Judith Hill on Jamming With Prince, Remembering Michael Jackson, and What 'The Voice' Taught Her About America

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music

You may remember backup singer Judith Hill from her star turn in the posthumous Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, during which she and the King of Pop thrillingly dueted on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” or from her passionate “Heal the World” performance at Jackson’s subsequent memorial. Or maybe you remember her from the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, in which she held her own alongside backup-singing legends like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. And if neither of those ring a bell, then you probably know her as the four-chair frontrunner of The Voice Season 4.

Hill has already worked with some of the best in the business, but she still isn’t quite a household name. However, now the distance between her and stardom is about to get a lot shorter. Not only is she finally officially releasing her debut album, Back in Time, but the album was a collaboration with yet another superstar: the one and only Prince. His Great Purple Majesty invited Hill to his fabled Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis after randomly catching a TV interview with Hill, in which she spoke of her dream to work with him.

“He said, ‘I’d like to call Judith,’ and he reached out to my management,” Hill recalls incredulously. “He personally called me on my cell phone. It was an unknown number. Oh, they prepped me. They said, 'Prince is going to call you today.’ I was shaking.”

True to the title Back in Time, the album’s whirlwind recording process was old-school: all-analog, and the result of freeform Paisley Park jam sessions. “It was so inspiring and refreshing, because it was like going back to the old days of just jamming… just hit 'record,’ one take, organic. Nothing was too overthought, just what we felt at the time,” Hill tells Yahoo Music. “His process is really amazing, and I learned a lot… He pushes you to excellence and he just wants the best for you. And he lives in a whole 'nother world. So it rubs off on you, and you just grow so much musically.”

Now that Hill has worked with two of the 1980s’ greatest musical icons – Michael Jackson and Prince – she sees a common thread between them when it comes to work ethic. “There’s a lot of great similarities in terms of their epicness and how they approach things,” she says. “The attention to detail, being very specific about everything they want. They see the big picture and they’re very involved. I just learned as an artist that it’s so important to be hands-on.”

Many people assumed that Hill’s brilliant performance at Jackson’s 2009 memorial, which was watched by an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide, would have been her big break, but Hill deliberately adopted a low profile during that media frenzy. “That was a very tragic and crazy time,” she recalls. “We were thrown into the limelight in a weird way. All of a sudden, there was a film that came out about us rehearsing. I look back at that chapter and it’s so bittersweet. Because it’s like, man, Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, the beautiful last few hours that we spent with him and what he shared with us. It was a circus after he died, it really was. We were caught in the whirlwind. I was really young and green at the time, and it was kind of scary.”

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Four years later, Hill got another break via The Voice, and she was the one to watch from the season’s very first episode. But then she was voted off in eighth place, in what is still widely considered one of the biggest shockers in Voice history. You may recall that was night that her coach, Adam Levine, got in hot water for blurting out “I hate this country!” – his unscripted, furious reaction to seeing Hill and another one of his talented contestants, Sarah Simmons, go home.

“I learned a lot about America that week,” Hill chuckles now, referring to her apparently polarizing decision to perform a funked-up version of Justin Bieber and will.i.am’s “#that POWER,” which was major departure from her previous ballads. “That’s the thing about that show – you learn so much about your country, and who you are to your country. That was an interesting experience – like, yeah, OK, if you try something a little riskier, you might lose Middle America. [I learned about] finding the part that is relatable about me to the world and really simplifying that.”

But everything has its way of working out. Hill, now 31 years old, says, “I wanted to celebrate the funk that week, and it’s funny that we’ve come to the funk now, with me doing a funk record with Prince.” [One track on Back in Time, “Turn It Up,” even amusingly features Prince yelling in the background, “Omigod, Judith, I saw you on The Voice!”] “So I got to finally do it. But maybe The Voice wasn’t the place for that.”

Watch Hill perform a stripped-down version of Back in Time’s lead single, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” above.

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