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Judith Hill's Journey From Backup Singer to Prince-Approved Headliner 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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On March 23, 2015, Prince sent an email to a number of undisclosed recipients. It contained a download link, a photograph, and the following note:

Sorry 2 bother U. Just wanted to send U this baby picture of Judith Hill with Her 1st piano. Loox like her parents, who r also musicians — had a plan. Well, that plan succeeded. This is Judith Hill's debut album BACK IN TIME. Please spend some time with this music and then share it with someone U love.

What's surprising about this email isn't Prince's grammar and spelling (apparently that's just how he writes), or the fact that he produced another musician's album. It's also not surprising that 31-year-old Judith Hill has been making music since she was a toddler, or that her parents are musicians, too. (Her mom is a pianist from Tokyo, and her dad played in a funk band in the '70s.) What's surprising is that this is Hill's debut album. And she's spent her whole life preparing to make it.

"It's been a long road," said Hill, who still lives in her hometown of Pasadena. "But it's sort of ironic because it was created so quickly. You spend 30 years of your life working towards this thing, and then the record is made in two to three weeks."

Hill, who sings funk and soul ballads, wrote her first song at age 4 with help from her mother. "My mom caught on to my singing early when I was in the car in the backseat humming," she explained. "She thought I had a good voice and, ever since then, my parents have been instrumental in supporting me."

When Hill graduated from college, she got her first official gig as a background singer touring with an artist in France. For the next decade, she continued singing background vocals for a number of big-name artists such as John Legend, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, Josh Groban, Elton John, and Carole King. In 2009, she was selected to be Michael Jackson's duet partner for the This Is It concert tour; when Jackson died later that year, she performed at his memorial concert at the Staples Center in L.A.

But Hill was never solely a backup singer. Between gigs, she continued to write her own music. She penned songs for Spike Lee's 2012 film Red Hook Summer, and provided vocals for film soundtracks, including Dr. Seuss' The Lorax and Happy Feet Two. In March 2013, she took a break from background singing to audition for the fourth season of The Voice, NBC's hit reality TV singing competition. She sang Christina Aguilera's "What A Girl Wants," and was immediately picked by all four judges. Hill competed on the show for seven episodes, making it into the top eight performance before being eliminated.

Despite not winning the crown, Hill said she doesn't regret going on the show. "It ended up being a very fruitful experience in that it brought in a lot of fans and allowed me to show my own style," she said. "Everyone has seen me as a background singer, so it was the first time they were able to see me as a solo artist."

Branching out from background singer to headliner is no easy task, but it was especially hard for Hill given her broad vocal range. "[Labels] couldn't quite figure me out because I had been so versatile and was able to do a lot of different things," she said.

Not only that, but her penchant for funk and soul made labels nervous because those genres aren't chart-toppers.

"I'm not interested in watering down, commercializing, or doing things that compromises the soul in my music," she said. "So they were very scared that it may not make money for them, [and] I spent a lot of time in the system."

Hill finally got her break when, seemingly out of the blue, Prince contacted her management team after catching her on TV. He wanted to work with the burgeoning artist and invited her to his fabled Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis. For the next few weeks, the pair churned out Back In Time, an 11-track album that was recorded using only analog equipment.

Back In Time feels of the moment, touching on hot-button themes such as police brutality and race in America. Indeed, the first line on the album's first song goes, "Might as well be famous, since I ain't white."

"Being black, you're kind of overlooked and ignored by society, unless you're famous," Hill said. "'As Trains Go By' encourages and challenges you to be the greatest and to not let these obstacles discourage you, but rather inspire you."

The album is also largely autobiographical and focuses on "celebrating [Hill's] roots." "It really goes back to the early days when I was at home with my parents and it was all about funk and soul and the organic process of just jamming," she said. "The way the music was created [for Back In Time] was very much the same."

Now that she's finally dropped an album, Hill feels like she can finally close one chapter of her life and move on to the next. "It's like coming around full-circle," she said. "I had a journey that took me all around the world, and I sang in all different genres, and, in the end, it all led to me creating this album."

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Jessie Schiewe

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