Soul sessions with Judith Hill

American singer-songwriter Judith Hill returns to Hong Kong this month to perform at Café Carlyle. She talks to David Ho about her musical journey so far and what she has planned next

Judith Hill

From backing vocals to centre stage and her native Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Judith Hill has come a long way both figuratively and literally as she returns this month for a three-night concert series March 22 to 25 at Café Carlyle.

Hill is probably best known for being Michael Jackson’s duet partner for his This Is It tour and her stint on the fourth season of The Voice under the guidance of Adam Levine. “The Voice was an awesome experience that opened up so many doors. I made so many lifelong friends and connections from that experience,” she says. Nevertheless, she has no plans on hitting the reality singing show circuit again anytime soon. Instead, she will be focusing on making it her own way.

Café Carlyle

It’s understandable as Hill has forged quite a reputation for herself as an artist. She has served as the opening act for Josh Groban and John Legend. Her 2015 debut album was produced by none other than the purple one himself, Prince.

“I have many favourite memories with Prince. The best times were listening to music with him and getting super hyped on it,” Hill recalls. “That kind of excitement and zeal for music is sacred and needs to be protected.”

Also in 2015, Hill won a Grammy for Best Music Film for her participation in the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which details the lives of various background singers for the stars. That same year, her song “Party Rockers” with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals.

Hill has kept the ball rolling ever since, with the release of a few more albums. Her sound has remained soulful and funky with each release, with the singer taking on production duties as well. “It’s been a natural progression of deeper lyrics with each album. I love keeping the funk and soul alive today because it feels like a lost art. But I feel very grounded in my sound and understand the importance of celebrating the roots,” she says.

Though the pandemic slowed things down a tad, Hill put the time to good use. “The last few years have been very powerful for me,” she says. “I’ve had a chance to really do some self-reflection and find deeper meaning in my art. Taking the time off has been a good transition period for me. I’m stepping into higher levels of connection and intention.”

Once restrictions were lifted, Hill returned with a vengeance. Her touring schedule saw her performing a number of European dates last autumn, going all over the US at the start of the year and she even has an upcoming engagement in New Zealand.

“I go on vocal rests and keep a strict muzzle on talking when I’m on the road. Usually, my vocal cords are most vulnerable towards the beginning of a tour or a one-off. Vocal cords are muscles… They need to warm up and build stamina and that usually happens mid-tour,” says Hill.

Self-care is a priority for the gruelling life on the road. Hill does yoga and meditates, and makes sure to eat healthy and limit the alcohol. But it’s not all work and no play. “Whenever I get a spare moment, I find a massage. I’m obsessed with massages and rely heavily on them,” she says of her preferred indulgence on the road.

Despite the hard work of touring, Hill maintains a passion for singing live because “it’s like theatre.” “It’s a moment-by-moment experience that is constantly changing like a living organism. I love the danger, spontaneity and power of the stage… There’s nothing like it!”

Audiences can expect “an emotional experience” when it comes to her shows. “It’s everything from dancing to contemplation and inspiration. I love using music to bring people together and create a spiritual experience,” Hill says.

A dynamic and ever-changing set list is also part of her repertoire. “I mainly sing my own material but I do incorporate some covers. I choose covers that tie into the overall energy and message of my music. Sometimes it’s music from the legends I’ve worked with,” says Hill. “The set list changes according to how I feel that day. Sometimes I like to start the show with a bang, other times I like to ease my way into it. I usually make those decisions very close to showtime.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun and passing on that enjoyment to the audience. “I just chose songs that would be fun to sing and create new renditions for. It’s a fun process of going through the catalogue and reimagining popular songs,” she explains. It’s a process she’s currently undertaking while she works on new songs and ideas for a concert theatre. The biracial songstress hopes to eventually create an innovative space for live performance and music.

“Also, I just completed a new album so I’m looking forward to releasing that as well as creating more collaboration and themed albums in the near future,” she adds, noting that she’s been listening to a lot of alternative/future soul, African music as well as flamenco. Whether or not we’ll see those influences creep into her upcoming work remains to be seen.

Hill’s last visit to Hong Kong was in December 2015, and she’s eager to explore the Fragrant Harbour again after a long time away. But this time, she’ll enjoy it through the eyes of others too. “I look forward to strolling the streets again but this time with my family. I can’t wait for my parents to see Hong Kong,” she says.

In the meantime, no doubt she’ll enjoy performing all around the world and applying the key lesson she has picked up from working with so many musical legends: “Create your own kingdom and stay consistent in building it. Never play it safe, go after the big dream and have fun doing it!”

Photos by Café Carlyle

Also see: Celine Homme’s Portrait of a Musician featuring Bob Dylan

In this Story: #culture / #entertainment