20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary movie that has taken the world by storm, as we are taken into the lives of the backing singer to put faces to some of music’s most fantastic and successful voices.
Judith Hill is one of the singers to feature in the film, and we caught up with her to chat about the movie as well as her solo career.
- 20 Feet From Stardom is released in UK cinemas tomorrow, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
20 Feet From Stardom was first inspired by Gil Friesen, who had gone to a Leonard Cohen concert and was so intrigued by the backing singers that he wanted to make a film about them. He hired Morgan Neville, who is a brilliant director.
It is a really inspiring film about the life of a background singer and all of these very iconic that you have heard, but you just don’t know their names and you don’t know their faces. The documentary puts the two together and really celebrates the work that they have done.
It also shows the struggles, the triumphs and all of the hardships that come with the life of a background singer, and also the 20-foot journey that they make to become the solo artist.
- Where did this film start for you and what made you want to get involved?
I met Morgan Neville through… (laughs) I was singing for Elton John for a record, and Morgan was covering the behind the scenes for that. Shortly after we met, he told m that he was doing this documentary, and asked me if I would be part of it.
I was very happy to do it because it was such an interesting topic and we had a lot of to say about it. I was very very excited, but I had not idea that it was going to be this successful (laughs).
- How important do you think this movie is, in not only shining a light on the great backing talent, but also showing how important these singers have been over the years?
It is very important. It is something that the world needs to know about, and I am glad that these amazing people like Darlene Love are finally getting the recognition for what they have done.
Also, I think it resonates with everybody because it is not just about singing; it is that message about never giving up on your dreams. It really is about the life of the underdog and what that looks like, and I think that everyone can relate to that in what they do.
- Darlene Love and Merry Clayton are just some of the other women who feature in the film. How inspirational have they been for you?
Very much so. Darlene is such a powerful woman and when you around her you really can see, that nothing will stop her. She has taken really good care of herself.
She pulled me aside and really encouraged my by saying ‘it is your time to shine, we are passing on the torch’. It is really special to hear things like that coming for her.
- How have you found the reaction to the film so far?
Very positive. Across the board, it really does seem to strike a chord and resonates with everyone. It has been really cool to see people all around come up to me and tell me how they appreciate this film.
- Away from the film, where did your love of music start? And what artists were you listening to as you were growing up?
Both of my parents are musicians and they turned me on to a lot of Motown music and a lot of Jazz such as Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Sly and the Family Stone: I actually grew up more around Sly and the Family Stone because my parents use to play with them.
So, I think my love for music started from when I was very young; for as long as I can remember I have loved singing.
- You were selected to be Michael Jackson's duet partner for his This Is It tour. What was it like getting the chance to rehearse with him? What did you take away from that experience?
It was amazing; it was just magical being on that stage with him. He has such an incredible presence when he walks in; the room vibrates with his power.
It was just fascinating to watch him work on that stage, dance, direct and put together this incredible show. I was just deeply honoured to be a part of that.
- We see in 20 Feet From Stardom how difficult a process it can be going from being a backing singer to a solo star, so how have you found that transition?
It is a very difficult transition. I am finding that it is not a very easy road at all; it is a very very tough road. The industry has changed so much in the last few years that you have got to find creative ways to get out there.
At the end of the day, it is all about that song and it is all about the material and that being the very best; it really does all come down to that. It is tough, especially in soul music as a lot of soul music has been lost in the commercial sense; either it sounds too retro or it lacks the soul.
Soul has had a bit of an identity crisis - especially in America - and so that has been a difficult journey. It is also exciting as it is new ground to be forged and it is what I love doing.
- You are going to be releasing your debut album later this year, so what can we expect from that record?
It is a soul record, but it does have a very pop flair with melodies that are fun and memorable. It celebrates the tradition of the music that I have grown up with, such as funk and Motown, and all of those different things.
- How did you find stepping into the studio and finally record in your own right?
It is something that I have been doing for a very long time, just because I grew up in the studio with my parents. It is a process that I am use, but the studio has been a very frustrating place for me. I find the stage to be my joy and the place that I love.
Recently, I have found that studio is becoming a lot more pleasant and as I am developing the sound and everything is coming together, it has become a lot more exciting for me.
- Just quickly going back to 20 Feet From Stardom, what do you hope people will take from it when they see it?
Firstly, I think that it is great awareness, and the next time that they hear any record, they are going to be tuning into the background singing and really appreciating it more.
I also think that the message of the film will also be inspiring to them, to fight the good fight for whatever dreams and passions that they have.
- We see in the film that it is quite often tough to hang on to the solo performer dreams that many background singers have. How difficult has it been for you to hold on to you solo aspirations?
I have always done it, so I feel like I am living the dream every time that I do get up on the stage. It’s not hard to hold on to the dream when you are doing what you love.
Of course, the ideal success and making it big is relative. I am not going to predict what kind of level of success or notoriety that I am going to get from this record, but I plan to make the best record, the most honest one, in the music that I love. I think that that is the whole goal.
- Finally, what is next for you as we head through 2014?
It is definitely to focus on the album. I have recorded a lot of songs, and we really have got a lot done. I think that we are close; we are probably about 50% done.
20 Feet From Stardom is out now.