If proximity were a measure of fame, then Judith Hill would be known worldwide. After all, the singer has toured and recorded with everyone from Ringo Starr to Stevie Wonder to Josh Groban to John Legend and Michael Jackson. She was handpicked for the King of Pop’s “This Is It” tour to sing the smash hit duet “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”
While her storied career was celebrated in the documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” thankfully, talent is more important than association. Indeed, Miss Hill is a powerhouse with more talent than many of the folks she has backed up. Why else would the late legend Prince have reached out to help record her debut CD,”Back in Time”?
Miss Hill rang me up in advance of her tour, which will bring her to the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club in Bethesda, Maryland, Friday to discuss collaborating with Jackson and Prince, her soulful CD and why her live show is a family affair.
Question: What was the first song you ever sang in front or people?
Answer: That would most likely be “Amen” since I started singing in the church. That was my first experience. I was really young. I think the more I did it, I realized it was going to be my life.
Q: Is it true Rose Stone of Sly and the Family Stone was an early mentor?
A: Yes. She was the choir director of the church I going to at the time. I saw her frequently because my mother was the pianist. I would got to her house every week and do warmup stuff.
I always wanted to go to her house. I was so captivated by her. I loved her voice, her style. The highlight of my week was going to choir rehearsals. I listened to her inflections, her groove, her phrasing. As a little girl she was the main singer I was listening to on a weekly basis. When you are around that, you pick up stuff.
Q: When did you realize that singing was your true life’s passion?
A: That moment came when I was listening to records [like] Aretha Franklin’s “Sparkle.” When I listened to that, I realized this is what brings life to my soul.
Q: How did you end up on Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” tour?
A: There were a lot of people who had auditioned already, and they were still looking. I had a musician friend of mine who asked if I was interested in auditioning. Turned out the musical director had known me from the past, and Michael approved. I had no idea I would ever land such a gig like that.
Q: Did you interact with The King of Pop?
A: Most of my interaction with Michael was on stage in the rehearsals. He would come in and we would rehearse our song. He was always just kind of there [and] speaking to us as a group. I didn’t really have a chance to have a lot of one-on-one time with him.
Q: How did you make the transition from backup singer to artist?
A: It is definitely a mind shift. When you’re a background singer, you’re there to support the artist. The transition is up to the person. You have to follow your heart. You make life decisions that will affect what you really want to do. You put that kind of energy out, and you put it out aggressively. And if you work hard, you’ll pave the way.
Q: Why is your debut CD called “Back in Time”?
A: The title is a nod to the funk and classic soul music that I love. It kind of felt like going back in time the way we recorded it — with analog gear on tape. All of it has an old-school feeling that makes me smile.
Q: Were all the songs written before you went to Prince’s home at Paisley Park?
A: A lot of them were. A little over half the record was already written. We also wrote songs there as well.
Q: How did Prince discover you and invite you to collaborate?
A: He saw an interview of mine where I was asked who I would want to work with. I said, “I’d like to work with Prince.” It didn’t take him long to reach out and find me. [laughs] He pays attention.
I never thought he would ever see that interview, but he actually did. I was shocked.
Q: What was the moment you first started working together like?
A: He just kind of invited me to Paisley Park. The first few days I was just an observer. There was a jazz band there he was working with. Then he invited me on stage to play my songs. I would play my songs at the piano, and he would have the band come up with an arrangement. That’s how the record started. We just started playing. He recorded it. Then he said, “This stuff is great. Can we work together?”
Q: How did you collaborate with Prince yet maintain your own voice?
A: Because originally these were my songs. He just sort of came in and tweaked it. simplified it. He was really a great producer and understood how to make someone really shine.
It was a great collaboration because we’re very similar. When I told him who my influences were, he said, “Oh, this is gonna be easy.” We had a complete communion on the funk influence.
Q: Do you prefer touring over studio work?
A: They are both different experiences. I love performing live, especially when I get in the zone. But the studio is really becoming a place I have grown to love. I actually ended up recording an entire new record after I worked with Prince. I truly experienced the joy of it. That was the fruit of my time with Prince.
What is special about my live band is that my mom and dad are in it. My mom is wailing on the organ; my dad on the bass. It’s a fun and funky and inspiring show to see.
Judith Hill Plays Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club in Bethesda, Maryland, Thursday. Tickets are $40 to $45 by going to InstantSeats.com.