She was to sing a duet with Michael Jackson for his comeback concerts in 2009, but his death put an end to that. She was a front-runner contender to win NBC’s singing contest The Voice, but she lost. However, Judith Hill, the big-voiced pop singer who was one of the stars of the acclaimed documentary on the hopes and dreams of backup singers (Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom) is still a star on the riseher setbacks not really being setbacks at all. The singer, who opens for Josh Groban on Oct. 25 at Air Canada Centre, spoke to The Globefrom St. Louis.
You’re squeezing in a few of your own headlining shows on the off nights of the Josh Groban tour. How different are the performances?
My own shows are obviously smaller, but they’re also louder. People shout and dance. They’re a lot of fun. For the Josh Groban shows, the audiences are older, but the people have been very warm. It’s a big room, but it’s in the round. I make a point of walking around the circle to connect with them.
As a background singer, you’ve played the big rooms. You rehearsed with Michael Jackson for his comeback concerts that were to be held at London’s O2. They never happened, of course, but what can you tell us about what was planned?
It was going to blow people’s minds. Pyrotechnics, lasers and aerial dancers coming out of the sky. I went there as a singer and left with an understanding of what you can do as an artist, and that you can create a world on stage based on your imagination.
You were to sing a duet with Michael, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You. What was it like rehearsing that with him?
Incredible. This icon was right in front of me, creating magic on stage. He was gracious and really kind to me. But it never became normal for me. I grew up listening to him, and now he was right in front of me. So, singing a duet with him was surreal. And it was different each time, because he was always changing things up.
You’ve also worked with Stevie Wonder and Elton John. What do they all share, those two and Michael?
Their songs are married to their voice and their message. You just feel it click. It’s greatness. You sing Superstition with Stevie Wonder and you see how the harmony and the melody and his voice and his presentation was all completely one. There are differences though. Michael was a perfectionist. He rehearsed every cue to the T. Stevie is the opposite. He loves to create in the moment.
You were the youngest of the backup singers in the 20 Feet From Stardom film. Did the older singers give you advice?
Absolutely. My parents performed with Tata Vega when I was a kid. She was always a role model for me. A lot of the women in the film have been mentors to me.
One of the other singers, Mary Clayton, used to work with Billy Preston when your father was the bassist in his band. You knew her, I assume?
She knew my dad before I was even born. She’s hilarious. And yes, she’s always giving me motherly advice
Many in the crowd at Josh Groban’s shows might know you from The Voice. You didn’t win, but does it really matter?
It’s all about the life after. It’s what you make of it. Coming out of The Voice, I signed with a label, I signed with and agent and I got on this Josh Groban tour. The show served its purpose.
So, things are going well. How many feet from stardom are you these days?
Stardom is an interesting word. You’re always going to feel like you’re 20 feet away from where you could be. Then again, if you’re putting out your music and your message and people are being inspired by it, you’re not 20 feet from anywhere. You’re right where you need to be.
Judith Hill opens for Josh Groban, Oct. 25, 8 p.m., $64.25 to $124.25. Air Canada Centre, 40 Bay St., 855-985-5000 or tickmaster.ca.