Before she was picked to sing back-up for Michael Jackson's ill-fated 2009 London shows, Judith Hill was a relatively unknown perfomer from Pasadena.
When Hill appeared near the end of Jackson's memorial service to lead the stage in singing “Heal The World,” most of the Staples Center audience didn't know who she was, and her name wasn't listed in the program. A flurry of Google searches in the next 24 hours followed, and she was on her way to being discovered. This Is It shows Hill singing “I Just Can't Stop Loving You” with Jackson at their very first rehearsal together, with the show's dancers and supporting cast giggling in delight as Jackson is inspired to sing out for the first time.
Since then Hill has received a multitude of offers to collaborate with top musicians and producers, including Randy Jackson and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, who recently tweeted that Hill was the “real deal.” Hill credits Stewart with pointing her to opportunities in fashion, branding and other areas beyond just music she's been focusing on much of the past two years.
Hill's voice is distinctive, soulful and has an earthy quality that makes it unique. She moves easily from R&B to funk to hip-hop to jazz to gospel. Her first regular gig after graduating from Biola University in 2005 was as the featured vocalist with sax and flute wizard Katisse Buckingham, a musician with nearly as wide musical influences.
Judith performed with the Jackson family at a recent tribute in Tokyo, and is currently touring with Stevie Wonder, who sought Hill out. Rolling Stone has featured her twice, and she's done dozens of TV, radio, and red carpet appearances.
Fortune shined on Hill again when filmmaker Spike Lee caught her at an impromptu Jackson tribute last year at Hollywood's W Hotel. Lee immediately approached Hill and asked if she might be willing to contribute songs to Red Hook Summer, the new movie he was working on that just debuted at the Sundance Festival.
“I'm excited about reaching people through lyrics and storytelling,” she says from her family's Pasadena studio, adding that most of the ten songs Lee selected for Red Hook Summer were gospel and ballads, some with a jazz flavor. “If I can do that with two chords and a simple melody and connect with people emotionally, the story is what's most important. At the same time, I'm also finding my own music is becoming more involved again.” Much of Judith's musical focus in the last two years has been on writing pop songs via collaborations with other performers, but she now feels herself being drawn back to more challenging writing that comes directly from her own experience and abilities.
Hill's father Pee Wee is a funk/R&B bassist and producer; her mother Michiko is an accomplished jazz and classical pianist and choir director. Judith's tastes are just as varied, she's as likely to discuss Ravel as she is the latest hip-hop hit. “I can see myself eventually doing choir and jazz projects, I have a whole life of music ahead of me. I'm just getting started.”
Hill performs tomorrow, February 7, at the Key Club