"It's such a small world: you're always a gig or a person away from something really cool," Judith Hill tells me, as she prepares to leave for South Africa the next day for a tour with Avon Cosmetics.
That is a minor understatement, if I ever heard one. The "gig" this powerhouse vocalist is referring to happened to be the female lead in Michael Jackson's back up for his This Is It tour. While any number of contemporary artists would be quick to include MJ in their list of influences, few have had the divine opportunity of actually performing with The King of Pop. Judith Hill has and then some.
Michael Jackson and Judith Hill – I Just Can't Stop Loving You
Hill's music is a breed all its own: avante-garde, dusted with some pop overtones and slathered over gorgeous rock melodies. Though she sings with the natural ease of another Ms. Hill, one can appreciate how hard she makes it to classify her strictly as funk, soul or pop. An accomplished singer, Hill is also a highly trained pianist who can play as well as she can sing. We talk to Hill about life after MJ, traveling and building a show of her very own.
EM: You were raised in a very musical household. What was that like?
JH: My parents met in a funk band. My dad was a funk player for Billy Preston, my mom was a classic pianist. It was great being surrounded by musical influences, everything from jazz to funk to classical, just having a lot great musicians as family and friends. It really helped me to just learn about music and how it's done.
EM: Your father is African American and your mom is Japanese. What role did their cultural and musical influences play in your life?
JH: To come from really old school soul funk background, culturally, was just so fresh. In my household, the focus was more on funk and soul and then my mom's side, the classical side, helped me to groom me musically and so I think the blending of the two cultures created a playground for me musically. My mom got her degree in classical piano so I had a lot of that kind training growing up. I learned how to read music as well as play by ear and improvise and do all the things you need to do as a gospel pop or jazz musician, so getting to be a part of both of those worlds was advantageous.
EM: Describe for us your music in your own words.
JH: My style is very funk soul with pop overtones and undertones and I would say that's how I describe my music but there's a lot of cross genres that occur because of my classical background. Sometimes you'll hear a more classical influence or funk but, you know, its really developed and formed into soul funk sound.
EM: Obviously people compare you to other famous people. Who are your biggest influences?
JH: Oh there are so many! The main influences would be Sly and The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway, Aretha Franklin. There's also Louis Armstrong, Bob Marley, Sting. More modern artists would include Lauryn Hill, Sam Cooke, just Motown in general. I get a lot of inspiration from Ray Charles, Little Richard, James Brown. These are all people who do influence me in a big way.
EM: Can you talk to us about your experience performing and working with MJ?
JH: Michael was the ultimate example of an artist to me and just watching him so closely taught me so much. Growing up in a musician home, you get a lot of education and knowledge from the musical side but working with Michael just opened up my eyes as an artist — being a star, owning the show, creating your own world on the stage. It's acting: it transcends. There are so many other elements to it that encourage me more than anything now as I work on my show. I think back on how spectacular that was going to be, just seeing him be so in control and know exactly what he was trying create on stage. It was a magical experience because you do get swept up in his world. It's really inspiring to think that way and it's a big different from the jazz circuit where people are singing in lounges and bars. It's a huge difference singing for a huge concert; it's on a bigger, visual level.
EM: How did you land that gig? It seems like such a far off dream for so many and yet it was a reality for you.
JH: It's funny because it always happens this way for me, where I'm just putting in my dues and I just tell myself, 'Okay Judith, get out of your room and studio… do a little networking… meet up with some people and perform live and sit in live for a few open mic sessions.' I'll just get lost in my own world and not go out. But every time I do, I end up meeting some serious people and one thing leads to another and that's how this happened: I was a little discouraged in my life and I was like, 'Oh okay, let's get out there." And I went out to an open mic and this bass player was like, 'You're really good, let's keep in touch,' then he called a few days later and said, 'MJ is looking for a back up singer,' and asked if could he put my name in and I was like, 'Yeah, of course!' so he did. I went in for this little audition and then worked with the voice coach and the rest is history, really. It's such a small world: you're always a gig or a person away from something really cool.
EM: What is your music and song writing process?
JH: Lyrically, depending on the song, I kind of become this other person. I like to write from a very specific perspective, and kind of transform into this, like, queen — like a regal person. A lot of my lyrics give out a sense of empowerment but also a sense of vulnerability. I express the struggle and pain of love but I like to use lots of analogies and take it out of everyday life context… I use analogies from mythology, science fiction; they help me paint better, more colorful picture of what I'm feeling. I have a lot of fun using that metaphor but there's a more vulnerable side of me that wants to have fun and be honest — very honest lyrics about where I want to be. My process is varied; I'm able to write my best lyrics when I'm walking or riding my bike, moving around. When I get my lyrics going, I have to be visually stimulated. I have to see cartoons or something visual. Sometimes I will sit in my room and write the lyrics but I need a visual stimulation.
EM: Tell us what is going on with you right now. What are you working on and what can we expect?
JH: Right now I'm in the process of touring for my own show and getting really close to releasing my first single. I'm working out whether I'll work with a UK label or one in the US. I have to figure out how that is going to be released. You should definitely be hearing something the first of 2012 — something should be released and music should be out there. But right now, we're in the process of putting together a music video and shooting one more, taking the band around the world and to different areas. None of them are in LA, at the moment, they're all in different countries but its cool because it gives me a chance to rehearse and really get the show going and eventually do some US things. There's a lot of interest outside the US so depending on how things go, we might release a single outside the US. We're just working out those details on the business side of things. I've got 3 dates with Stevie Wonder; it's mainly backup singing. There's also been this world tour with Avon cosmetics, they launched into the music side of things and teamed up artists and hopefully some future business will come out of that. We've gone everywhere through the [tour], India, China, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa. I've quite busy things with things coming up for this tour and in the meantime, I'm also in the studio, recording a lot of things in LA.
EM: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
JH: I'd like to see my show become something that people go to see, and everyone talks about — that's my main dream. Just to have these huge concerts all around the world. I'm excited I'm already starting to do that. There's a big part of me that has a huge heart for charity and working with underprivileged kids so I'm working [at a summer camp] with kids who can't afford music education. Without spreading myself too thin, I'm tying to pursue those thing and watch those things happen.
Judith Hill – EPK 2011
Judith Hill sings 'Heal the World' at Michael Jackson's Memorial Service