Judith Hill is talking to me from Nashville, the iconic capital of country music. It’s not a place you would imagine her to be, or, perhaps, have an affinity with – after all, she’s a Los Angeles-raised R&B and funk singer with gospel music roots, but the 34-year-old confesses that being in the iconic Tennessee metropolis ignites her imagination. “It’s really, really, inspiring to be here in this city,” she enthuses. “It’s fun because I love any kind of bluegrass and roots guitar playing.” That statement is not one you would perhaps expect to hear from someone who’s worked closely with Michael Jackson and Prince but it’s insightful because it reveals that Judith Hill is refreshingly different and doesn’t think in terms of genres – to her, then, music is music: it’s a universal language and a unifying force that all can share despite their ethnic and cultural diversity.
It’s a viewpoint that fits in with the theme of the singer’s latest single, ‘The Pepper Club,’ an addictive chunk of horn-laden funk with an infectious chorus. It offers a taste of her forthcoming second, story-driven, concept album, ‘Golden Child.’ “‘The Pepper Club is the place where everybody comes together and celebrates culture and diversity,” explains Judith. “I picture it as a cultural Mecca – a place that people can come and have a good time and enjoy themselves and celebrate life, regardless of who they are and what their background is.”
The video for ‘The Pepper Club,’ with its eye-catching choreographed dancing, shows people from all walks of life and different backgrounds coming together in an almost Utopian vision of harmony. It’s a place where everybody seemingly fits in and no one judges you and it’s possible to see that for someone like Judith Hill, whose family ancestry has both Japanese and African American roots, ‘The Pepper Club’ is a haven where everyone is equal, free, and can be who they want to be.
Judith describes the parent album, ‘Golden Child,’ as autobiographical. “It was stuff that I was writing and feeling in my heart,” she says, but without giving too much away. “I realised that the story was a common one that was itching to be told. I also wrote a play to go along with it.” She discloses that the album will be premiered in Los Angeles as a lavish and ambitious stage extravaganza with hints of Cirque Du Soleil. “It will be a stage play combined with a ballet and live concert experience,” she says, “where the stories are being told from the perspective of the dancers. The dancers are the characters that are telling the story, much like a ballet, like ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Swan Lake,’ but this time it’s a funk concert version of that.”
Her debut album, 2015’s ‘Back In Time,’ was co-produced by Judith’s most recent mentor, Prince, and released on the late singer’s NPG label but ‘Golden Child’ is the first that one that she’s helmed herself – and it’s coming out on her own label, Gloryhill. “I produced it and self-did everything,” she reveals. “I really wanted it to be that way but there are a few star players, like (ex-Rufus guitarist), Tony Maiden.”
Though she’s been offered major label record deals, Judith turned them down because, she says, “it wasn’t the right time and the right fit at this moment.” She’s proudly independent. “I prefer building my own world and this the start of a lot of exciting new things to come surrounding my music,” she says. But she’s the first to admit that going it alone is not without its challenges, though. “It’s both a challenge and it’s also a blessing to be able to be in control of your vision and really be able to do things the way you hear it and want them to be done,” she says. “The challenge is that it’s a lot of work because there’s just so many pieces to making an album but it’s definitely something that I wanted to learn and understand better.”
Music has been an important facet of Judith’s life for as long as she can remember. She reveals that her first experience of being in a recording studio came when she was just four years old. “I wrote a song called ‘God Is Me’ and recorded it in the studio at our house,” she says. “My parents are both musicians and they had their own studio.” Her parents are Robert Lee Hill, a bassist, whose credits range from Billy Preston and Thelma Houston to Monica, and Tokyo-born Michiko Hill, a pianist who’s played with jazz great Wayne Shorter, and gospel singer, Helen Baylor.
At home, Judith would be exposed to all different kinds of music. “My mum’s a classical pianist, so she would always get me to listen to lots of classical music, especially Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn …but also the house was just oozing with funk and soul, so for us it was always Curtis Mayfield – he was a big one that we would always play in the house – Aretha Franklin, and Sly & The Family Stone. My mother loved Janice Joplin as well, so there was a lot of variety – a lot of jazz, and lots of gospel, like the Clark Sisters.”
Judith first started singing in public as a six-year-old in the choirs at her local church and school. As far as singers who influenced her own sound and development, she cites gospel-reared performers: “I would say Aretha Franklin was a big one, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and Tata Vega…and Rose Stone [Sly Stone’s sister and a former member of Sly & the Family Stone]. She was like an early childhood mentor to me. I was really influenced by her and also artists like Nat ‘King’ Cole, and Ray Charles.”
Our conversation turns to the key albums in her life when she was growing up. “In my early days, ‘Unforgettable’ by Nat ‘King’ Cole was one I couldn’t really live without,” says Judith, who fell in love with the crooner’s silky ballad sound. Illustrating that her taste, even at a young age, was eclectic and wide-ranging, Judith names the 1976 soundtrack album, ‘Sparkle,’ performed by Aretha Franklin and written and produced by Curtis Mayfield as a personal favourite. “That collaboration was one that was really important to me,” she says. “and so was Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace,’ album – I couldn’t live without that.” But it wasn’t just classic soul that young Judith was into. “Also, I was into ’90s R&B,” she laughs. “When I was a teenager, I couldn’t live without Brandy’s first record. Vocally, she was just destroying it, so I was really into her.”
Those are some of the records that helped to shape Judith’s sound but she has very much distilled them through her own personality to come up with a unique and immediately recognisable style that is all her own. Though she had been writing and recording her own songs from an early age, it was as a background singer that Judith first came on the radar of many people. Her credits include singing on albums by an array of artists, that included Anastasia, Robbie Williams, Rod Stewart, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, and Elton John’s 2010 collaboration with the late Leon Russell. “Every single moment was like being at school, but they were so different,” reflects Judith, thinking about what those many and varied experiences meant to her. “I was just soaking it all up.”
In 2009, Judith was successful in auditioning for Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’ tour and as well as doing background vocals, she was selected as a featured singer to sing opposite Jackson on the duet, ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You. ‘ Jackson’s tragic death on 24th June 2009 meant that the tour never went ahead but the public were able to see the late singer and Judith doing rehearsals together on the subsequent DVD, ‘This Is It.’ “That was a very interesting experience because it came out of nowhere really,” says Judith. “I was performing in these little LA clubs and I met these musicians. One guy in particular I befriended, and he told me that I should audition for Michael Jackson, who was hiring at the time. I thought it was a long shot but I said sure, I’ll give it a try. It came down to just two of us really auditioning for the part as they had already done a big cast call but were still looking for someone. Michael had seen my stuff online and to cut a long story short, he ended up picking me.”
“It was pretty surreal,” is how Judith describes the transformation from being a Michael Jackson fan to working with him. “It was pretty much like a dream. I was so excited to be able to work with him on that stage and he was just so lovely to work with. I didn’t really have much one-on-one time with him but when we were on stage, he was directing me and very encouraging.”
Even more surreal, perhaps, was the shock of Jackson’s death shortly afterwards, followed by a memorial service at LA’s the Staples Center where Judith was asked to step up and sing the anthemic ‘Heal The World’ (pictured above). “That was hard,” divulges Judith. “It was at the same place that we were rehearsing so it was very, very difficult. I think at that point I was in a different headspace – just realising our mortality and wanting to celebrate the higher things. I was really looking to God at that point. Singing ‘Heal The World’ was really powerful, and there was a kids’ choir with me, so you had no choice but to cry out to God at that point and that’s what it felt like. It was a very spiritual experience and also emotionally difficult and very sad.” Later the same year, Judith recorded her own heartfelt tribute song to Jackson called ‘I Will Always Be Missing You.’
Still intent on being a solo artist and having her own career but doing background vocals to pay the bills and widen her experience, in 2012, Judith experienced another pivotal moment in her career when acclaimed movie director, Spike Lee, witnessed her performing live and asked her to contribute to a new movie he was making. He later enthused about her to Rolling Stone magazine, telling them: “She’s a phenomenal talent. She can sing with the best of them.”
Taking up the story, Judith says: “He came to an event that I was performing in and he was really impressed. He was excited by my performance and pulled me aside to ask me if I would be willing to work with him on the next film as he was working on. I said, of course, and we talked about the film and then I started sending him the music.”
The film was called Red Hook Summer about a scandal at a Brooklyn church and Judith wrote several songs for the soundtrack. She says that working with Spike Lee was a hugely rewarding experience. “Spike is great, I love him,” she gushes. “He is just so unapologetically passionate about what he believes in and it’s just great to work with somebody who really has no fear and just really makes just a statement in every film that he makes. So I was just honoured to be a part of it as I was a big fan of his work. That was just a great experience. He’s really, really fun to work with.”
A year later, in 2013, Judith – despite her associations with Michael Jackson and Spike Lee – elected to face one of her toughest challenges yet – as a contestant in the American version of the primetime TV music talent show, The Voice. Although the show, with its millions of viewers, was a major platform to showcase her talent to the world, Judith says she wasn’t motivated by a feeling of desperation and the thought that it might be the last chance to fulfil her cherished dream of being a solo star. “It wasn’t really like, oh, this is the last stop to anything,” she laughs. “It was just something along the journey that was fun to do. I met a lot of really cool friends that I’m still friends with now to this day and the plus of it is that you get a lot of exposure.”
Judith was tipped to win by the pundits but got eliminated in the knockout stage. It was a controversial decision but it didn’t faze the singer, who laughs about it, and acknowledges the contrived nature of the way the show is assembled and presented. “I think they wanted to tip me to be the one to win because it created more drama,” she confides. “I was actually quite surprised that that was how they billed me, as the one to beat. But it’s just television and not really a singing competition. You could almost see how the story was being written because they want big drama and controversy. It’s interesting when you get on that show because you realise what they’re doing and how they cast people to direct the narrative they want.”
So how does it feel when a judge presses his or her buzzer and turns round in the chair to face you? “At that moment when they hit the button, it’s very distracting, actually,” laughs Judith. “You’re in the middle of a song and then all of a sudden chairs are turning and everybody’s reacting to that, and the moment gets taken off what you’re singing to that, so it’s a little bit of a circus. It was fun but not like real life at all.”
Judith’s exit from The Voice took place five years ago, in May 2013 but just a month later, her fortunes took a more positive turn when a documentary film she appeared in called 20 Feet From Stardom was released in US cinemas. Several years in the making, it was directed by Morgan Neville and offered an insightful look at the lives of several notable background singers, which besides Judith, featured Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Tata Vega, all of whom performed on the soundtrack album. Well-received by the critics and public alike, 20 Feet From Stardom, won an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Feature in 2014.
“I met Morgan Neville, the film director, just through some friends,” recalls Judith. “I was working on the Elton John-Leon Russell album and his crew was capturing some of that. Shortly after that project they reached out to me and said they were doing a documentary on singers called 20 Feet From Stardom and said they wanted to capture my story. So I said, absolutely. It was just something that was fun to do but what really blew my mind was how it was put together and how well it was received. No one really expected that. I had no idea how it was going to be an award-winning project. So, that was awesome.”
Though she has performed as a background singer on many occasions, Judith says that she never felt frustrated by putting her own career aspirations on the back burner. “Those are all choices that I made,” she declares. “I wanted to sing with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Those are all really powerful moments in my life that I felt were absolutely worth it to put my stuff on hold and just be a part of something really inspirational and powerful. Every chapter in my life has just been incredible and I’ve no regrets. I would have done the same thing and had those experiences over again because they only made me grow as an artist.”
Another uplifting stroke of good fortune in Judith’s career came when a certain Prince Rogers Nelson sought Judith out after seeing her on TV in early 2015. Surprisingly, perhaps, he hadn’t seen her on The Voice and also didn’t know of her association with Michael Jackson, but had first encountered her on a cable TV network. “I did an interview for Revolt TV that he had seen,” shares Judith, “where they asked me, who would you love to work with and who would be your dream collaboration, and I said Prince would be amazing. I had no idea that that would actually become a reality. I just figured that would be an awesome dream if that happened. But apparently Prince reached out to my management and wanted to talk to me because he had seen that interview.”
Like her encounter with that other ’80s pop genius, Michael Jackson, Judith’s musical alliance with Prince was an incredibly inspiring one. Impressed by her voice and prowess as a multi-instrumentalist – she plays guitar and bass as well as keys – he took her into his Paisley Park studio complex in Minneapolis where they recorded her debut album, ‘Back In Time.’ Tragically, just a year later, Judith’s mentor was dead at the age of 57. “He was a beautiful soul,” she remembers. “He loved music more than anything. It’s just so inspiring to be around somebody who just loves music so much that everything else just disappears. It’s a really positive and empowering studio experience. It was actually very healing for me because I’ve found that everybody is trying to chase the current moment and trying to get on the charts but when you go and step out of that and you step into a collaboration with someone who is deeply committed to the music, like Prince, there’s nothing else that exists but the groove we’re making right now and the excitement around it. At that moment everything else disappears. It’s just so refreshing and it was very healing for me because to this day now I write from that perspective and all that commercial noise and the chatter of the world doesn’t matter to me anymore. It’s all about giving your soul to the music and that’s really my experience of Prince.”
It was via her collaboration with Prince that encouraged Judith to do her own thing and go the independent route. “He actually pulled me out of the system,” she laughs, alluding to the fact that he helped her extricate herself from a deal with major label, Sony. “It was tough but it was also rewarding in the sense that I learned so much and found autonomy and understanding that what artists really provide is a service. Music is a gift. I really want to hone-in and make strong being an independent artist. But it’s hard. You’ve got to do everything – you’ve got to make it all happen and make decisions and not do it because someone else said do it, but because you want to do it. So it’s a very powerful thing. It requires leadership in a way that I’ve never experienced but it’s also much more sincere and more authentic.”
People in the UK will be able to see Judith perform live at five venues this coming July. “I’ll be bringing my band – Tony Maiden, Michael White, Myra Washington, and Ashley Minnieweather. My mum and my dad will be joining me as well, so it’s a family affair band and we’ll be premiering some of the songs from ‘Golden Child.'”
She’s looking forward to the release of the album, ‘Golden Child,’ which will probably happen in the autumn. “I’m really excited about the message of it and I really hope it connects with a lot of people who are looking for a classic, deeply soulful funky experience,” she says. “I’m a purist when it comes to funk and I’m really hoping that this record is more that than anything. I hope that it connects with a lot of people who are just yearning for that type of purity.”
JUDITH HILL’S SINGLE ‘THE PEPPER CLUB’ IS OUT NOW. THE ALBUM, ‘GOLDEN CHILD,’ FOLLOWS LATER IN THE YEAR.
Judith’s UK European tour dates:
July 15th Night & Day, Manchester
July 16th The Shipping Forecast, Liverpool
July 17th Pizza Express Birmingham
July 18th Pizza Express Holborn, London
July 19th Pizza Express Holborn, London
For More info go to: http://www.judithhill.com/