Judith Hill Interview – 20 Feet From Stardom

Judith Hill might not be a name too readily familiar to those outside of the music industry, but thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, the wider world is finally becoming acquainted with this artist of considerable talent.

On the promotional trail for this film and also in anticipation of her debut album, she sat down with Front Row Reviews for a chat. In the process, she told us why Candi Staton is wrong, the problems with the Internet, her appearance on the Voice and Michael Jackson’s intentions before his passing.

How were you approached to take part in the documentary?

I met Morgan Neville (director) through an Elton John session that I was doing. He was covering behind the scenes and he said, ‘hey, I’m doing this documentary about background singers, would you like to be a part of it?’ I thought that was awesome, especially because no one has ever done it.

That was how it started, and it was about a two year process of filming me on-and-off. He would call me periodically and pop in to see my show or interview me.

When did the recording sessions take place with the other singers? Was that towards the end of that process?

It was about midway. There was a few sessions that we did. There was one which was midway and one towards the end – which was the ‘Lean On Me’ session – which took place in New York.

Were you familiar with the other singers beforehand? Either personally or just through their names?

I was a big Tata Vega fan. I grew up listening to her. I loved her voice and wanted to be like her. Actually, with Lisa Fischer and Darlene (Love), that was my first time meeting them.

My dad had known Merry (Clayton) because he was Billy Preston’s bass player, so she knew me as a little girl. She said, ‘hey, I knew you!’ It was really 20 Feet though where I met her as an adult.

When did your own relationship with music start?

I wrote my first song when I was 4 years old. My parents, both being musicians, they started me early in the studio; recording and writing. I also performed a lot in the church choir as a kid. That’s where I got a lot of my training. Initially, a lot of gospel singing influenced me but as I started writing songs, it started being more about anything – love, pain, life… anything like that.

What is it that drives you to become a solo artist? Is it because you feel compelled to ‘create’?

It’s definitely that. As an artist you want to create and you’re constantly creating. Nothing makes you happier than being on that stage singing your creations. That is the ultimate passion. It never stops.

It’s an addictive drug.

For sure.

The internet has changed the music industry a lot. Most of the other women in 20 Feet From Stardom are from a different, pre-internet age.  In a lot of ways, the internet has opened the doors. However, in doing so, do you feel that it has also flooded the landscape?

Yes, for sure! It’s definitely flooded! There’s a lot out there. It really makes it difficult, which is why artists these days have to be very innovative and have to be able to reinvent. For example, with soul music, there’s elements of the old classic (sound) and celebrating our history, but also bringing in the modern world. You have to have a sound that is unique and that is what will separate you from the rest.

In relation to the contemporary artists, who do you think has straddled that line quite well?

I feel that Pharrell (Williams) has done a great job of not only understanding modern music but being able to also celebrate soul music. Frank Ocean is also unique in his production and minimalism and his ability to reinvent R&B music. Lorde is doing a brilliant job. I love Lana Del Ray. There are so many artists out here… Florence and the Machine, Janelle Monae…

I was speaking to Candi Staton about a month or so ago and she got quite angry about shows like the X Factor. She said that for soul music to work, you must have lived through it. She watches these programmes and she says, ‘what have you been through? How can you sing to me?’ I was thinking about the Voice (Judith Hill appeared as a hopeful on the Voice in 2013 and reached the final 8 before being eliminated), where you took part in that. What was your motivating factor?

Well it’s interesting with that statement, because I find it off that many people assume that because you’ve gone on that show means you haven’t experienced anything. The assumption that everyone is so green. This show has a real variety of people. There are some people in their forties, who have been doing these things for many years, so I kinda disagree with her on that.

My experience of the Voice is very positive, generally-speaking. It’s an opportunity for you to get up there and show people your artistry. I had a lot of creative control on that show. I was giving out my own arrangements. I was giving charts out to the band and saying, ‘this is how I want it’. I would give the wardrobe… you know, everyone… direction about what we were going to do. It really is a great opportunity to showcase yourself in front of a massive amount of people and gain new fans. I think it’s great. The idea that it’s a fast track and that people haven’t paid their dues just depends on the person.

You get people from all walks of life and some have run miles to get there, so I think it’s not right to assume everyone has jogged only a short distance. You know, you have no idea as to how many laps they’ve done to get to that point.

Why does there appear to be an invisible barrier between being a background singer and a successful solo artist?

I think it is just hard to break out as an artist, whether you’re a background singer or not. I don’t think there’s a correlation.

The thing is, a lot of singers fall into becoming background singers because it’s what they’re doing in the interim time. As an artist, you’ve got to have terrific songs, you’ve got to have the right team and you don’t just need a great voice but a unique sound. These are all things that are essential in the development process of an artist and many singers have great voices but they haven’t realised all of those things yet, so they’ve got into background singing in the meantime whilst they are getting their situation together.

Is that what happened with you?

Yeah, I have been a background singer for quite some time, paying the bills and recording my music and not being ready to put anything out yet, because it’s not ready yet. Once it’s ready, I’ll put it out.

Is there a refinement process?

There is a refinement process. It’s an artist development process, so it’s just like everyone else. I mean, some artists, they choose instead to work in the hamburger shop in the interim time. Other people, they choose to sing background in the interim time. It’s the ‘meanwhile’ time, it’s not like the background singer has a barrier. It’s the day job that you take as a normal person whilst you’re making the record.

Are you in that process at the moment? In terms of gathering songs together?

Yes, I’m signed to the label and I’m really excited about having a team that’s going to put it out and A&R-ing it. It’s finally coming together.

It’s so easy to get a good song and for it fall down due to a little thing; it could be 15 or 20 seconds too long etc…

That’s so true! It can often be such a simple thing, like the drum kick was wrong or the chorus sound. I went through that with my songs. I had a song that no one cared about. I still believed in the song. We worked the production and, all of a sudden, it was my number 1 song and everyone in the A&R department said, ‘that is the one!’ and I was saying, ‘well, that song’s been around for ages’. That’s the process – the very interesting process – that I’m going through at the moment. Especially in the modern world, it’s the tiniest little minute thing in the production that’s setting these songs off. We live in a day and age now where you can’t just write a great song and call it a day. You’ve got to really finesse it and make sure it’s viable in the market place.

That’s a combination of writing and production, isn’t it?

Absolutely. It’s a whole science. It’s like cooking gumbo. You have too much salt and all of a sudden the whole thing is set off. You’ve got to have the right balance.

Referring to the example that you provided a moment ago, with that song, is it the sound that you had heard in your head beforehand but you hadn’t quite nailed it? Or was it a surprise?

It was a surprise. It was interesting for me to see how much the production had changed things. I always thought the song was great but when the song had been taken to that level, it was like an ‘aha!’ moment. It really was eye opening to me, as I have a bunch of songs in the oven and I know their potential, so I’m fighting for them. I’m like, ‘you don’t understand. Once this song is done and you get the right production on it, it’s going to be great’. It’s tricky though in soul music, as you get a lot of A&R people who cannot hear past what they are hearing now. If something throws them off, they can’t see the potential.

It all takes time. That’s why I’ve taken my time in putting this out, because I want it to be great and it’s important.

Everyone seems to give strong testament to your talent. It must be sometimes be frustrating, because as lovely as it is to have these great words, you must want to reap everything in accordance with what they say about you?

Yeah, it is frustrating. I would never have dreamed of any of these things happening to me; I am very fortunate to have these experiences and be in on these fantastic documentaries… I was very antsy for a while. Everyone was saying, ‘this is your moment’ but they’ve been saying that for ages! I’ve learned to just chill out with that whole thing, as the most important is the song. When you put out a good song, it speaks for itself and that is the moment. That is the real moment. If you don’t have that song, it’s not the moment. I don’t care how much press you have, if that song is not there then it is not your moment!

With the people that you’ve worked with in the past, is there any piece of particular advice that has been passed onto you that has really helped?

Ah, there’s so much and so many… Dave Stewart has been a great mentor to me. I’ve worked with him a lot and he really opened my eyes to a lot of things as an artist. I had just come from working with Michael Jackson (Hill had been preparing with him for his 02 residency before his sudden death. This can be seen in the documentary This Is It), so my world was rocked. I’d seen the real deal as an artist. I had experienced it first-hand. Dave helped me define what my dreams and passions are, so he became a real mentor to me. He was that person that gave me artistic guidance.

With regards to Michael Jackson and the lead-up to the O2 residency, did you see any signs of ill health?

He looked very thin. He looked abnormally…(trails off) he was too thin, but every time he got onto the stage he was so dynamic. You could tell that he still had everything and that he was going to rock the stage and he did rock it in the rehearsals. He was very strong, so I was shocked when I found out what had happened because it was so unexpected.

Do you think there would have been a further tour? Was there any talk of post-O2 residency about taking it out on the road?

Oh yeah, it was going to be a global tour. It was supposed to be 50 shows in London and then after that it was going to be Asia… It was going to be as long as Michael was able and willing to perform.

In the film, there’s a moment where you say about embarrassing jobs, and then the film cuts to you onstage with Kylie (Minogue). Did Morgan tell you that he was going to do that?

No, I had no idea that he was going to do that! I don’t even really remember saying it.

I guess the conversation that I must have had with them is that everyone automatically assumes that because you have sung with Michael, your life must be set. They don’t realise that you’re still living at home with your parents and you have bills to pay. Also, it was the first time that I had been in the public eye, so I was not used to this public attention. I felt that every time that I got on television I was naked. Everyone was constantly tweeting and saying this and that. There was so much opinion. It was the first time in my life where I had experienced that much opinion. It got to the point where I wanted to disguise myself. I didn’t want pressures of all of these opinions about what it is that I am doing. I have to say, it was a fun gig. I enjoyed it. I love her (Kylie)! I just wasn’t used to it but I am better with it now. I feel as though I can do whatever I want, receive a response from the world and not take it to heart. I’ve developed tougher skin.

What’s next for you?

I’m in the studio recording and we’re looking towards the end of the summer for the album. I’ll be coming back here to tour, definitely.

What do you think are the hopes for this documentary beyond the awards?

I think it is starting to become a piece of music education of the history of music. People are becoming more aware of the background singer and that’s really amazing to see. It’s great to see people paying attention to background singers and to see them getting the credit they deserve. It’s awesome.

20 Feet From Stardom is playing in cinemas now. The soundtrack is available through Sony Music.

About The Author

Having upped sticks and marched down the A13 from Essex into the smog of London, Greg can be found ranting and raging as the Film Correspondent on the Jon Gaunt Show from time to time and also on his weekly 'The Film Review' podcast (plug alert - available on iTunes and Audioboom). Aside from Front Row Reviews, he also scribbles regularly for HeyUGuys. Lowlights, thus far, have been John Hurt scolding with the question 'do you really think like that?', upsetting acclaimed filmmaker Ondi Timoner with his piece for the Sunday Mirror and falling out with the blog editor of the Huffington Post. Oh, and he did bring Liv Ullmann to tears (but in a good way... more of a highlight, that one). He can also be found writing on theatre and music for the Islington Gazette, Ham & High, Hackney Gazette, Bargain Theatre, SupaJam and others. He's often moaning about how tired he is, and he's a frustrated musician.

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