It's High Time For Funk-Soul Goddess Judith Hill To Take Centerstage
Originally published on Slant.
If you're defined by the company you keep, then Judith Hill is pretty damn impressive.
She's sang with Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Michael Jackson, Josh Groban, and more; she was a star contestant on The Voice; she was featured in the Oscar and GRAMMY-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom; and was handpicked by Prince to record her album, Back In Time, at his legendary Paisley Park recording studio.
That being said, Judith Hill is ready for top billing, not just because of her killer resumé, but because of her once-in-a-lifetime vocal talent and work ethic that's always pushed her forward as an artist. And while a long and winding road has brought her to today, she's just getting started.
Just after she touched down in Austin for a quick run of SXSW shows, I met up with Judith to chat about jamming with her fam, using music to bring people together, and her love for Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard.
SD: When did you start making music?
JH: I was four when I wrote my first song with my mother. Both my parents are musical so I’ve always known music and grew up doing it since day one.
SD: Who are some of your early influences, the things that were maybe playing in the house?
JH: Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin. Stuff like that.
SD: You’ve been able to work with some tremendously talented, successful people like John Legend, John Groban, Michael Jackson and Prince. What was it like recording it Paisley Park?
JH: It was wonderful. It was a breath of fresh air for me because I had been in so many different scenarios prior to Paisley Park, but Paisley Park was just a real celebration of old-school, good ol' funk and jammin’ out. That was special for me to make a record like that. It’s kind of a lost art sometimes and it was really wonderful to experience it in that way.
SD: How did you first get acquainted with Prince?
JH: It’s funny. He saw me on a random interview where they asked me about my dream collaborator. And I just threw it out there: I’d love to work with Prince, that would be an amazing thing, not thinking at all that we would actually see that. But he saw it and he reached out personally and called me after that.
SD: That’s amazing. Do you have any other dream collaborators that we could help you out with in this interview?
JH: My bucket list in terms of that is very complete. I’ve been able to do it with Michael, and Stevie, and Prince. Right now, I’m working on my own stuff. It’s been a really crazy, cool year. I’ve finished another project and I’m doing some orchestral stuff so it’s been a really exciting new chapter.
SD: I love 'Back in Time.' I think the way that the album opens, the opening track is so of the time right now. What was going on in your life or important for you that you wanted to channel through that record?
JH: The record has a got a couple different things. The first song is very much about the times we’re living in and some of the hardships with race issues. It’s been a really rough year for that. A lot is going on. So I wrote it as a funk track, so when you listen, you’re grooving to it. But if you listen closely to the lyrics, you’re like, yeah this is very specific to what’s happening.
It’s about bringing people together and raising awareness about what’s going on. But it also takes a village. It takes people coming together to bring change. I really wanted this record to be one that brings people together. There’s a song called "My People." It celebrates family as well. My family are actually performing with me tonight.
JH: Yeah, my parents are in the band. It’s "Judith and Fam."
SD: When I saw "Fam" I thought it was just a cool name.
JH: It’s literally my fam. My mom and dad. It’s a special kind of celebration of their lives in my life. My mother was diagnosed with stage four cancer and she’s free and clear of it, but she said, "if I get a second chance in life, I want to get up on that stage and play funk music." And that’s exactly what we’re doing tonight.
SD: That’s so beautiful. Switching gears a little bit, how do you view Spotify or any of these new streaming services? Are they doing a service to the art or are they stifling the art?
JH: That’s a great question. Like you said, you found my music through Spotify, so I think in terms of reach, it’s great. We have so many ways to get to music and I do appreciate that about it.
You come to learn that these streaming services actually do pay for the music and we’ve made discoveries about it. The sad part about it is they pay out to the labels and the label just takes this chunk of money and we don’t really see the money. The artists don’t see it. It’s not that they don’t pay. But trying to do an independent deal with Spotify is tough. They won’t really do it. They want to go through Warner, want to go through Sony.
So it’s a really weird and unfortunate thing because they’re paying it, but we’re not seeing it. There needs to be changes in the way that’s going down so that artists can actually survive and make money off making records again.
SD: How have you found that you connect with fans? What’s the way that you’re reaching new fans and a wider audience?
JH: Performing is always important. The more you play in different cities, you’re connecting every time you come out. Following up, answering people's questions on Twitter and Instagram, getting involved with them. Fans really appreciate it and the personal touch is important. It’s definitely something that involves a daily connection with people.
SD: Are there any current artists that inspire you or that you’re listening to and vibing on?
JH: I love Corey Henry. I’ve seen his show, it’s pretty amazing. He’s an incredible performer and player. I’m a big fan of Alabama Shakes. I love Brittany. She’s just a powerhouse, insane. She’s the one that I’m really jamming to. Andra Day, she’s a dear friend of mine. She’s great.
SD: You’ve been to South by Southwest a few years before. What’s one of your favorite parts about being at SXSW and what’s something that’s maybe more frustrating and not the most fun?
JH: I love the bikes. I like getting on the bikes and getting all around. I love the spirit of Austin. Everyone’s just so festive and it’s fun. It’s really a wonderful experience. Oh, and the bats! The food. It’s a great place for meeting people and enjoying life.
The frustrating part would probably be that it’s kind of overwhelming. There’s a band on every corner so sometimes your ears can start to shut down a bit.
SD: Would you have any advice for Judith Hill 10 years ago?
JH: What I’ve been doing now, I wish I had done 10 years ago, which is really getting into the live music aspect of it. That’s what drove my Back in Time record, this new record. Really starting from that place and being more show-driven. That would be the advice.
Judith 10 years ago was in the studio with a bunch of producers kind of being tossed to and fro. Now, it’s been really exciting because it’s just me in my own space driving it. If I want to work with someone, I reach out. But it’s not about if you can work with this person and this and this and you get overwhelmed and lose yourself. It’s important to know what you want to do and really start from there.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo: Spencer Dukoff