Judith Hill channels grief into resilience on ‘Letters From a Black Widow’

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CINCINNATI, Ohio (WOUB) — Judith Hill has experienced the kind of rocketing career ascents many artists only dream of. She’s also endured the kind of devastating blows one would hope to only encounter in a nightmare.

In 2009, Hill was chosen as Michael Jackson’s duet partner for I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, slated to perform throughout his This Is It tour. She rehearsed on stage with Jackson the night before the singer’s shocking death. Two weeks later, Hill sang Jackson’s Heal the World lead vocal, closing his public memorial service on that same stage.

When her 2013 record deal with Sony didn’t work out, Prince took her on as a protégé. She worked closely with the musical legend. In fact, she was with him when his April 15, 2016 flight had to make an emergency landing after he lost consciousness due to an opioid overdose. This was mere months after they’d worked together on Hill’s debut album, Back In Time; and, as it would turn out, only days before Prince’s tragic death.

The coincidental presence of Hill in both musical titan’s final days led to her being dubbed “the black widow,” only compounding her grief. Battling the shame associated with this unjust label, she made a bold decision this year to confront it directly, choosing to title her upcoming album Letters from a Black Widow.

The album, which Hill self-produced, comes a decade after she won a Grammy Award for her contribution to 20 Feet from Stardom. The film brought to light the many women — in particular, Black women — who rounded out the sound of rock ‘n roll’s biggest hits, for a fraction of the recognition (and compensation) afforded to the men on center stage.

20 Feet From Stardom won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; and the Library of Congress just selected it for preservation to the National Film Registry — only the eighth film to do so in its first year of eligibility.

Prior to the April 26 release of Letters from a Black Widow, Hill is embarking on a tour supporting Southern soul rock group JJ Grey & Mofro. The tour hits the Taft Theatre (317 E. 5th St.) tomorrow, Columbus’ KEMBA Live! (405 Neil Ave.) Thursday, and Cleveland’s Agora Theatre (5000 Euclid Ave.) next Friday.

Hill spoke to WOUB’s Ian Saint from Minnesota. Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. 

A promotional image of musician Judith Hill. She is standing against a desert landscape, dressed in black, with a guitar.
Judith Hill’s Letters From a Black Widow will be released April 26, following three Ohio shows in late this month. [Ginger Sole Photography]
Ian Saint: Your latest music video is for Dame De La Lumière, a song about your mother and grandmother. Your mother is Japanese and your grandmother is Black — two different diasporas, who’ve faced racial atrocities and barriers in this country’s history. The way that you tie them together was so profound. Could you talk about that? 

Hill: Yeah, that’s definitely the essence of the song: talking about women coming out of hardships, and showing how resilient we are as women; and me coming from both backgrounds of Japanese and Black, like you said, there’s the two different struggles and there’s also that sense of unity that I feel is within me — [the ability] of bringing everyone together, and really showing that we are all very much alike, even though we go through different things.

It’s a symbol of humanity; no matter where we come from, we can all understand what it feels like to go through something, and to be able to empathize with other people who are going through something. And so I just wanted the song to celebrate women, and really bring women together.

My grandmother Georgia passed away several years ago; so my aunt Jackie is in the video, she is very much a resemblance of my grandmother. It’s been very special to be able to tell their stories, and celebrate them, and have them be a part of the film. It was directed by Alexander Gideon, who’s a great friend of mine; he’s actually an opera director, so it’s been awesome working with him visually and being able to bring life to the story.

Congratulations on your new album, Letters from a Black Widow. That’s a very striking title. What are the themes it speaks to?

Hill: Letters from a Black Widow is taking people on a journey through a very traumatic experience I had, and “the Black Widow” was a term used to describe me — it was a very negative experience, surrounding the deaths of the two great legends that I worked with. I went through a really dark patch of life, feeling traumatized and dealing with issues of shame — and not being able to know how to talk about that, but feeling that really tormented me for many years.

Finally, I found the courage to at least give a voice to this pain; and as a result, it was very freeing and liberating for me to be able to speak to that — and from speaking to it, take people on a journey of what it feels like to deal with shame, to come out of it stronger, and be able to find empathy for other people going through things like that. So the album really does cover a lot, in terms of the actual incidents, but then also what comes out of the incidents is a sense of resilience — songs like Dame De La Lumière and Flame are about becoming strong, and that strength comes from you going through a lot of stuff. The album is intense, but I feel like it was something that I really needed to do for myself; and it was very liberating.

You’ve had several incredibly promising career starts, the kind most artists can only dream of:  working with two of modern history’s biggest music icons, and signing a record deal with Sony — which devastatingly fell apart. Many artists in these situations would succumb to the heartbreak; but you kept going. Were the traits instilled by your mother and grandmother vital to you not falling into traps that would befall many artists in your shoes?

Hill: Yeah, I think it’s definitely something that has always fueled the music. Even as a kid, I would listen to gospel singers like the Clark Sisters and Aretha Franklin; and I always heard this sense of triumph in their voices. That was the reason why I wanted to start singing: to conjure that type of energy. And that only comes from triumphing something. So I find that the hardships really do give me that: the tone of music that’s able to encourage and uplift people. I’ve been able to take all of the things that happened to me, and use it as fuel.

It’s been very difficult, for sure, but I feel like that’s the type of music that has made me feel alive. I’m excited to be able to make that kind of music — because I think that especially in [today’s] culture, the idea of an artist and music has morphed into this success-driven idea of being in the spotlight, maintaining “views” and “likes” and all these things, but that’s not really the version of life and artist[ry] that I signed up for in the beginning.

You didn’t sign up to cater to the algorithms of tech giants?

Hill: That’s not what I signed up for. When I saw someone perform when I was a kid, I wasn’t thinking about algorithms. It was something way more spiritual.

You produced Letters from a Black Widow yourself, no easy feat. Your first album was produced by Prince. Are there any production lessons from Prince that you’ve applied to recording this album?

Hill: Yeah; a lot, actually. Being pulled out of the Sony system at the time, it was refreshing to get in a studio with a live band and just track the music organically — that’s how Prince made records — and getting that sound through the band, and just doing it that [organic] way, was exactly what I needed to go back to. And it’s been my template ever since.

I write music with the band in mind, with the stage in mind, with the arrangements in mind, all of those things, because I’m a touring artist — that’s what I do is get on the stage, on the road. So that was [Prince’s] way of doing, and it’s my way of doing it now, and I absolutely enjoy it so much. It makes making music so much fun, and it feels like you’re breathing life into it.

You’d left Sony; and I can only imagine, again, the fall from elation of signing with a label like that in 2013, then the devastation of it not panning out. So for Prince to produce your album and declare ‘let’s just do it our way,’ sounds so fun and surreal.

Hill: Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. The Sony system was all about “A&R-ing” to death, and trying to get the radio pop song, and writing a million songs to get that — but I realized that wasn’t what I wanted. And making music the way we make it now is definitely what gives me life.

A promotional image of musician Judith Hill, sitting in a car wearing a black suit.
[Ginger Sole Photography]
Your duet with Michael Jackson in This Is It is mesmerizing. You brought a vocal majesty out of Michael rehearsing I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, despite his frailty and determination to save his voice. And when he’d get verses mixed-up while you traded lines, I couldn’t believe you responded with the correct line every time. Yet, this rehearsal was never intended to be seen by the public. What was it like to suddenly see the world watch this private footage, as we grappled with his death?

Hill: Yeah, it was really nerve-wracking to see it on the big screen. At the time, like you said, it was rehearsal footage — nothing that we prepared to be in a live film, so it was pretty wild and vulnerable to see yourself like that. I think that performance was the first time I sang with him, so I was really making sure that I dotted all my i’s, crossed all my t’s, and saying the right lines — because I wanted to make sure that he felt like it was going to be good.

I’m sure he wanted to save his voice. I was kind of feeling like this was my big audition, because it was the first time he was hearing me. So it was very interesting to see that in the film, because these are all things that you never — in your wildest imagination — dreamed would turn into a motion picture or anything. It’s just a moment in life where you’re like, “wow, this is crazy.”

A decade has passed since 20 Feet from Stardom. What has been the long-term impact of that film for you and your peers?

Hill: The film has definitely taken an incredible journey of so many people connecting with it; and they come to my shows because of the film. A lot of new people have been introduced to me, and really become fans. So I feel blessed to have been part of that project; and honored to be able to share in the story of these incredible people — Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, and all these people. It’s been awesome; I mean, the film just continues to give, even 10 years on; new audiences are watching it, and connecting to it. It’s really inspiring to see that, and to see people come to the shows and share their experiences of how they love the film.

Prince appeared to be such a unique being. What would you like people to know about him?

Hill: I [saw an authentic] Midwest small town energy that he really embraced in Chanhassen, [MN] living in a city that was the opposite of Hollywood. It was amazing to see him find so much peace in that. It was the opposite of what I’d pictured Prince to be, which was more of the glamorous ideologies — I mean, he lived that, but coming to Paisley Park and seeing how peaceful he was in this small town was special and cool to see. He would talk about how it was important to be in a place that didn’t have so much Wi-Fi signal, and so much chaos around you, because then it allowed you to create and have a clear head. So I always took that away as a special thing: that small town energy, and how that fueled and gave him a safe space.

And’s what’s something that’s overlooked about yourself?

Hill: I would say my love for classical music. I studied it as I grew up; I love so much of the orchestrations, and it’s a big part of who I am. I think it might get overlooked because I’m a blues soul singer, and do funk music; but classical is a big part of my musical inspiration.

You’re speaking to us from Minnesota. What’s it like to be where that magic you made with Prince happened, launching a new tour and album?

Hill: It’s always bittersweet. Coming back to Minneapolis, I feel very deep connection to the ground here, so it feels really special to kick off and start here. I think I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Minneapolis.

How do you feel about returning to Ohio thereafter?

Hill: It’s been a while since I’ve been back; but I’ve really enjoyed myself there. Last time, I was there for a Cincinnati festival [2022’s Big River Get Down], and it was really, really cool. I really enjoyed the city, and just hanging out and spending time there. So I’m really looking forward to coming back.

Judith Hill and JJ Grey & Mofro play the Taft Theatre (317 E. 5th St.) tomorrow. Thursday they play KEMBA Live! (405 Neil Ave.) in Columbus, and Friday they play the Agora Theatre (5000 Euclid Ave.) in Cleveland. For tickets, and a full tour itinerary, visit