Judith Hill discusses vulnerability in Hollywood, plays new tracks in virtual session with The Current

Judith Hill - Virtual Session (MPR)

Judith Hill joins The Current to play tracks from her latest record, Baby, I'm Hollywood! Hill catches up with Sean McPherson about what it's like to have your parents in your band, the art of lyrical metaphors, and maintaining vulnerability in the public eye.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

SEAN MCPHERSON: You're with The Current and Purple Current, and I'm so honored to be chatting with Judith Hill today. Judith just released an album called Baby, I'm Hollywood! And Judith, congratulations on the new release.

JUDITH HILL: Thank you so much.

It's really cool to check out this record and to hear in the continuum of the releases you've put out beforehand. I imagine that getting a record out during COVID has been pretty different than the usual tour and support cycle. What has it been like to put a piece of art out into the world during this strange time we're all living in?

It's definitely a different time we're living in. Without touring, and without being able to go out and perform, it definitely has a different feeling. But I'm really eager to be performing this music later on in the year, we do have tours scheduled for the fall. I think it's just a matter of a waiting game. In the meantime, it's a good time to just get prepared and just be all guns blazing when things do open up.

When I think of a Judith Hill sound, part of me thinks of a really big brassy funk band. That's been a lot of the blueprint of some of your sound--these really big funk productions that have have really matched with your writing and your vocal style really really well. Now, you're probably doing a lot more intimate performances, you're accompanied on just a piano, or just a guitar. Has that given you a different impression of your own songwriting and a different vision into what makes the songs tick?

If anything, it's allowed me to just understand like the dynamic range of how effective you can be at a lower volume. There's a lot of information like the pianissimo or the mezzo piano area, I think that even just doing zoom concerts and doing things like that, you're able to realize that there's so much power and the intimacy of that. It also informs--when you're out on a big stage, and there's so much adrenaline and there's people around you, that's a definitely different energy and dynamic than when you're just in your room singing in front of a computer without the human interaction. It definitely changes the way you sing, it changes the choices you make in a song. So yeah, this is definitely been a year where I'm finding new things and exploring this quieter space.

That shows through a little bit on your record as well, that first song "When My World Is Blue," comes in a really intimate way throughout that tune. In your description of what one of your goals is for the album, you want to help listeners step into the light of vulnerability. I hear that throughout the record, and I really connect with it in particular on that song "When My World Is Blue". I was curious after you write a tune, like "When My World Is Blue"--and maybe that's a song that you want to maintain the vulnerability of--how do you make sure that that stays through the whole production process, and not let it get overblown with a lot of other instrumentation or other production? How do you keep the sound vulnerable?

The vulnerability comes in allowing the voice to be naked and allow for the lyric to be naked. Vulnerability is not just--when you think of the word vulnerability, the first thing that comes to my mind is this soft quietness. But there's vulnerability in also saying something that speaks to your shame, or to your anger, your rage, there's other things that just being honest about how you feel, can be very vulnerable and courageous and bold at the same time. Anytime you allow your emotion to kind of crack through, and you show the true self--whether that is just your naked self, whether it is like you're very anxious and depressed or whatever it is, I think that that's the key to vulnerability. I could be very tender and gentle, "When My World Is Blue" is definitely a song where it's about, like, I'm afraid for people seeing me depressed, that's really the song. I don't want people to see that. I want them to see the version of me that looks like it's all going well. That song definitely lends to that kind of emotion.

You made a really corrective point because I think a lot of times, especially people writing about music, if the record is quiet and there's just like brushes and a keyboard, you go, "Oh, it's vulnerable," and it's this shorthand. But you're right, a lot of this record is big and funky and sexy and brave, but it's vulnerable in a different way. I really--thank you--that's sort of clarifying a little bit. I think if somebody hears the title Baby, I'm Hollywood! they might not initially go, "Oh, this will be a record that shows vulnerability," because as an outsider of Hollywood, I think this is a place where you got to have thick skin all the time.

Exactly.

In your really impressive and storied career, how have you rallied against sort of the Hollywood blueprint and to find your own space?

Well, that was what I wanted--the irony of that statement is Hollywood represents the opposite of vulnerability, it truly represents the facade or the mask that we put on. What I really wanted to do is kind of redefine that word, and redefine what it means to be an entertainer and wear makeup and clothes and go out there. The world just sees that version of you. You're like the Wizard of Oz, where you're like opening the curtain and saying, "Well, guys, there's smoke and mirrors. But this is actually me, this is actually what's going on." I was born in North Hollywood, and I definitely wanted it to be a celebratory statement, not something that I wanted to apologize for. But it was like a declarative statement, like, "No, this is me, this is my life." It's not all pretty, like Hollywood is not all pretty. It's pretty much you know, it's a graveyard of dreams. It's a real kind of a disaster in many ways. But it's also a place where the show must go on and there's the beauty in that moment, when you do step on that stage in the art kind of speaks to all of the screwed up things in a very artistic way. So it's an interesting word to me.

I'm guessing you haven't gotten called by the Hollywood Tourism Board to say, "Hey, come here and say it's a graveyard of dreams!" I want to ask you about--a lot of soul artists and R&B artists nowadays seem to get siloed into like, you're retro or you're modern, and you gotta fit into one. One of my favorite moments on the whole record is probably about a minute and a half into "Burn It All," it's come up is a really old school sound and groove and then suddenly, some synthesizers drop in. It's not jarring, it's totally natural. But before that moment, you might go, "This could have been made in 1975." Then suddenly you go, "Well, that keyboard wasn't made in 1975. Okay, cool. This is a different thing." And throughout your career, you seem to have embraced palettes from all sorts of eras, but not gone on the full like, "I'm an old school soul artist, and everybody's wearing tuxedos when I'm playing." How have you navigated clearly being a student of the funk blueprint, but not staying as a pure retro artist?

I always define soul music is like gold. I think it's something that you discover in the ground. It's not something that we invented or created. I find it to be a very sacred find that humans just happen to discover. So I'm not really interested in reinventing it, or trying to outdo soul music when it's gold, it's gold. You want the purest version of it, any sort of reinvented gold is going to be diluted, it's going to be a fabrication. That's kind of how I really do see soul music. So for me, I'm a purist in that sense, but also, yes, the synth comes in, because that's authentically how I feel about it. I hear it as a genuine decision. Not because I'm trying to be a modern--it's never like, let's do something so that we could, like, have a title or somehow relevant to culture in a weird way. I think that culture follows authentic decisions and it's always about whatever is truest in that moment. I always resented the word retro because--I think it was an old school rapper, he defined it as classic doesn't mean old, it just means that it was the best, no one did it better. It was just the idea of like, if it's not any better than what it was, then let's just own up to that. So for me, I just do music that I just absolutely love. And the rest of it, I just let them try to figure out what blocks they want to put it in.

Well, we want to put it everywhere and you do music that we absolutely love, and love playing music on The Current and Purple Current. One of the tracks that you have on this new record is "God Bless The Mechanic," and I want to hone in on that track. Partially because it is this sludgy four-on-the-floor sexy tune that has this sort of like metaphorical-ness that that doesn't show up in a lot of--nowadays people can say how they really feel and be raw and have a lot of really like NC-17 content and music and I got no complaints about that. I think that's fantastic. But you are embracing this art of, "How can I make this allegory about a mechanic feel like a sexual experience?" I love it. It's really artfully done. How do you write a tune like that in the editing process? Do you get nervous that the long lost art of double entendres and suggestions is gonna disappear because people can just say it straight up?

Yeah, for me, I'm just like, art is like--it's like paintings. I just love paintings, and I love poetry and allegories, and that's just kind of the art of being an artist, as a lyricist, as a storyteller. That's just something that's important to me. So yes, we're definitely living in an age where we've kind of gotten to the the final, like--there's no way to say any more explicity as it's being said now. It's like, okay, well, if we reach the end goal, and there's nowhere else to go, like, we literally have nowhere else to go, there's nothing more that we can say about it. It's almost like, I think the cycles of culture, it's like, now you come to this place of art, and you come to this place of like--history keeps spinning the wheel. I just think that it's very romantic and whimsical, and also weird, like, an artistic way of explaining a sexual experience or something like that.

Yeah, well, you do a heck of a job with it because I agree with you. If you get to the point where you can say whatever you want, there's an art to not saying what you want and delivering it right. I think you get that so spot on in the tune. The record is really exciting, and congratulations again on the release. Cannot wait to see it when you actually get to head out on the road and support it. Now today, I'm sitting in Minnesota and Minnesota is a spot that you've done a lot of recording with, and you worked a lot on your first record at Paisley Park with Prince. We're coming up shortly in the five year anniversary of Prince's passing. And he's never far from the mind of--I imagine you, but certainly from a lot of people in Minnesota and all around the world. As his presence and your physical life gets further away and you're making your path on your own, in what way do you still think about his work when you're making your own work?

I don't think I ever think about his work when I'm making my own work. He kind of left a crater in my heart, an epic hole. Now he's just almost like in my bloodstream. So it's just part of my world and in a very almost subconscious way. I think a lot of people when they hear my music, they're like, "Oh, it sounds like Prince," and I don't--it's funny hearing that because I'm like, "Wow, I guess it does," it's almost like it's just a part of me in a way and I do definitely refer back to him for stuff but it's hard for me to listen to his music. It's a little too intense and hard to listen to it, but I think that the way he thought as a producer and the choices he made--I definitely feel like I picked up a lot of, and I learned a lot from him just from my experience working with them so yeah, it's definitely a deep influence. It's past the influence stage where you're like, now that's just--it's past--like it's gotten way more--it's like something way out there, you know? I don't know.

Yeah, if you say like, "Oh, yeah, it's like he's in my bloodstream. I guess he's an influence." I get what you're saying, it's something you're so connected to I understand where it might be at a different level. Bass player question, I play bass. The bass playing on a couple of the tunes on this record is just so filthy tasty. "Burn It All" has all these really amazing fills and and "God Bless The Mechanic"--same way. Are you playing it? Who else is playing it? And then, how do you make room for having great instrumentalists on your work? To still let the song win, but have that other stuff shine as well?

Yeah, so my dad's playing bass.

Ohhh, okay. Your dad was in a funk band. He is--that is a filthy good baseline.

Yeah, he's in Billy Preston's band and he plays in my band. So it is a bit of a family affair. My mom plays the keys and my dad plays the bass and yeah, he's killing it on it. And it definitely was a live tracked record. So we went in the studio and kind of tracked it as a band and then, you know, fixed some overdubs afterwards. But yeah, that's my dad on base.

Do you get ever get to sass your dad and be like, "Lay back. That's a little too much."

Yeah.

How does that go when he's your father? I know you're grown woman, but like how do you navigate being the bandleader when the band has people who were formerly big authority figures in your life?

It works out. We kind of have this interesting dynamic--I have no problem telling him like, "No Dad, it goes like this." I have no problem saying that and he just kind of falls into it and figures it out. It's real chill.

Will they hit the road with you as well?

Yeah, we're set to tour in the fall. If all goes well with COVID, that's the plan.

Wow, that is--I just cannot imagine going on the road with my dad. But you know, also my dad can't play bass like your dad can. So I guess I don't have much reason to call my dad out. Judith Hill, this record is really really cool and can't wait--it's a record that demands to be heard live. I think it's gonna be really cool to hear you supporting Baby, I'm Hollywood! But thank you for making some opportunity for us to still enjoy the music and enjoy your story before you can get out on the road. We'll jump into a couple of these performances that you've shared with us from your studio. I hope you have a spectacular rest of your day Judith, and thanks again for taking some time with The Current and Purple Current today.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Songs Played


16:18 When My World Is Blue
20:01 Burn It All
23:23 God Bless The Mechanic

External Link

Judith Hill - official site

Credits

Host - Sean McPherson
Technical Directors - Peter Ecklund, Evan Clark
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza


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