In 20 Feet from Stardom, director Morgan Neville traces a history of backup singers that extends all the way to the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll, when Merry Clayton and Darlene Love were performing with such institutions as the Rolling Stones and Ray Charles. While the movie seems to mostly concentrate on backup legends, it presents us with a paradox in the shape of Judith Hill.
Hill, up until recently, was mostly remembered as the mysterious lady who knocked “We Are the World” out of the park during Michael Jackson’s memorial service and it won’t surprise anyone to discover that Jackson practically handpicked her to be his main singer in the sadly unseen “This Is It” World Tour. In the movie we learn how the gifted Hill fits the pattern many before her did; she just seemed to not be able to catch a lucky break.
She certainly has the talent, the skills, the endorsers (Spike Hill is a huge fan) and the drive, but whether it be luck or something else, she still finds herself occasionally standing behind some of the biggest names in the business (she is a favorite of Elton John and Stevie Wonder) and straddling the line between being, as the film’s title cleverly says, twenty feet from stardom and in the spotlight in her own right.
That necessary push forward might have come earlier this year when Hill was featured as a contestant on the popular reality show The Voice and for once it seemed as if luck was truly on her side, but her shocking elimination led to team captain Adam Levine’s infamous remark about hating his country. As she continues to find success showing her art to the world with killer singles such as “Desperation” (which she composed, plays and sings), bigger artists use her talents to support their acts, making her path seem both fortunate and tricky.
For those who haven’t seen her on the show, in 20 Feet from Stardom Hill proves once again why she has all the makings of a star, while representing the newest generation of backups who have an entirely different landscape to navigate than Clayton and Love once did. Hill’s story of resilience and grace under pressure shows that being a singer — even when when you’ve got the chops in every sense — might have actually gotten harder as the music industry has changed in the past several years. As Hill refreshingly demonstrates, in a climate of throwaway, Auto-tuned-to-hell pop singles and scantily-clad wannabe divas, there are still young artists with true chops coming up in the business who recognize that professionalism, craft, work ethic, and ultimately remaining true to one’s inner artistic voice are the keys to real success.
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Did you have admiration/knowledge of the women involved in the film prior to being in it?
My parents actually worked with some of them when I was growing up. So I knew them going in. Particularly Tata Vega was my hero. I was like “Oh my Gosh, she has the best voice in the whole world.” I felt so honored to be a part of this film with these incredible women.
How did your involvement in the film come about?
I met Morgan when I was working with Elton John. Morgan was covering some of the behind the scenes stuff for one of Elton’s projects. Morgan then reached out to me a couple months later and said “we’re doing this doc on background singers. Can I follow you around with a camera?” And I thought, sure, that’s interesting, I’m glad someone is doing it on this topic. That’s great.
Your love for performance is obvious, but what have you learned in your time in the industry about whether or not this is enough to guarantee success?
It requires so many things. It’s almost like all of the things have to come together perfectly. I’ve learned that it is everything. You have to be your best performer, best vocals, have to have a really good team, management, agent, publicist, and you have to really know who you are. That’s the most important thing. You have to know who you are as an artist. And the more clear it is to you, the more clear it will be to other people. So when you’re writing your song it has to all be believable and make sense and come from the heart. And that’s when you have the most success. When you’re searching for it and something is off, then everything will be off.
You were in The Voice recently and unlike something like American Idol the show is more about the actual voice and not the “pop star” concept. What was the experience like, how did it come about?
Being on The Voice is a perfect way to find out who you are. It’s a real crash course. It’s like the entire life of an artist truncated into this three month experience. It’s all really enlightening. I learned so much about myself. I realized, “Oh yeah I really am a soul singer who loves fashion and loves to integrate pop influences into my work.” It’s cool because you have the opportunity to really figure out your sound.
How much of what was portrayed on screen is how things actually went down? How much of what is presented is fiction?
[laughs] Far from it! First of all, you’re sequestered and living in a hotel. You’re on a lock down. Nobody can come visit you. You can’t leave the hotel for anything. There are actually people hanging out in the bushes making sure you don’t leave. And if you do leave, you get sent to the principal’s office! It’s a really intense, secluded environment and every day you’re doing something. You get your song, you learn it overnight, and you record it the next day. It’s like the reality segment where your coach is there and you’re rehearsing. It’s hard work. You’re doing it all day every day. And when people see contestants on TV, I don’t think they realize that these people have been put through the ringer all week long.
I used to watch the show and think “That’s so cheesy that she’s crying.” But then I found myself crying on the show. I thought No, I’m not that girl who cries on TV! But yes, I am, right now now it is happening, because I went through hell this week. You go through so much that it really breaks you down.
It seems almost like a risky endeavor for you, someone who is so active and always working in the profession, to say “Okay, I am going to be on lockdown and I am going to just do this one thing for a few months.” It must have been a hard choice.
It was a hard choice. I lost a lot of gigs [laughs]! But I’m glad I did it. It really reinforces you, makes you say “Okay I am going to be an artist and do both. I am not going to get too comfortable with my gigs.” That’s sort of what happened, I was getting used to stay in one place. I realized that I was steadily working, I was paying my bills, but I was staying [in the same spot] and not really moving up the ladder as an artist. I’m just comfortably doing my gigs. And I didn’t want that to keep happening.
It was a lot of sacrifice to lose some gigs and stick with that one path for a while. But if that’s the road I am on in trying to become a real artist, then I am going to have to make some sacrifices. And it’s a long process being on The Voice. We cast last September and then it’s filmed, so it takes a while.
The Voice unarguably made you more known, how do you feel people will react when they watch the film and see you in it?
It’s actually interesting that I did The Voice and now the movie is coming out. It’s actually cool timing. I’m hoping fans will seek out the film.
You have many famous people who admire and endorse you. Who has been the most surprising famous fan experience you’ve had so far?
What’s most special to me is having Stevie Wonder’s support. Even right after The Voice he called me and checked up on me. Hearing that voice! It was like “Oh wow, okay, best moment.”
There is a scene in the film where you say how your fans spotted you doing backup vocals for Kylie Minogue even if you were in disguise! In these times when we can monitor almost anyone online, do you feel an obligation to your growing fan base?
It’s funny because people have this weird idea in their heads, like, “Oh she sang with Michael. She made it! She’s flying in private jets and everything is great for her.” And they don’t realize my rent is still due next week and I don’t always have money to pay that. One day you’re singing with the King of Pop and the next you don’t know how you’ll pay the bills. That was stressful for me. I was trying to rush the process. I was so anxious to get out there. But I was under a microscope.
They never knew everything I did after Michael. It was as if I disappointed them like “Oh you didn’t make it yet? Oh there must be something wrong with you then.” So I’ve had to separate myself from that and not let that bother me or influence me.
You’re half Japanese. Have you ever thought about working that side of your identity into your music?
I’m not fluent — I wish! — but I’ve written some bilingual songs. I’ve written songs in both Japanese and English. I’ve gone to Japan and done collaborations with some Japanese artists. It’s funny to single soulfully in Japanese because the language, the alphabet and the phonetics are just so different. But since I am an artist who really defines herself as a soul artist, and as a soul artist who is always trying to re-introduce “soul” into the mainstream music world, it’s valuable to draw on other influences.
It’s not easy for a soul artist. In fact, I think it might be the hardest thing to be because most people don’t really know what soul sounds like and we settle for R&B and pop artists who are doing something that the industry calls “soul” but it’s not. So I feel like that’s my goal and responsibility as an artist, to create an authentic contemporary soul sound.
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20 Feet from Stardom, from RADiUS-TWC, is now playing in theaters and will continue to expand throughout the summer.