Performer Spotlight: The Women of 20 Feet from Stardom: Judith Hill

Judith Hill represents the new guard in 20 Feet from Stardom, showing the world just how much the music business has changed for background singers.

20 Feet from Stardom

Director: Morgan Neville
Cast: Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear
Studio: Radius TWC

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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