Judith Hill On Growing Up In LA, Being A Creative Perfectionist, And Her New Album

Acclaimed and award-winning musician Judith Hill talks about touring, performing, and her creative process.
Judith Hill On Growing Up In LA, Being A Creative Perfectionist, And Her New Album
Courtesy of Judith Hill and her team

With her latest album, Judith Hill is proudly owning the fact, “Baby, I’m Hollywood.” Born and raised in Los Angeles, Hill’s musical journey is defined by the highs and lows associated with the title of her latest record. She shares those experiences in all their glory and pain in a new wide-ranging album that, from beginning to end, tells a singular story. 

Hill’s voice has connected with music fans all over the world. In addition to her solo career, she’s collaborated with the likes of Elton John, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Prince, who co-produced her debut album, “Back in Time.” She followed that album up with the electrifying “Golden Child,” an album so funky it could even make the dead dance. 

Now, Hill is back with “Baby, I’m Hollywood.” It’s Judith Hill’s epic, which she arranged and produced herself. Recently, Hill took us behind-the-scenes of “Baby, I’m Hollywood,” which is now available. 

Where were you at when you started working on the album? What was the driving force of inspiration behind it? 

Touring. I was performing every night and doing these tours in 2019 before everything stopped. There were moments on stage where I wanted the perfect song to be written for those moments. This album was a chance to write those songs that have worked really well on stage.

In terms of just the messaging of it, it’s called it “Baby, I’m Hollywood” because I do personify Hollywood as a woman and as a survivor. I wanted to tell my story in a way that almost personifies the city, because I’m a native. I was born in Hollywood. But the triumph of overcoming tragedy, overcoming hard times, and really, the show must go on, the lights still turn on, and you feel you still have a stage, and you bring all your pain and all of everything to the stage. So, that’s the overall theme of the album.

It’s fitting, because “Golden Child” was your coming-of-age album. So do you see “Baby, I’m Hollywood” as a full realization?

Yeah, it’s a full realization. It’s finally owning it, owning this story. It’s almost a statement that has a negative connotation. People think of it as a pretentious statement. I think that for me, it was more like bows and showers, a coming-of-age story. But then “Baby, I’m Hollywood” is a full realization of it and owning it and embracing the good, the bad, everything. 

What’s the good and bad of being an LA musician?

For me, I was born to the scene, and my parents were both in the scene, and I had to get used to people coming and going. It really is like the Ellis Island of artists and people that trek and travel from all around the world to this destination. You find that people come and go out of your life, and it can become very unstable. 

I feel very grounded in what I do, because when you experience such highs and lows of the life, it’s kind of a feast to famine. It means you’ve got to learn how to walk the red carpet. You’ve got to learn how to know what it feels to not be able to pay your rent next week because you have no gig. It’s so unstable, and it developed a resilience within you to know that I’m still here, I’m still alive, and I’m still doing what I love. 

And so whenever you do hit a bump in the road, you’re reminded of all the other bumps in the road in your history, and I feel that God has brought me through all of it. It gives you a sense of perseverance that I think is a very special thing.

What about the highs? When are for you the moments you relish?

It’s almost like the highs for me is that connection. It’s like when the music connects with the people in such a powerful way. It happens a lot on stages and in so many ways. That’s the higher bit. It’s being humbled every time that moment happens where it becomes this out-of-body experience, and the music speaks to not just this world but to the world beyond us, so it’s this invisible realm of power and love we all know exists. I think that music is such a powerful tool that allows us to enter into those spaces. I’ll never change it for anything.

Which live experiences immediately come to mind when you think of that connection?

I’ve had several. I think one that stands out for me was a tour I did a couple of years back in the UK. It was a rough tour. We ended up in Liverpool in this dodgy basement room that was almost like this cavern, no windows. It looked like it was a cave. 

It wasn’t promoted that well, but I have to say, it was one of the most magical nights. Every single face in that room completely turned into this visceral experience down in the basement. It was so sweaty and exciting. The fact that there weren’t a lot of people in that room allowed me to speak deep in every state and connect with every person in that room. 

Sometimes you need to play multiple times where you play to a sea of faces, so you just learn how to play to an audience. But that night, so powerful because it was literally performing for individuals, and I’ll never forget that experience.

With “Baby, I’m Hollywood,” how did you want to experiment? What did you want to try that was new for you? 

I wanted to track it as live as possible. So a lot of that is just us all in one room and performing the songs. Basically, I started the band, we first rehearsed the album, and then we performed it. I want it to feel like as much of a performance as possible. And that was a very fun experiment, just doing it that way. Of course, we did some overdubs and stuff afterwards, but getting that raw energy was an experience that I really, really enjoyed doing.

With the title track, did you have classic rock in mind at all?

Well, I’m a soul fan. I love classic rock. For me, I wanted it to sound a bit joyous and a bit nostalgic and in that world, because it is a celebratory statement, but I also like to do it with lyrics, like, “I’m your beautiful pain.” Actually, there’s a lot of things about sorrows. I love the juxtaposition of it sounding happy. That’s one of the songs that I’d love to perform live, because it’s this big energy. You know it’s going to give you the right thing on stage. 

You mentioned contrast. “You Got the Right Thang,” that’s such a fun and sexy song, and then you go to “Burn It All Away,” and then “Silence.” Those contrasts tell such a story.

I love contrast. This is a record of contrast. I brought every side of me to this album. I brought my fun loving, I brought my tears, I brought my depression, I brought sex. I think for me, I’m a very moody person. So one day I can wake up and the world is perfect, and then the next hour I can just feel like everything’s falling apart. 

I’m very reflective as a kind of turbulent person that’s always going through all these extremely different emotional experiences. I was thinking, I’m just going to let it all live together and just bring it all of who I am.

On those moody days, is your immediate thought, “Well, let’s bring it to the studio?”

Yeah. It’s like going from “When My World is Blue” to “Baby, I’m Hollywood.” The reason why I start with that song is, will you still be loving me when my world is blue? Everybody loves Hollywood to be the shining star, always on, always giving you the glamor and the glitz. But will there be people there for when you’re not doing so well, when you’re crying? Stop being afraid to let the world see all of you behind closed doors and in front of the stage, the whole thing.

The piano in ‘When My World is Blue” is very haunting. 

Totally. I wanted it to be a very haunting feeling, and just a moonlight feeling, like something that was dark and haunting but also beautiful and vulnerable. I felt that was the perfect way to start the album, because truly, that’s how I feel at essence. I do have a lot of grief in my system, and I operate under that. I’m still processing a lot of stuff. And so, I wanted to start the full project of “Baby, I’m Hollywood” with a very melancholy statement to set up the story properly.

What about “Americana”?

That’s a song that speaks to what it feels like living in this country right now. I don’t fit in any particular box. I’m half Japanese and Black. I was raised in a very white evangelical world as a kid. And then, I grew out of that into a very psychedelic punk world. So, there was just all these things. A lot of times, I felt like an outcast. And then, capitalism and how it’s like, get your piece of the gold, there’s the root of evil and harming a lot of communities of color. 

You’ve described yourself as a perfectionist, but with a perfectionist mindset, how does that allow for great mistakes? 

Sometimes imperfections are the magic of the record. I like when things are not so polished, especially when it has a lot of emotion. A lot of times when you try to redo something and do it better, it might sound better, but it loses that magic. 

On a lot of things, I’ve just left the original stuff. I’ve re-sung or replayed things, like, okay, well, obviously that’s better, but, man, there’s just something about when I was in the room with the band and singing it, and just that moment was the most honest. 

I think that as a perfectionist, it’s hard for me to let go, but I’ve learned over the years to listen with a different set of ears, to listen with the heart, and listen with what I feel is the truest moment. It’s about the emotions there that I want to express.

You always seem very in the moment performing, on stage or off, but is that always the case? Do you ever get in your own head when playing?

Oh, yeah, completely. I think that being present is the best way to have a powerful performance. It’s funny, sometimes on stage if I have a performance or doing a song and I’ve messed up really badly, I’ve learned that almost makes me more present, because it all goes to the wind at that point. I’m just free. I’m not thinking about anything. I’m vulnerable. Just making mistakes on stage actually frees me up.

The thing not to do, what I’ve learned, and I used to do this a lot more, is get hung up on the mistakes that I’ve made, and just overstate it, be like two steps behind the moment. Don’t worry about the mitake. It is a short game. I just stay informed with it. That’s very important.

If you’re ever struggling to stay in the moment or a creative groove, what helps?

I do meditate. I do read. I think for me, the thing that helps the most is trying to fill my heart with love. I think when I fill my heart with love for the song, love for the people in the room, love for my voice, love for them, it does bring you into the moment. 

When you’re judging, when you have negativity, that’s when you start stepping outside of the moment. You’re saying, “Oh, that wasn’t good,” or, “That was good,” and you’re narrowing what’s happening rather than actually being there. Love is the best way to just enjoy it and to stop telling the story of what’s happening.

Are there days when you don’t love it? Maybe the business side?

For sure. It’s a tough time. Again, it’s the highs and lows. The thing that’s helped me the most is learning how to fill up my day. That’s the most important thing, and it’s something I’m learning this year a lot. Anytime I allow there to be too much vacant space in my mind and in my heart, that’s when there’s discouragement or depression or negativity. I’ve noticed when I have really big energy, when I’m so unapologetically excited about what it is I’m trying to create at the moment, it really is a greedy thing. It takes up all my space. 

I find that that’s not the way to feel with the business, and things really do come together when I’m really taking up all the space in my mind. And that’s the real tool that I can have in a business like this that’s so blocked and so undependable. It’s just really taking up space, waking up in the morning and being like, “Today I’m going to kick ass because I have X, Y, and Z that I want to do.” It’s amazing how it all comes together when you’re filling up your mind and your sphere with what you love.

So, you talk about struggling with discouragement, but you’ve been encouraged by some of the greatest artists of all time. Do you ever return to past collaborators’ words of support during tough times?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I hear it. I hear the voices of my past mentors, really. That will never go away. I will always be so encouraged and pull out those gems when I need them. And really, it’s all about how you believe in yourself, because you can have the whole world tell you you’re good or you’re not good, and it doesn’t matter. Doing this, you tell yourself that’s going to be your engine. So, that’s why being your own engine is the key to all of it.

Where do you usually start with finding the voice for a song, knowing the notes you want to hit vocally?

I usually like to explore. I just record myself. I record the melodies. Once I start writing the lyrics, the melodies change a little bit. I usually start from the base of the guitar, the piano, and I write what I want the groove should be, the tempo and the pocket and the rhythm and all that. And then from there, I’ll start humming the melodies, and then the lyrics will come after that.

Your music is very relaxing, notably when cannabis is in the mix. Are there any albums you’d recommend to our readers when they’re smoking and trying to unwind?

I love Rosa Passos when she’s covering Carlos Jobim. To me, that is a very special moment for me. Marvin Gay’s “What’s Going On,” like top to bottom. “Band of Gypsys,” the Jimi Hendrix album, that one is incredible for me. I listen to that all the time. Well, Aretha Franklin, the “Amazing Grace” album. That one is spiritual and amazing. I mean, there’s so much more. 

Are you one of those musicians who’s ever smoked and found inspiration for a song? 

Yeah. I mean, a lot of times in my dream sometimes I’ll get a dope song that I’m like, “Oh, shoot, I need to record it,” and wake up in the middle of the night. So sometimes I’m like, yeah, altered or in a dream state, I’ll get a] melody that comes. Most of the songs come when I’m walking. I have to be on my feet. That’s how I write. I just have to move, whether I’m pacing or taking long walks, that’s where I get most of it. 

Since you recorded the album wanting to play it live, what do you have in mind for your next tour? 

I can’t wait, because that’s the kind of music it performs itself. I made sure that they all can be the song they needed to be on the stage. I can’t wait. I’m eating. I’m dying. I cannot wait to get back on stage and perform this album.

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