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist with an electrifying stage presence and a gospel-powered voice that can send shivers down the spine. And yet after the tragic death of Prince, her mentor and romantic partner in 2016, her life descended into hell. She found herself the target of tacky tabloid news outlets, cruel cyberbullies, and crackpot conspiracy theorists, who dubbed her the “Black Widow” and wildly speculated that she was responsible in some dark, sinister way for the demise of both Michael Jackson (whom she worked with just before he died in 2009) and Prince. 

Other people faced with a similar situation might have dismissed their accusers and laughed them off, but Hill, whose sensitivity was heightened because she was also grieving for Prince, found them hard to ignore, especially when TZM, a US celebrity “news” and gossip platform, ran a crass and insensitive piece spotlighting her “eerie connection” to the two late music icons. Given the vitriolic and hateful nature of what she faced, it’s no surprise, perhaps, that they got under Hill’s skin and ate into her sense of self-worth. But after being haunted by the Black Widow taunts for many years, Hill has now found the courage to tackle and confront her tormentors, and, as she recently told SJF’s Charles Waring, she feels empowered and liberated by doing so.

Hill’s antidote to the remorseless hatred she’s faced comes in the shape of her triumphant new studio album Letters From A Black Widow, a compellingly cathartic, autobiographical-focused song cycle where the singer confronts her accusers in addition to exploring themes about self-doubt (‘One Of The Bad Ones’), redemption (Black Widow’), righteousness (‘Flame’), loss (‘Touch’), family (‘Dame De La Lumiere’), work-life balance (‘Runaway Train’), and maternal feelings (‘Let Me Be Your Mother’). 

As well as being a feisty riposte to the judgemental trolls who have made her life a misery, the album has allowed Hill to articulate her innermost feelings on sensitive subjects and by so doing, neutralise and disarm her demons. For all its therapeutic benefits, Letters From A Black Widow has been a painful journey for its creator – but one that certainly lends weight to the commonly held belief that the most profound art is born from suffering and anguish.

Your new album Letters From A Black Widow contains some of the deepest, darkest, and most intensely personal music you’ve ever made.    

I was going through a lot of personal trauma after the death of Prince and was in counseling for years but in the time of the pandemic, I actually had time to stop and think. I never ever felt I was ready to talk about that kind of stuff, just because it was so painful, but my counselor said, I think it would very be very powerful for you to just artistically express what you’ve gone through and confront this haunting idea of the Black Widow.

How did it feel?

It was a very liberating experience – it felt like I finally unmuted myself. And from that just came this whole album that gave me the freedom to express and explore shame and trauma, and also discover the parts of hope and growth that come after it. 

Was there a defining moment that sparked the creative process?

I went on a little camping trip with my friends, and we had all taken a psychedelic (magic mushrooms), and they ended up having a great fun time. But I went into this dark spiritual awakening trip and saw this huge mountain in front of me, which was a mountain of pain. And so that’s really how the album starts. It’s like I could see and feel the mountain. So that’s the beginning of the story. Letters From A Black Widow is a concept album taking you through the journey of the mountain of pain and facing the shadow, which is ultimately the Black Widow. And then after that, new hopes and other insights came that I wasn’t able to see until I did what I did. So it was a very powerful journey for me.

Your counselor was probably right because for you, making music is probably the best therapy, isn’t it?

Absolutely. Because it gives me a place to exist that’s my own, and it’s not haunting me as much. I’m able to allow space for it. So yeah, it’s very powerful.

Sometimes being bullied and receiving harsh criticism can make us doubt and question ourselves – did you get caught in the trap of thinking the trolls might be onto something and you might be cursed? 

Oh, yeah, that’s why there’s the feeling of self-doubt which is where the song ‘One Of The Bad Ones’ comes from. The reason why the idea of the Black Widow was so much of a trigger for me is that there’s part of me that probably fears that I’m not a good person. It goes back to early childhood. I grew up in a very religious family and in church, I was always afraid of doing the wrong thing and going to hell. I had a really deep fear about that type of thing. So, to be called the Black Widow is really like being called a bad person or cursed or that something’s wrong with you. That was something that I realized in this whole process and which I carried anyways. A lot of times, people would say to me, “Oh, they’re just trolls, don’t let them get to you. I don’t know why you’re so bothered.” So I would ask myself, “Why does this bother me so much?” 

When did you become aware that people were making these insane accusations and your name was turning up in wild conspiracy theories?

I received a lot of online messages and comments, like “She’s the Black Widow, stay away from her” and “Stay away from Stevie Wonder.” There was constantly this idea that I was this dark entity and people were accusing me of all kinds of things surrounding Michael and Prince. Things like, “It’s not a coincidence that you’re with him and then you’re with Michael.” There was so much I was receiving that I was internalising. I would take all these comments and all these messages and just really be hurt by them.

Who did you turn to for emotional support? Who were your rocks?

My mom and I’ve had a few friends that I felt I could talk to about it. They were really powerful for me, just being able to talk through it. Of course, my counselor was always a big part of it, too. 

On the track ‘Flame,’ a feisty piece of blues-rock, you sound defiant – it’s as if you’ve been transformed from victim to victor and feel triumphant about liberating yourself from all your Black Widow baggage.

Writing about the Black Widow and writing this album almost leaves you with no choice but to become more triumphant. And that’s the whole point of it. That’s why a lot of the songs have that message about overcoming. And also, when you face them head-on, you take away the power of the accusations and the trolling. I’m no longer this vulnerable, weak person who cares about what people think about her, I’ve transcended that. But I don’t want to fool myself or create this unrealistic idea that now I’m free and it doesn’t hurt me anymore. I’m victorious but the human experience is that you have good days and bad days – sometimes you’re still hurt by it and sometimes you feel more victorious. So it’s definitely a work in progress. It’s a journey. But I think that this is a very powerful step toward understanding that, as much as I am terrified of and hate the idea of the Black Widow, there’s some power to it. In getting past what people think about you and no longer allowing reputation to become something that enslaves you, you break the chains.

One of the album’s most poignant songs for me is ‘Touch,’ which is about grieving, bereavement, and coping with loss. How cathartic was it, pouring your feelings into that tune?

Oh, very much cathartic. I realized that the most difficult part of grieving is losing the sense of touch when you’ve lost someone very close to you. So much of that song is about how much touch is a big part of memory and connection – and losing that is the biggest thing. 

There seem to be allusions to Prince in the song’s lyrics (“I’ve got your quirks on video, your voice on audio”) and a refrain that goes, “Hold on to the memory.” What’s your favorite memory of being with Prince?

I think with Prince my favorite memory is just the long venting conversations we had on a deep level about culture or God, and being able to have that sort of level of conversation and insight. I really do miss our conversations.

What wisdom and life lessons did you learn from him that you carry with you today?

I think one of the life lessons I learned is to create your own ecosystem. That’s really huge, because especially today, the world feels more and more jarring to me. And as a creative person, it’s important to hold on to and build your own kingdom and ecosystem – and create your own magic, because that’s the only way we can survive and impact the world. Prince was brilliant at that. I just watched how he just really stayed in his own universe. And that’s what kept the excitement and the inspiration. 

Moving away from some of the album’s darker songs, ‘Dame De La Lumiere,’ is a poignant storytelling ballad and to my mind, one of the most beautiful songs you’ve written.

It’s about my mother and my grandmother. Essentially, I’m telling the stories of two very powerful women in my life who really exemplify what it means to be a survivor – my mom, overcoming stage four cancer, and ten years later, is still traveling around the world performing. And my grandmother, who was also just an incredible matriarch of our whole family. Coming out of the storm of the Black Widow, I found myself under this beautiful large tree sitting down and feeling the ancestral energy of these women surrounding and embracing me and finding that newfound strength that made me realize that I’m more powerful than I thought I was. I use the motto of “Bad times, make strong women.” ‘Dame De La Lumiere’ takes you on a journey,  essentially from my family and then spreading out, celebrating all women of the light. I want it to be an anthem and an encouragement to all women out there. 

A different theme is embodied by the song ‘Runaway Train,’ which addresses the fact you’ve made a lot of sacrifices in your personal life by pursuing a music career. 

I feel like it’s one of those things where you’re on this train, and you’re going, going, going, and then realizing Oh, wow, like, I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. It feels like I can’t stop and have to keep going. It also feels like there’s more than I’m losing but there’s also more than I’m gaining, so it’s like this really weird equation where it feels reckless and you could crash and burn. It just feels like the stakes are higher and higher every day. 

Do you ever feel like jumping off that train?

Sometimes, but then at other times, I want the train to go faster. 

I sense from the lyrics and themes in this album that now, as you approach 40, you’re beginning to think beyond music and contemplate what you might have missed. That seems to be evident in the song, ‘Let Me Be Your Mother.’

It’s literally me speaking to my unborn child and asking for permission to be his or her mother and apologizing to her or him about all the mistakes I’ve made. But I’m also trying to convince her that I’m ready and that she can trust me. I feel a lot of times, the music industry is always pushing youth and there are only songs written by people in their 20s or early 30s and then after that, we don’t hear about people’s experience anymore. Moving into my 40s very soon, I feel there are a lot of women who have gone through what I’m going through, being a career woman my whole life. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices and at this point in my life, I’m really coming to terms with things like there’s a biological clock. It’s a real concern and on this album, I get to touch on some of those things a little bit.

Tell me about the cover art, which is a very stark, black-and-white image of yourself in the desert sitting on a child’s swing. What does it symbolize?

I feel that image really encapsulates this album. There’s the idea of the Black Widow, which is a very sinister dark figure on a child’s swing, together with innocence, loss, and the longing for the childhood part of me. There are a lot of themes (in the album) that are built around childhood and innocence. But then there’s also the dark shadow that I’m addressing and the irony of having both of those living in the same space in the desert is the perfect image for this album.

What do you think you learned about yourself through making this album?

I learned that I’m not entirely healed. I’m broken pieces but I’m okay with that and not applying pressure on myself to fix these huge things. That was what was so liberating about this album. We always want to tie things up in a nice bow or find the takeaway, but I don’t need to find the resolution and I’m okay with that. It just feels like a relief because I’ve been trying too hard.

Letters From A Black Widow documents a dark chapter in your life. But now that you’ve addressed some of those issues that were troubling you, will you move forward into the light, as it were, without a backward glance? 

Oh, absolutely. I will definitely move forward into the light but I also think I’ll always write about and document life’s struggles and finding the beauty in the pain. I think that that’s just a theme of mine as an artist because I find there’s so much there’s so much beauty and hope in the journey of overcoming. But I think that I’m interested in exploring lighter things after this project because that’s something that I’ve also not really allowed myself to do. I think I’ve stayed in the shadows for a little bit, so I think I’m interested in playing in the sun now.

Have you road-tested any of these tunes yet? You’re getting back on the “runaway train” next month when you come to Europe, which includes a London show at Bush Hall. 

Yeah, we’ve actually been playing these songs for the first time in my tour that just finished a week ago in the States. We played a lot of the material. It was very exciting to finally play them.

When I saw you live a couple of years ago, I was surprised by how much you were playing the electric guitar. Has the instrument become a key part of your compositional palette now as well as the piano?

It’s definitely part of my live experience because I like playing the guitar when I’m playing funk music, it gives me a place to go with it. It’s a big part of my palette now. Before I never really even played it. I was leaning more on the piano, which gives you rich harmonic bedding and drama in a very different way from the guitar. But the guitar’s allowed me to find visceral, more angsty, colors in my music. So I love being able to have that.

Do you feel now, after facing your demons with Letters From A Black Widow, that your life is in the right key?

I do. I think the clashes are still there but there’s more alignment with myself. I think it’s more about that. Maybe not with the public and with the world but I think the first step is being aligned with myself. And I think that I’ve found that.

How supportive have your fans been during what has been a difficult time? 

I’ve got an incredible community, people who have just supported me and have been there, which I don’t take for granted. I cherish every one of them. I feel like it’s a family, even across the world; just people that have come and shared their love at the shows. So it’s been very powerful and beautiful.

Looking to the future, what ambitions do you have, beyond this record?

I think that I will always be excited about finding new collaboration projects. I’m interested in African and Arabic music, finding scales that are different and new instrumentations creating colors and sounds, and collaborating with artists around the world. That’s probably the next thing that I’m really excited about.

Judith Hill’s Letters From A Black Widow is out now via Regime Music Group. Catch her live at London’s Bush Hall on the 8th of June 2024. 

(Photos by Ginger Sole Photography)


Check out SJF’s previous interviews with Judith: