"Twenty Feet From Stardom"
Morgan Neville's moving tribute to background singers, the documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," opened last Friday in select theaters and in turn brought a lot of overdue attention to the artists profiled in the film. While audiences for the most part are likely unfamiliar with the majority of singers that populate Neville's film, anyone who watches NBC's hit show "The Voice," will no doubt recognize one of the film's key players, aspiring solo star and background vocalist Judith Hill.
A contestant from this season of "The Voice" (in a surprising upset she was eliminated in May), Hill endeared herself to the masses thanks to her powerhouse vocals, genuine likeability and unrelenting drive. And unlike many on the show, she came with to the competition with experience -- Hill was slated to duet with Michael Jackson on his "This Is It" worldwide tour before his death; after his passing she sang at his memorial service.
I called up Hill to discuss the challenge of owning the spotlight, the experience of working with Jackson, life after "The Voice," and what she makes of watching herself in "Stardom." [The film expands nationwide this Friday. Go HERE
for more info.]
All of the
background singers featured in the film seem to know each other. How did you come onto the project?
Well, I met Morgan on an Elton John session
that I was doing, and he was covering the behind-the-scenes. Shortly
after that, like a couple months after that, he contacted me and was
like, "Hey, I'm doing a documentary on background singers. Can I follow
you around with a camera?" So he documented it for about a year and a
And were you at all wary about being documented in this kind of light, exposing yourself and your background on film?
"Twenty Feet From Stardom"
part of me was scared, because I knew I was going to have to be really
vulnerable and honest about my life and my struggles and everything. But
I was also happy someone was actually covering the topic, because no
one had ever really touched on it, so I thought it was interesting.
So how long have you been background singing? You seem like the youngest in the film.
I got my first professional background singing gig straight out of
ever since then I've had the opportunity to work with great, amazing
artists. But yeah, the start of it was straight out of college.
And what made you stick with it?
I wanted to put my solo career as priority. I know that singing background is really fun and exciting and it
pays your bills, but I didn't want to get too comfortable doing it,
because I knew that it's time-consuming and I didn't want to look back
and say, "Oh man, I wish I had followed my dreams." So I really decided I
would sing background, but put my solo career first.
The film documents the struggles of so many background performers. What was your takeaway from watching the film?
It was really amazing, just see all these
women come out of struggles and hard times. I think the message that I
get from the whole film is to never give up, and to always show up, no
matter feast or famine, always do what you're calling to do and what's
in your heart.
Did the experience of making the film and being around the artists and hearing their stories give you a new outlook on how you want to go about pursuing your solo career?
That's a good question. I think, for me, I'm
still on this course of... I don't know. The big, risky thing I did was
"The Voice," and that was sort of a 'change-tactic' thing I decided.
Television is a very powerful thing, especially in this day and age
where people don't buy really records as much, and you have to find
other way to get yourself out there. So my tactic is definitely to do as
much possible, so that I can support myself as an artist and the music.
Everything, from television to the fashion world, anything that can
support the brand.
Back in the day the background vocalists profiled in the film didn't have shows like "The Voice" or "American Idol" to showcase their talents to a nationwide audience. But with that, also comes the risk of selling yourself short for the sake of publicity. How do you go about gauging what opportunities are worth your time, and what ones can potentially damage your brand?
I think the way it's weighed is to make sure
it's in alignment with who you are and what your message is. For
example, with "The Voice," it was an awesome opportunity to do what I love,
which is performing on a live stage. That's so in line with who I am,
and I think anytime you go out and do anything, it has to represent who
you are. You don't wanna go out and do something that people wouldn't
believe or that's not your character, so I guess that's the test.
So you wouldn't take part in "The Bachelor"?
Right, unless there's something about it that matches your thing, but no. [laughs]
About "The Voice," how would you describe
that whole experience? I imagine it's an overwhelming
whirlwind in many ways.
A whirlwind is probably the best way to
describe it. The more I look back on it, the more I'm like, "Wow, that
was great that I got that opportunity to gain all those fans." But it is
stressful and it is sort of like "The Truman Show." It's not reality,
so you have to always keep that in mind, and there's times when you're
gonna have breakdowns and meltdowns emotionally because you're
sequestered, and you're in really stressful situations and you have to
be vulnerable. So you just have to stay strong and protect yourself and
protect your spirit from all of those things.
And how was coming off a show like that? You were in the
spotlight in such a closely guarded way, what was it like being released
from the show and reentering normal life?
It's interesting, because you get off a show like that and you get
stalked in the streets and you realize there are so many people that
watch the show and they recognize you, and it's quite interesting. But
at the same time there's been a lot of love and support, even though I
didn't go all the way to the end there's a lot of people that
appreciated my artistry and are new fans. So it's cool coming off the
show and it's opened a lot of doors for my solo career and
opportunities. Honestly, I'm really excited that I get to focus on the
film right now, and just be a part of this incredible story about these
women. To be in it and considered one of them is just an honor.
In the film, Sting addresses the whole talent show craze saying that contestants who come to shows like "The Voice" have to have struggled in their careers to leave any true lasting impression. Do you side with that opinion?
Yeah, I think the more you know who you are
on a show like that, and the more you're open to share it with people
and it relates, the better you'll do. But I think there's all sorts of
different aspects to the show; a lot of times a show like that's like,
"Oh, people like your story or they like your personality." So it's not
just a music show, but at the same time, if you're a great performer and
you have a great voice, then it's a great way to just gain music fans
and followers. There's so many aspects to it, but I think for me, it was
more, I wanted to show people my style musically and do something
creative on stage each week and really show people that's what it looks
like, me as an artist.
The film states pretty clearly that the reason so
many background singers don't really make it is because they're not
willing to play the game. You obviously are; what did you learn about the game in your plan going forward, from taking part on "The Voice"?
Yeah, I learned a lot actually. You know, me
being this sort of snobby jazz kid, I learned a lot just about songs in
pop music now and why they work. And just being forced to sing a lot of
Top 40 songs, I kind of developed a new appreciation for songs I didn't
like. I think that it's important as an artist to stay relevant to the
culture and to be able to embrace what's going on right now, but at the
same time not fall into it so you lose yourself. So I think that it
balances your classic experience and everything you know to be great,
and translating it into today's world where it's more like a fast food
type of mentality with music.
So Michael Jackson -- how did you land that gig?
Well, I was singing around town and it really
kind of came out nowhere, because I was just singing in bars and
things. I met a few musicians that were also performing there and one in
particular was like, "Hey, I really love what you do. Let's stay in
contact." And he calls me a week later and says, "Hey, Michael Jackson's
looking for a female duet partner. Can I submit your name?" And I was
like, well of course, you know. Long story short, I ended up auditioning
with the vocal director for Michael and it was really small, just me
and this other girl that was auditioning. And then it just ended up
being from more of a referral, and Michael was definitely part of the
process of choosing me. But it wasn't like this huge audition, with
people lined up around the corner or anything.
Which is crazy, because he could have conceived of a whole show around just that role.
What was more nerve-wracking, performing on stage during "The Voice" or singing opposite someone like Michael?
in the beginning, even the thought of singing with Michael was the most
nerve-wracking thing. But once it happened, it just became the most
magical and memorable experience, and musical experience, and once it
becomes a musical experience the nerves go away and you just enjoy it.
For "The Voice," there was almost another element of nerves that wasn't
healthy, and I think it was the idea of being judged and the whole
competitive aspect. Music is not meant to be judged or formed to
compete, so that turned into something that I had to deal with in my own
way to overcome it, and still be able to have a musical experience
despite all of the surroundings.
Having gone through those two experiences, do you feel like you can conquer anything now?
I think I've covered lots of ground with those two experiences, yeah. I
mean, I don't think I've conquered everything, I think that life keeps
throwing me a bunch of surprises and I'm sure I'll have another tough
experience. But I feel like I've definitely conquered a lot and
experienced enough from those two to do a lot of other things.