Judith Hill’s musical roots are blues, soul and funk, but she appreciates her Japanese side

A STAR IN THE SHADOWS — Judith Hill performed at Ophelia’s Electric Soap Box in downtown Denver Feb. 22­. photo by Gil Asakawa

Judith Hill might be the least famous but most deserving musical star in the business.

She’s a superstar to fans who have followed her career and anticipate her new music (she has a new album coming in April).

She’s not a hitmaker on the level of, say Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she was a star contestant on “The Voice” during the 2013 season. She was unfortunately voted off by viewers before she could win top honors.

Hill’s reputation among the music industry elite is as a star, albeit in the shadows.

She’s been an in-demand backup singer for artists from Josh Groban and Gregg Allman to Evelyn “Champagne” King and Rod Stewart and many more. Most notably, she was rehearsing to tour and sing a duet on stage with Michael Jackson when Jackson died in 2009. Prince produced her debut solo album, “Back in Time,” in 2015.

She certainly has the musical pedigree. She has the family pedigree too. Her African American father, Robert Lee “Pee Wee” Hill, is a funk bassist and her Japanese mother, Michiko, is a keyboard player trained in classical music. She was raised in the Los Angeles area where she still lives, and her parents tour with her, providing family and musical support.

Hill, who was born in 1984, has continued writing and performing her own music during her entire career. Her songs are smart and catchy and fit her rich, soulful and soaring vocals. They deserve to be chart-topping hits, but the music industry is different today from the era when she was raised. Styles have fractured, rap dominates vocal pop, and old school soul, funk and R&B are not heard much on radio waves except perhaps on oldies stations.

Live on her current tour, Hill showcases all of her talents as a singer, songwriter, keyboardist and especially guitar player, effortlessly strumming funky chopping chords to slinky bluesy riffs and searing solos. All the while, she commands the stage with her emotive, entrancing vocals.

Her music is steeped in roots American styles; there isn’t a hint of her Japanese ancestry in her recordings or stage repertoire. She has listened to the old-school Japanese pop style called enka, and appreciates the traditional and folk music of Japan. She says she listens to Japanese music for inspiration, not necessarily for ingredients. She says she doesn’t really listen to contemporary J-pop music, though.
Still, Hill was raised with an appreciation for Japanese culture.

“There was definitely a lot of Japanese culture from my mom, and a community of friends and people that surrounded her in LA,” Hill says on the phone from a tour stop in Arizona. “So I grew up around a lot of Japanese people, and I was bilingual as a kid.”

The family often visited Little Tokyo near downtown Los Angeles, and even today, Hill participates in events at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. “I mean, my mom would cook a lot of Japanese food and that’s one of my favorite types of food.” She names her mom’s tsukune, Japanese chicken meatballs, as her top dish.

“She makes it for special times,” Hill notes. And she adds, like a typical Japanese American, “But then, I like nabeyaki udon.”

She sang gospel in church growing up, and at home was immersed in her parents’ funk, but like her mom, her musical foundation was in the classics. “Yeah, classical music. I love playing classical piano,” she says. That led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in composition, and she channeled her training into writing her own music.

Although her prodigious output of original songs hasn’t made her a household name, Hill isn’t worried. She’s not chasing fame, she says. “What I signed up for was the energy of (of making music and performing). And that’s something I’ll never give up.”

She knows the industry has changed and the road to success goes in different directions than when she first recorded with Prince. “I’m just excited to be one of those few people that had the privilege of experiencing the old world,” she shares.

“And the magic that surrounded that, and to be able to carry on and do it today.”
She doesn’t mean to poo-poo today’s artists. “I do think magic is still being created today. But you just don’t know about it, because there’s five million other things happening. It could be some kids in the basement in Seattle that’s channeling something so powerful, but you know, we’re oversaturated.”

That oversaturation means attaining stardom today isn’t necessarily about art. The path requires questions like, how do I become number one? How do I get viral on social media? What’s the right formula? “Those are the wrong questions,” she says.

“They’re all the wrong questions. I don’t really like to ask questions. I like to write from my soul, you know?”

We do. And we’re glad Judith Hill writes from her soul.

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