Interview | Judith Hill Talks Twenty Feet From Stardom
After winning the Oscar for Best Documentary earlier this month, Twenty Feet From Stardom finally got its UK release last week. Turning the spotlight on the lives of backing singers, it’s an inspiring and hugely entertaining pic that gives well-deserving unsung heroes their due. One such heroine is Judith Hill, and on behalf of HeyUGuys I was lucky enough to sit down with her to discuss what it was like making the film, her burgeoning solo career and, most importantly, her favourite MJ tracks. It’s all been transcribed for your reading pleasure below.
Amon Warmann: Congrats on the Oscars! What was that moment like?
Judith Hill: It was so incredible to be at the Oscars. We had no idea that the film was going to do so well. It was just the highest honour.
AW: Was there any specific moment that you knew you wanted to become a solo singer?
JH: Over time it became clear that that was what I wanted to do but even when I was a kid I just wanted to sing. I pictured myself on the big stage singing and I admired all the singers from the background singers to everybody else. It became really clear when I went on tour for my first background singing gig in France. I realised that I would love to do this on my own.
AW: At one point one of the interviewees in the film says this; “Most background singers are not very good self-promoters. The industry is for those that want to put themselves on display and who are willing to play the game”. With that in mind, what’s an aspect of ‘the game’ that you’ve mastered and is there anything you think you still need to improve on?
JH: That’s a good question. I don’t think I’ve mastered anything but I think I’m a work in progress. I’ve really gotten better at understanding stage and putting together your brand. Fashion, what you believe in, what you stand for, what’s your message, what’s your audience. It’s not just about the singer. In the beginning I was young and I loved singing but now I understand a lot more.
AW: How has learning about the experiences of the singers in this movie helped with your own outlook?
JH: Their stories are so inspiring and yet heart-breaking at the same time. I’m so happy that Darlene’s story is getting told because it’s such a powerful story. The thing about her that really inspires me is her will and her determination. You can’t break that woman and I think that every time I get discouraged and something tough happens in the business I just think about Darlene Love and what she’s gone through and it gives me strength.
AW: Is there any one particular track that you’d like to have been involved with?
JH: [Laughs] First of all I would have loved to have been Merry Clayton and been a Roulette, that would have been the biggest dream ever. Darlene Love has a lot of great tracks. The Christmas song is amazing. She’s an iconic voice and I’d love to sing a Darlene Love track.
AW: In today’s world, there are so many ways to get yourself heard that there wasn’t back in the day. When you were making this film, were there any conversations about that with Darlene and Tata [Vega] and the other singers?
JH: Yeah, it’s like nostalgia to the old era and how things were done. Darlene and Merry would always talk about the days when they would go into a studio and they would be doing like five or six sessions in a day with one of them singing on Carol King’s album with Bruce Springsteen just a couple doors down. Just how much work there was at the time and the celebration of soul music and you’d see all these incredible soul singers doing these big records that were popular. It’s very different today.
AW: This is an important story and I’m glad that it’s been told. I imagine that it must have been a little nerve-wracking telling your story on camera. What was it like watching yourself back?
JH: It’s uncomfortable watching yourself back. You feel like you’re put out in the public eye and that was one of the scary things about me agreeing to do it because I was sharing my story. So it was hard to watch but I feel like he [Morgan Neville] did a great job and I was in really good hands.
AW: The film really does a good job of making clear just how vital a backing vocal is to the overall sound. Are there any tracks that you listen to these days and you think that this could really use a backing vocal?
JH: [Laughs] Definitely. I think what would be great is classic voices on extremely modern tracks that don’t have many retro voices or soul elements because that would be the retro element that would give it fresh flavour. When I listen to tracks I would bring in two or three elements of the old and fuse it with the new. I’ve done this process so much trying to put my album together. When something sounds completely like a blast from the past, it has a hard time translating in the modern world because people feel like they’ve heard that already. You’ve got to reinvent it.
AW: I’m guessing you had certain expectations when you were singing with Michael [Jackson]. What was something that happened exactly as you thought it would and what was something that surprised you?
JH: What met my expectations above and beyond was Michael Jackson the superstar. His presence changed the entire room every time he walked in. Everything you dreamed Michael Jackson of being, he was that and more. Experiencing the real person was just incredible. The part that I probably didn’t expect is the fact that he was so thin. He was also so strong. When we did the duet he was very athletic.
AW: Here’s an important question…what’s your favourite MJ track?
JH: [laughs] I love the Earth song. Another Part of Me, Jam, Remember the Time. They’re so many! I really like Wanna be Startin Somethin’ too.
AW: When you do a load of solo gigs and then it’s followed up by a back-up gig, how easy is that transition from really being all of you to sacrificing a part of yourself to blend with other singers?
JH: It’s difficult. Most of the time I don’t do it now because at this season in my life I’m really focused on the album, promoting myself and progressing with my solo career. Once in a while you get a gig that you can’t turn down. For the Grammy week it was The Beatles’ 50th anniversary and I was asked to sing with The Beatles and that’s a tough one to turn down. Sometimes it happens like that. Who I’m playing with and how long the commitment is are big factors in me accepting a gig. I couldn’t commit to a year-long tour. If it’s one show, it’s easier.
AW: Talk a little bit about the conceptualisation of your track ‘Desperation’, which features in the film. Was it one of those burst of inspiration tracks where the lyrics were written very quickly or something else?
JH: Yeah it came really quickly. I was co-writing it with a couple of other guys and I definitely wanted a song that was inspirational and gave people hope and had a message. The verses were kind of autobiographical. I thought about where I’m supposed to be and how I felt about myself when I wrote the lyrics. I’m glad that Morgan chose it because it fits in with the theme of the movie.
AW: There’s an interesting segment in the film where you talk about your fans’ reaction to seeing you doing backing for Kylie Minogue and you talk about it not being all glitz and glamour and how you have bills to pay. If a fan were to follow you around for a week and they were to come back and say I can’t believe Judith Hill does ‘x’, what would that be?
JH: [Laughs] I always post everything that I do so I’m trying to think of the secret things! [laughs] There’s a lot of mundane things that a person experiences like going to jury duty…I don’t know, we can come back to that one!
AW: More than perhaps any other industry, for a solo artist it’s very important to have the right people around you. Who are those people for you and have you had any problems with management in the past?
JH: For a while I struggled to find the right team to be around me and I had poor management at one time. But right now I’m surrounded by a really great team, great management. My parents have always been there for me. I just recently signed to a label so this is my first label experience. So far it’s really great, they haven’t tried to force me to be something I’m not and they really want my best version of me to come out. I’m really appreciative of that.
Twenty Feet From Stardom is out in UK cinemas now.
This article was originally published at HeyUGuys.