By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire June 19, 2013 at 10:08AM
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 half.
And were you at all wary about being documented in this kind of light, exposing yourself and your background on film?
Yeah, 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.
Yeah, I got my first professional background singing gig straight out of college and 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]
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?