In 2015, soul singer, songwriter, Voice contestant and in-demand backup vocalist Judith Hill went from her home in Pasadena to fulfill her dream of walking the red carpet at the Grammys. The acclaimed documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, which featured Hill alongside such renowned backup singers as Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, won the Grammy for Best Music Film. For that one special night, she was on top of the music world.
Two weeks later, flat broke, filling out paperwork to declare bankruptcy and wondering what to do with her life, her thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell. She signed for the delivered package, opened the box and pulled out her Grammy Award. Stunned by the irony, she realized it was a sign to continue on her career path no matter what the circumstances.
As a 4-year-old writing her first song, “God Is Made,” with her mother accompanying her on the piano, Hill knew she had inherited her parents' talent and passion for music. Her mother is a classically trained pianist, while her father played with funk greats such as Sly and the Family Stone. No wonder when Prince first heard her, he invited her up to Paisley Park to jam and eventually agreed to produce her debut album, Back in Time.
After many years backing up musical icons like Michael Jackson (with whom she was supposed to tour before his death), Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Josh Groban, Hill takes her turn in the spotlight as she performs at the Grammy Museum on Monday, Feb. 22, before playing South by Southwest and embarking on a national tour with her new band, FAM.
Read on for our Q&A with Hill …
You sang at Michael Jackson's memorial service?
We were part of the band he was going to take out; it was a very shocking, unexpected death. It was one of those experiences where, I don’t know how I was asked to sing at his memorial, but I was deeply honored. It was a surreal, spiritual experience. I didn’t really get to know him. Every time he came to rehearsal he was very kind, fun to work with and in bright spirits, so it was wonderful.
What was the best advice from Adam Levine when you were on The Voice?
He was fun! He knows how being on a television show works, the emotional response that people have to what you say, sing; it was all very interesting. It was cool, educational — like being on The Hunger Games, where I’m this character and there are certain things that happen inside that show.
What was the most important thing you learned working with Prince?
He honors the groove. I had gone through so many different producers and I was in over my head at the time, but it was refreshing to go back to basics and write songs for every person on that stage. It’s a wonderful way to write music. Not just write for the singer. Prince just loves music; the arrangements are so much fun to play, they’re filled with so many great surprises. It’s a great way to write music.
How did your solo album Back in Time come together?
I had songs that I had already written. Prince invited me up to Paisley Park in Minneapolis, and I jammed with his band. It was casual in the beginning, then he was like, “Play me your songs.” I sent him a bunch and he wrote comments on them, but the real magic happened when I went up there and we jammed on it organically. It was great to see him come up with new arrangements of my songs and stuff that works better with a band. So that’s kinda how it all happened. Really it was just a jam session with a band, he recorded it, then he called me back and said, “This stuff’s so great, you gotta do a record.” It was already halfway done when we jammed, took those interpretations and recorded it.
Have you been a Prince fan your whole life?
Yeah, I really have! I really admire him. He was able to popularize funk in a pop setting; being a funkster myself, Prince is an icon who really did that, so I’ve always looked up to him. First time I met him was in L.A. for his album Art Official Age listening party. It was very casual, but I was very freaked out.
How was your experience being in 20 feet From Stardom?
It was very organic. I was honored to be a part of it. I was the young up-and-coming one and the other ladies were women I love so much. I grew up listening to Tata Vega, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and the others. I had a couple years of [documentarians] going to my shows, rehearsals, catching my story. It was just a fun little side project. I had no idea it was going to turn out to be what it is, winning an Oscar and a Grammy and all that. I love the honesty and sincerity of the film.