Singer Judith Hill has been harboring dreams of a solo career for a long time. This year, at the age of 30, the longtime back-up singer and former contestant on “The Voice” has finally recorded a full album of her own.
You might remember Hill from her appearance in the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary, "20 Feet from Stardom." Her soulful voice has supported some of the biggest names in music — including Elton John and Stevie Wonder. And she was slated to duet with Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” tour. She can be seen rehearsing with Jackson in the documentary that was made following his death.
For her debut album, “Back In Time,” Hill had the luck of landing none other than Prince as her collaborator and mentor.
Part of your musical background is as a backup singer, and you're featured very prominently in the film, "20 Feet from Stardom." That movie touches on a particular fact, that if you become very good at singing backup then you almost become locked into that world and it's very hard to have a solo career. Did that happen to you?
It was all timing for me. My career as a background singer was all very unique and a wild roller coaster. I started as a background singer for Michel Polnareff right out of college and lived in France for a year, then I was launched into working with Michael Jackson. All of these things cultivated my art and helped me become the person I am today.
You say "working with Michael Jackson" like you just walked out [onstage] with him. You were doing more — you were singing with him on a very special song. Can you talk a little bit about that?
"I Just Can't Stop Loving You." I was his duet partner, and that was beyond words, just an incredible experience. I was so new at the time and really just overwhelmed by being able to share the stage with the King of Pop. [laughs] It blew my mind every time I sang that song in rehearsal, and I learned so much from seeing him rehearse and put together such an incredible show. I had to pinch myself every day.
There's another person you collaborated with on your new record, someone people might know as Prince. How did you two find each other?
He had never seen me in "This Is It" or "20 Feet," and he had never even seen "The Voice." I did an interview on television and they said, "Judith, you've worked with everyone, but what would be your dream collaboration?" And I said, "Well, I would love to work with Prince." And he saw that and his people reached out to my manager and said, "Hey, Prince would like to personally have a phone call with Judith." Next thing you know, my phone rang. "Judith? This is Prince," and I basically freaked out — not on the phone, but on the inside.
After you get over your freakout, what do you talk to him about? How'd he become a part of the album?
I'm such a big Prince fan, and the biggest thing for me was the funk. We talked about that and I said, "I want to do a record that's like Sly and the Family Stone." And he said, "Oh, I got you. No problem." There was such a musical connection between the two of us that it was fun. We made a pact and said, We want to make the funkiest record and we want to do it the right way. We had a picture of this lady with her hat on tilted, and we'd look at it and say, "The music needs to be as funky as she looks." [laughs]
You've spent 26 years singing and you now have your first album. You're about to go out on the road, not as a background singer or a warmup, but as a headliner. How does it feel to be about to tour with your own album?
Exciting. [laughs] Really, really exciting. My show and my band are really on point, and I can't wait to start touring. That's where the fun begins. The show's incredible, I'll be announcing tour dates very soon, and I'm really excited for that.