A Legend in the Making: Judith Hill Comes to the Houston Symphony

Not many people can claim to have shared the stage with a diverse array of legends including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Josh Groban, Dave Grohl and Adam Levine, but singer/songwriter Judith Hill is one who can, and she’s coming to sing with the Houston Symphony! Ms. Hill will join Houston hero Steve Tyrell on March 13 for his concert titled Steve Tyrell & Friends.

Judith Hill (c) Smallz-Raskind

Judith Hill (c) Smallz-Raskind

I had the chance to chat with Ms. Hill and ask her some questions about her musical inspirations, her experiences performing with said legends, and what she thinks about coming to Houston.

When asked about her musical inspirations, the California native mused, “Oh man, I’d have to say… Ray Charles, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and also, I’m always inspired by composers like Leonard Bernstein and Chopin, Barbara Streisand and Nat King Cole, Lauryn Hill, Prince, Michael Jackson, so many.”

Hill had one of her first major breaks when  she was cast as the female lead vocalist for what would have been Michael Jackson’s This Is It concert series in 2009. She described her experience working with the pop icon as, “A dream, I mean… First of all, it was a just such an honor for him to have asked me, of all the people in the world, I mean, he’s the King of Pop, and so, I was deeply, deeply honored by that. It was probably one of the biggest moments of my life. I learned so much in terms of just watching him first hand, it was like the best schooling ever, and I think that I left that experience really wanting to be an artist. He was the biggest inspiration because prior to that I just had a singer mentality, and I really got to learn every aspect of how to put on a show, from the lighting and visuals to the band and the stage… he really created magic on stage and seeing it first hand was the best experience ever.”

There are many singers out there, and this had to have been one of the most coveted opportunities on the planet at that time, so I had to ask her how she got the gig in the first place. Her story states, “It kind of came to me randomly. I was gigging in local bars in LA and I had met a few musicians there and one of them randomly called me up a couple weeks later and said, ‘You know Michael’s looking for his female vocal duet partner, are you interested in auditioning?’ and I was kind of taken-a-back by it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, of course!’ It kind of came out of nowhere, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, ok, WOW, there will probably be 30,000 girls trying out at the convention center or something,’ but it ended up being just a really small audition at Michael’s vocal director’s house. There were literally just two of us that were auditioning for the part. This was after they had auditioned a few girls from recommendations, and so, long story short, I auditioned that night and they had Michael check it out, and then they called me and said ‘You got the gig!’” Watch their rehearsal footage here.

Although this opportunity ended in tragedy when Michael Jackson suddenly passed away just before the concerts were scheduled to begin, Judith was still featured in the This Is It documentary that was released after Jackson’s death. The film featured the concert’s rehearsal process, and many viewers took note of Hill’s striking vocal performance.

After her experience working with Michael Jackson, Judith auditioned for season 4 of NBC’s singing competition, The Voice, which began airing in March of 2013. Many contestants hope to have one vocal coach “turn their chair” to invite the contestant to their team, but all four coaches turned their chairs for Judith, giving her to opportunity to choose between Christina Agulera, Blake Shelton, CeeLo Green and Adam Levine. She picked Adam.

When asked why, she explains, “I think I chose Adam cause he was really well rounded and had the perspective being on all of the seasons prior, and I really love his energy, and he was very enthusiastic, and so I thought Adam would be the best coach for me.”

She went on to tell me a bit more about the experience, saying, “I think my favorite part was the creative process of bringing to life the performances. They had such high production value from wardrobe and lighting and choreographers and all these things. It really was fun to play on that stage. We had everything at our disposal to work with and amazing creative control as well. To create a vision for your song and see it come to life with the choreographer and all the other departments was really awesome.” Watch some of her videos from The Voice here.

In the summer of 2013, an independent documentary was released titled, 20 Feet from Stardom. The film was first noticed at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and recently won the 2014 Academy® Award for Best Documentary Feature. It told the stories of the careers of some of the most impactful backup singers over the last 50 years, and Hill was featured as the young, up-and-coming back-up singer who is poised to make it as a solo artist. Watch the film trailer here.

When asked to describe how being featured in 20 Feet from Stardom has impacted her career, she said, “That was such a beautiful experience. I really didn’t know that all of this was going to happen with that film. It was a project that I was really excited about. He [Morgan Neville] filmed me a couple of years ago, and then we didn’t hear from him and he went away into the editing world, and then he called me up around this time last year and said, ‘you know, the film is finished and we’re going to Sundance,’ and it was like this lovely surprise. Seeing the film I was completely blown away and it’s been an incredible year. It premiered at Sundance and got picked up for national distribution, and now we’re here a year later and it’s been nominated for an Oscar and it’s just been such a beautiful, powerful project to be a part of. The message about never giving up no matter what is so important. And also, as a result, people have been really receptive and some great doors have opened up for me in my career because of this, so, yeah, really really exciting.”

So I had to ask her, “Are you gonna go to the Oscars®?”

Hill affirmed, “Yes, I’m really excited about that!”

Which lead to the next question, “Do you know what you’re going to wear?”

“Not yet! But we’re working it out.”
Click here to see what she wore. (She’s second from the left)

We moved on to discuss her upcoming performance with the Houston Symphony and Steve Tyrell. When asked if she has ever performed with a live orchestra or with Steve Tyrell, she explained, “Well, Steve and I did some orchestra performances with Alan Bergman last year with the New West Symphony, which was a wonderful experience and so I’ve done that and a few other things, but, the orchestra is one of my favorite things. I was a music composer in school, and I composed for orchestra, so it’s really one of my passions. I’m really excited for the show in Houston.”

Hill has performed in Houston in the past with Josh Groban.  The duo just released a single called “Remember When It Rained.” You can watch a video of the duet here.

I asked, “Are you gonna get to spend much time in Houston for this visit?”

“That same week I’m performing at SXSW, so I’ll be in the area!”

I then asked her to describe her recent performances as a back-up singer for the Beatles’ 50th anniversary tribute special, which aired on CBS in February.

“It was really an incredible, magical night, I mean, first of all it was the 50th anniversary celebration of the Beatles, so it couldn’t get more grand and epic than that, and it was so awesome to be on the stage with these living legends and the celebration was a blast. We just had so much fun. The whole night was just rockin. Everyone was so wonderful. I think my favorite moment was at the end when everyone was on stage and singing “Hey Jude” and going, “Na na na na na na na,” forever and people were dancing and Stevie [Wonder] was rockin on the harmonica and Imagine Dragons, Adam Levine, and Dave Grohl and everybody was just up there, Pharrell… it was just a magical night.” Watch that performance here.

When asked what it’s like to work with people like Stevie Wonder, her response was humble and earnest.

“You just have to treasure every moment of it. I’ve been so fortunate to be his backup singer for about a year, and it’s just been an incredible experience. There’s no one like him. He just creates on the spot, and the stuff he hears is kind of, like, out of this world. It’s Heaven sent. Being able to just be around him and take it all in is just something that really inspired me as an artist and challenged me to really dig in deeper to find that vast source of creativity.”

Judith shared a video on her website of herself doing her vocal warm-ups in her car.

“It’s definitely something I do all the time. I’m always singing in the car. You’ve gotta find the time and place to do vocal warm ups every day. That’s the LA life… getting in your car and singing… you know, you spend so much time in the car, so you gotta do it.”

She has some additional pre-performance rituals that she went on to describe.

“I always pray before I get on stage. It’s really important to be centered and know why I’m doing it. I always do my speech therapy in the morning right when I wake up so that I’m speaking properly and [doing] all those important things that go into making sure your voice is healthy.”

Judith Hill will release her debut solo album in Summer 2014. Catch her live performance with the Houston Symphony and Steve Tyrell for one night only on March 13, 2014 at Jones Hall! Click here for Steve Tyrell & Friends concert tickets and details.

Steve Tyrell & Friends
Thursday March 13, 2014
Robert Franz,
Steve Tyrell, vocalist
Judith Hill, vocalist
Diane Schuur, vocalist/pianist
Lew Soloff, trumpet

With a little help from his friends Diane Schuur, Lew Soloff and Judith Hill, Grammy® Award- winning and Houston hero Steve Tyrell returns to sing with the Houston Symphony. Focusing on great wordsmiths from the past century, join us for a night filled with once in a lifetime performances of American standards like, “You’re So Nice to Come Home To”, “Bewitched”, “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

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