JUDITH HILL: No Longer Just A Backup Singer
Having literally spent her life immersed in music, Judith has long been on a path towards capturing the depth and breadth of her artistic vision. Her remarkable journey has taken the gifted singer/songwriter/musician to stages all over the planet, both as a solo performer as well as alongside such icons as the late, great Michael Jackson. Now Judith is poised to take her own well-deserved place in the spotlight. A richly emotive vocal stylist and virtuosic piano player, Judith has worked her whole life to make a name for herself. “I’m an organic soul artist with a passion to bring the world together,” Judith says. “The music, whether it’s funk or a ballad, it’s all about that message. That’s the thing that resonates most for me, that message and the heart behind it.”
Musically minded from the start, Judith penned her first song at just four years old. But that’s no surprise, considering that the Los Angeles native grew up in such an intensely musical household. Her father, Robert “Pee Wee” Hill is a pioneering funk bassist known for his work with such artists as Sly Stone, Jimmy Smith and Bob Dylan. And her mom, Michiko Hill, is an accomplished keyboardist with credits including Rufus and Chaka Khan, Wayne Shorter and Billy Preston. In addition to their steady session work, the Hills also own and operate Master’s Crib Recording Studio, which served as a genuinely motivating playground for Judith. “It was very inspiring,” she says. “I was constantly surrounded by great musicians. Of course, it is only as I got older that I realized what a lucky girl I was.”
Judith fell in love with the sounds of funk, jazz and soul. And she had a special fondness for gospel, especially from a vocal standpoint. She cites Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and The Winans as some of her favorites. But despite her love of music, there was a time when she became somewhat uninterested. As a preteen, she rebelled against her mother’s piano lessons. She soon came back around though. “I felt like everyone around me did it and I wanted to do something different,” Judith explains. “It wasn’t until I was a little bit older that I really found the passion for music inside of me. I couldn’t help but do it.”
With that in mind, Judith pursued a degree in music composition at Biola University, where she wrote her first symphony as well as pieces for piano, vocal groups, chamber ensembles and string quartets. “Getting inside of the music became the biggest passion I’d ever had,” Judith says. “I realized there was so much to learn, from the early baroque period to romantic classical to contemporary classical and jazz. I became so excited about it, I knew I didn’t want to do anything else with my life.”
After graduation, Judith spent a year in Paris singing background vocals for legendary French singer/songwriter Michel Polnareff. Judith says it was a great experience, but she quickly discovered that her true desire was focusing on her own artistry. Judith returned home and began writing and recording songs and sharpening her performance chops at open mic nights. But fate threw her a curveball when a musician friend asked Judith if he could submit her name to Michael Jackson who was looking for background singers. Judith agreed and to her surprise, she found herself with the job.
“It came out of nowhere. I was like, well, that’s a change of plans. But, a good change of plans,” Judith says.
Judith put her own music on hold and began rehearsing with Jackson for the planned “This Is It” world tour. In addition to her role as background vocalist, she was chosen to duet with Michael on the classic “Bad” ballad, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” And the performance later became the undisputed highlight of the posthumously released film, “This Is It.” Working closely with one of pop music’s greatest talents proved both inspiring and educational. “He was amazing. [He was] very polite, very shy, but so iconic in everything he did—everything you’d imagine him to be like. He was a perfectionist. He knew exactly what he wanted,” says Judith, admiring Michael. “I learned so much just observing him rehearse us, giving notes to the lighting person or the director. It was so incredible to see this iconic King of Pop putting a show together.”
Michael’s sudden death in 2009 left Judith and the “This Is It” troupe in a heartbroken state of shock. As the world mourned, Judith was asked to sing at Jackson’s public memorial. Watched by one billion fans around the world, the service’s emotional crescendo came from Judith’s powerfully poignant performance of “Heal The World.” She declares that moment a milestone in her life. “Just being there was overwhelming, but I felt that I had a responsibility to rise above myself and be an inspiring person, to represent Michael in the best way possible.”
Media and industry players soon besieged Judith, all pushing her to release something immediately. Though advised to ride the momentum, she opted to spend the next few years refining her sound through experimentation and collaborations. Judith strived to perfect every aspect of her artistic persona, incorporating her lifelong zeal for fashion and theatre into her live act while simultaneously pushing her music forward by blending her extensive array of influences into her own unique sound. Says Judith, “I’m really passionate about bringing cultures together. I love music from Asian and Arabic and African cultures and it’s exciting to also play with those things visually. Being biracial, those things represent me as well as the world”
Judith’s desire to create what she calls a more international experience rather than just American pop music led to her spending much of 2011 traveling the world in partnership with Avon Cosmetics, serving as spokesperson and star of their worldwide Avon Believe World Tour. The trek took Judith to such faraway places as Istanbul, Shanghai, New Delhi, Warsaw, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. Further travels brought her to Southeast Asia and South America, where she performed as a background singer for Stevie Wonder. While she had not planned to continue her background work, the offer to work with Stevie proved irresistible. “I said to myself I wouldn’t do background after Michael but when Stevie asked me. I just said, ‘Yes, of course.’ It’s been a great experience. He’s such an inspiration, just like Michael. I’m so blessed to get to work with these people,” Judith says.
Judith’s musical journey has since brought her to the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s film, “Red Hook Summer,” the stage of The Voice and to the lens of film director Morgan Neville in the upcoming film “20 Feet From Stardom.” Now on the next leg of her great adventure, Judith is recording her debut solo album. With her voice, talent and beauty, she’s likely to go far.