Simon Columb chats to Judith Hill about 20 Feet from Stardom and Spike Lee…
20 Feet from Stardom showcases some incredible talent. Women who had been hidden away were brought to the forefront by director Morgan Neville who ensured they would have their day. Unlike many singers featured, whose experience was in a time whereby supporting vocalists were integral to pop stars, Judith Hill emerged later. Considerably younger and only emerging after 2007, she has worked with Elton John, Barry Manilow, Josh Groban, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams. She was due to support Michael Jackson on the This is It tour, and featured in the film singing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” alongside the King of Pop.
Though she may have met many singers for the first time through this film, the world we see in 20 Feet from Stardom is nothing new to Judith Hill. Merry Clayton was already “part of the family” through her father and, when she was younger she saw Tata Vega as a hero, “wanting to be her so badly” when growing up. This meant that, when approached by Neville for the film she was “blown away and honoured to be a part of the project”. These were icons to her and, invited to take part, meant that she would be alongside these outstanding performers – and indeed, perform with them.
“I worked with The Waters before” she says, but she would only “brush past singers knowing them as part of a community” prior to 20 Feet from Stardom. Through these mutual friendships, Judith herself says how fortunate she was to be around such “amazing singers” at an early age, especially as her family are all passionately musical. Mum was a pianist and Dad was a part of the 1970’s music scene, playing bass for funk and R’n’B musician Billy Preston, so she “soaked it up” as a child “without even knowing it”. Walking around the house she would hear singers recording in the studio and her parents playing, “it was always musical in the house so it was inevitable” that it would lead to her own passion for music. An inspiring presence in the film Judith confirms how Lisa Fischer is inspiring to all she meets – it is “just inspiring to be around her. I take so much from her spirit and her peace” clarifying, “that’s the word – peace. She is so peaceful about where she is in her life. She is doing her own project, no pressure, and it has to feel organic as you’re doing what you love, and you have to let it just flow naturally.”
Reflecting on 20 Feet from Stardom, Hill was comfortable with how Morgan [Neville] would follow her around with a camera, following her story and her journey. Seeing how “it’s okay to be a work-in-progress”, she still looks up to the others, Darlene; Lisa; Merry; Claudette: “Watching the film back and seeing all these different women in different stages of their lives – [there is] so much they’ve accomplished. Wherever you are in your career and whatever you’ve done, be proud of what you’ve done.”
I ask her, what would she say to the child who defeats himself or herself by saying, “Judith Hill, I can never be that good”. Easily, she responds with understanding the position they’re in. “I was inspired by Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, and I knew that I had a long way to go … but the path that drove me to get better was time – you put that extra mile into it and you hear the results”. Singing, for many of the singers in Neville’s documentary, is spiritual considering how desperate they are to “express what you truly feel inside”. She follows this with “When you’re young, you’re limited to what you want to express and you’ll eventually hear what’s inside your head after patience and diligence”, repeating “you’ll hear the results eventually.”
“What we do is amazing, no matter what level of success it is. This is an amazing skill we have” she says. Her honesty and comfortable demeanour sets her apart from musicians who’ve “made it”, as her song ‘Desperation’ so clearly tells us. She knows she is seen as the “new kid on the block” and people wonder whether it’ll happen for her. Indeed, since 20 Feet from Stardom, she has only marked her territory more clearly. Her close-call to winning The Voice brought her further to the forefront despite her elimination in the final eight. In 2012, she worked with Spike Lee by contributing multiple songs to the Red Hook Summer soundtrack (including the haunting ‘Colour of the Wind’), something she is immensely proud of. He was “incredible to work with” after the opportunity came out of nowhere [after seeing her] singing in Michael Jackson’s tribute act. Spike Lee loved her voice, requested her to send music which then blossomed into an “incredible relationship”. It was a fast process, “I would send him loads of songs and then go to New York, even going to Sundance” showing a clear love for cinema itself. On Spike Lee himself? He’s “down to earth, very ‘Brooklyn’, fun to work with”. She finishes to say how “deeply honoured” she was to work with him because “he’s Spike Lee, I’ve looked up to him for so long”. Clearly a special project in her heart.
She’s close to finishing an album after signing to Sony in 2011. A “couple of months” away it’s all “coming together”. Surely this is only the start of Judith Hill’s career. To close, she said a few words that inspire and no doubt she herself has kept close to her heart when striving to break out on her own: “Just keep pushing for it, keep doing what you love, no matter what you do. Not just singers and musicians, if anyone can be inspired by the long journey, the unsung hero, then that’s what makes a difference. You’ve got to do it because you love it”.
This interview was conducted for Flickering Myth, and published on July 21st 2014