The compelling documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, from director Morgan Neville, shines a spotlight on the untold story of the back-up singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. Equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, the film showcases the voices that shaped popular music, but rarely ever got credit for it. These gifted artists span a range of styles, genres and eras, each with their own unique and fascinating personal story of life spent in the shadows of superstardom.
At the film’s press day, singer Judith Hill spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how she came to be a part of this film, what led her to being a back-up singer, how she wrote her first song at the age of four, the first piece of music she had an emotional connection to, her go-to song to sing, the level of nervousness she gets when performing with superstars, how she ended up on Michael Jackson’s highly anticipated “This is It” tour before finding herself singing at his memorial service, her experience on The Voice, and where she’d like to go from here. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
JUDITH HILL: Well, I met Morgan [Neville] through this Elton John session that we did, that he was covering behind the scenes. I was just honored that he asked me to be a part of it. I’m a younger singer and I don’t have as much history as the other women, so I was just blown away by their stories. Watching the film, it’s just so incredible.
What was it like to get to sing with some of these veterans?
HILL: It’s so awesome, singing with these legendary singers. The harmonies and the fact that we got to get into so many group settings and record was just really magical.
How did you originally become a back-up singer?
HILL: It just happened. I knew I wanted to sing. That’s my passion in life. Straight out of college, I got a call to be Michel Polnareff’s background singer. He’s a French pop star. And then, one thing leads to another and you start getting calls for gigs. It’s so cool because you make really good friends and each gig leads to another. You get the opportunity to sing with great musicians, and you learn so much. Every gig is a different style and genre, and the artist is a different type of singer, and it definitely rubs off on you. With every artist that I’ve worked with, I’ve taken some of their nuances and inflections and applied it to my own music.
How did you know that you could even sing? Did you just try, one day, and realize you had a talent for it?
HILL: I was passionate about singing, from a very early age. I was four years old, when I wrote my first song. As a kid, I listened to myself and was like, “Oh, I suck!” But, you just keep doing it because you really enjoy singing. And then, one day, people start noticing it and say, “Oh, I like what you did on that song.” It’s a gradual process. You get better and better, every day.
Did you have that moment where you decided to get serious about it, hone your craft and make it a career?
HILL: That definitely happened for me. I’ve always been a perfectionist, so I always wanted to sound better than I did. But, that’s a never-ending process. You always want to get better. There’s always room to grow.
HILL: I listened to a lot of gospel singers, growing up, particularly Vanessa Bell Armstrong. “Walk with Me” was a song that I connected with so much, emotionally. When you’re a kid, those songs really stick, and they’re always with you, forever, because they make such an impression. To this day, I hear that influence in my voice.
Do you have a go-to song that you always find yourself singing?
HILL: “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is a song I’ve always gone to. When I first heard Lauryn Hill sing it in Sister Act 2, my life changed. I was like, “Oh, my gosh! I didn’t know that this existed in life.” So, ever since then, it’s a song that’s near and dear to my heart. I also really connect with the lyrics to it.
Is there always a level of nervousness, every time you sing with someone who’s well known. How do you get passed that? Do you just have enough confidence in your own talent that you don’t get nervous about that?
HILL: I don’t feel like I ever really do get past the nervousness. I’m always nervous. Something about being nervous keeps you on the edge, and I’ve always felt like I worked better under pressure. I’ve always been a procrastinator. I was the one who started my science project the night before. So, there’s something about that edge that gets the adrenaline going, when I’m performing. You feel the nerves, and you’re just in the moment, so it comes together.
How did you originally become a part of the Michael Jackson “This is It” tour?
HILL: It really came out of nowhere. I was just gigging in L.A. and I met some musicians who were like, “Oh, let’s keep in touch!” A week later, this musician called me and said, “I know Michael’s music director and they’re looking for a female background singer. Are you interested? Can I put your name in?” I went from singing in a small bar to the potential of singing with Michael Jackson. It really just happened, over night. I auditioned with some of the songs. It was a really small audition. And then, a week later, they said I got the gig.
How difficult was it to go from being a part of his tour to singing at his memorial service? Is that something you still feel like you’re learning to live with?
HILL: Honestly, yes. It’s become a part of my life. It changed the trajectory of my life. It’s hard ‘cause it happened almost four years ago, but it’s still fresh, to this day, and I still get asked about it, every time. It’s a real part of my life, and I don’t think it will ever go away. I think it will always feel that fresh.
Did going through the experience of The Voice feel like you were coming full circle with it?
HILL: Yeah, it did. I didn’t realize how important it was for me to do that. The way I was introduced was in a public way, with Michael Jackson and the tragedy surrounding that. To have gone on The Voice and to come around full circle, in a public way, and to bring closure to it was important, and I hadn’t realized how important it was to do that.
How do you feel about your experience on The Voice, overall?
HILL: It really helped me understand who I was, as a performer, much more. When you’re working with people like that, it’s interesting because they get a sense of who you are and they say it back to you. And then, you’re like, “Yeah, that is who I am.” You start to really discover yourself more, on a show like that. You hone in your performance skills and come out with a much better understanding of who you are, as a performer.
HILL: It’s always been my dream to be on the stage with my band, singing my music. That’s always been, and always will be. Every chapter of my life has been unexpected turns, and I never would have imagined this would be my life story. But, in the midst of it, the fabric being woven is the story of me, singing as a solo artist.
There’s a lot of talk in this film about how you have to have a bit of ego and diva in you, in order to be front and center. Do you feel that that’s the case? Is that something you’ve had to find, in yourself?
HILL: I don’t really think it was so much of an ego thing. I think that it’s more like, when you have a passion and it’s oozing out of your body, you can’t help but do it. Whether or not you say, “Oh, I’m going to be successful,” you say, “This is what I’m born to do. This is what I love to do. I absolutely love being on stage. I live and breathe the stage, and nothing makes me happier, but to perform.”
Since every artist is their own worst critic, what makes a good performance for you?
HILL: It’s so funny because, most of the time, I come off the stage and I’m like, “That sucked, big time,” and I get all depressed. I’m like, “I should quit! I suck!” I go through this whole meltdown, and it’s a pretty normal part of my life. But, there are a few, very rare occasions, where I feel like it somehow came together the way I wanted it to come together. It’s all about that connection. It’s never about being perfect. People love the imperfections. People love the human aspect of it.
Where do you go from here?
HILL: I have no idea, really. I just know that I’m going to continue doing what I love. I’m excited because, from all of this, I’ll have more opportunities to perform live, which is what I love doing. I’ll take it one day at a time. I’m starting to realize that my life is about these unexpected chapters, so I have no idea what comes next.
Are there people you’d like to collaborate with?
HILL: Yeah, absolutely! There’s a lot of them, especially people like Timbaland and Pharrell [Williams]. There are so many artists whose productions I love and adore. I feel like, if I got an opportunity to write a song with them, it would be amazing.
20 Feet From Stardom opens in theaters on June 14th.