Judith Hill sure knows how to turn a phrase.
Her debut album, Back in Time, begins with a track that harks back to the '70s-era soul albums of Stevie Wonder. With the line "Might as well be famous/Since I ain't gonna be white," "As Trains Go
By" recalls a time when music gave listeners a window to an artist's world.
"It's harder being a black female artist," Hill says. "Rather than being discouraged about it or saying there are so many obstacles, let's use the position we have as artists and bring change. Our voices are more powerful than ever when we do that. That line came from a place that means, 'I'm going to use the stage to bring change.'"
Hill wrote the song this year in response to her frustration with headlines about race issues and police brutality.
"Time and time again in history, when we see something that is negative in the world, music is a powerful language to bring about productivity and change," she says. "I really wanted to create a song that is funky and uplifting when you hear it, but when you actually listen to the lyrics, it's poignant and detailed about what's going on in the world. The message is what softens your heart."
Hill is famous for many things; it just depends what you've been watching. She's been a backup singer for Wonder and Elton John. She appears in Michael Jackson's posthumous concert film This Is It, belting out "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" with the King of Pop. She also appears in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, holding her own with the greats Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. Most know her from her appearance on season four of the NBC reality show The Voice. Things could have turned out very different for her had she won.
"I would be doing the album [Universal Records] would want me to do," she says. "It would be a whole different program."
You can attribute her talent and confidence to her parents, session musicians Pee-Wee and Michiko Hill, who are joining her on tour as members of her band.
"I'm really able to celebrate the chemistry I've had always jamming with my parents since I was a little girl," she says. "What I love about my parents is that they are just so funky! I've always had this thing with funk music. It's been great to finally celebrate that."
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Back in Time also benefits from co-production by Prince. The Purple One introduced himself to the former backup singer when she expressed her dream to collaborate with him during an interview. The most important thing she learned from him is how to write and arrange music that translates well onstage.
"With Prince, everything is centered around a live show," Hill says. "I've really been able to dig deeper and become a better performer working with him and really honoring and respecting the groove. Performing now is a joy of mine."
In 20 Feet From Stardom, singer Mable John says, "Check out your worth because you're worth more than that." It's a powerful line that grabs Hill's attention as her career moves forward.
"When I hear that I think, 'We're not valuing ourselves' or 'We're seeing ourselves as cheap,'" she says. "We're worth more than that. At the end of the day, because you know you're enough and you're worth enough, you're not standing on quicksand because of other people. You're standing on solid ground."