Try Wait: Hill comes into her own

Jul. 8, 2013 | 0 Comments

Judith Hill is trying to be a star in her own right after years as a backup singer. (Courtesy photo)

Judith Hill is trying to be a star in her own right after years as a backup singer. (Courtesy photo)


A music documentary worthy of your attention opens at the Consolidated Kahala 8 Theaters on Friday, July 12, called “20 Feet from Stardom.” It chronicles the careers of some of the best backup singers around, who have spent their lives supporting the pop stars of their time and basking in their reflected glory.

Some of these singers, particularly Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, have finally gotten their due for their previously overlooked work that dates back to the 1960s. Someone like Judith Hill, on the other hand, may not have to wait as long for her moment in the sun.

Myself and millions of others became big fans of Hill when she was one of the contestants on the latest season of NBC’s “The Voice.” Her immediate backstory was as a featured backup singer for Michael Jackson’s “This is It” tour, which was tragically cut short when Jackson died. (In the documentary made of the making of the tour, there is a segment of Hill and Jackson singing a duet of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in rehearsals.)

Hill, 29, was an instant hit with both the show’s celebrity mentors and viewers. And even though she didn’t make it to the finals, she may gotten more attention for not going as far as most thought she would.

“I’m really, really honored to be part of this film,” Hill said last month in a phone interview to help promote the movie (which also played at the Hawaii International Film Festival). “To meet these incredible women, it was so inspiring to me. Their history is so rich.”

The stars of "20 Feet from Stardom": Darlene Love, left, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer (Courtesy photo)

The stars of “20 Feet from Stardom”: Darlene Love, left, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer. (Courtesy photo)

“20 Feet from Stardom” was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival, but Hill couldn’t help with its promotion then.

“After the film wrapped up, I didn’t hear anything of it, so I decided to try out for ‘The Voice.’ When I was told it was going to Sundance, there was no way I was going to the festival because I was accepted to compete on ‘The Voice’ from the blind auditions.”

Because the film was shot before Hill’s star ascended, her story isn’t really featured until the last half-hour. After the gig with Jackson came to its unexpected end, Stevie Wonder himself asked her to be one of his backup singers on tour.

“I originally met the director, Morgan Neville, when I was doing a recording session with Elton John. He then started following me about a year-and-a-half ago,” she said. “It’s crazy timing that the film is coming out now after my appearance on ‘The Voice.’”

Hill’s one showcase moments in the film in her singing alone, playing the piano, the song “Desperation,” which is also on the film’s soundtrack album. It was featured because “Morgan grew attached to it for its meaning. The song talks about life being here to take risks and giving a hundred percent. It encourages myself and others to step out of their comfort zones and pursue their dreams,” she said.

With the help of “The Voice” and “20 Feet from Stardom,” Hill is getting that extra push to help launch her solo career.

Besides Jackson and Wonder, she’s worked, at his request, with film director Spike Lee to include songs of hers on his most recent joint, “Red Hook Summer.” Hill is also featured on a duet with George Benson on the song “Too Young,” part of Benson’s latest album “Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole.”

Hill grew up in Pasadena, Calif. and is of mixed parentage (African-American and Japanese). Her father is an accomplished funk/R&B bassist and producer, and her mother a jazz and classical pianist and choir director.

“Growing up, the first thing I heard was music,” she said. “I fell in love with it. It was my first passion.”

Later in life, after getting a degree in music composition at Biola University in Orange County, she spent 2007 in France as a backup to pop singer Michel Polnareff.

Now, she’s a featured artist with a debut album set to be released in the near future.

“I’ve finished the record, which is a blend of funk, soul and world music in a pop context,” said Hill. “I’ll be doing a lot of gigging and a tour in the fall. I’m also connecting with the William Morris Agency for management and representation.”
Gary Chun is a features reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at and follow him on Twitter.

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