If Judith Hill’s life were a movie, it might be titled “20 Feet From This Is It.”
Yes, that Judith Hill. The one who was in the late Michael Jackson’s rehearsal movie “This Is It” because she was going to be the featured backup singer on his 2009 tour. The one who is the youngest subject profiled in the terrific 2013 documentary about backup singers, “20 Feet From Stardom.” The one who garnered raves on NBC’s “The Voice” last spring before she was unexpectedly voted off.
Hill is finally coming to an arena — not a screen — near you. She’s the opening act for Josh Groban’s tour, which lands Saturday at Target Center.
It’s her first shot at the spotlight in U.S. arenas with her own band, but Hill, 29, has sung in arenas before. She performed at Jackson’s funeral service at Staples Center in Los Angeles and as a backup vocalist for Stevie Wonder and in Europe with 1970s French pop star Michel Polnareff.
“I’ll do some of my original music,” she said from her Los Angeles home before the tour started this month. “And later some duets with Josh.” She’ll do “The Prayer,” of course, and “Remember When It Rains.”
Hill’s own full-length debut is in the works for 2014. Last week, she signed with Sony Music.
The big catalyst for all this activity was the impression she made on “The Voice.” She sounds surprisingly nonchalant about the experience.
“Those types of shows, it’s what you make of it,” she said. “The exposure is great. I was happy to be on it.”
Although she was an early favorite to win, she wasn’t surprised to be voted off by viewers. She’d expected it two weeks earlier, in fact.
The person most startled by Hill’s exit was her coach, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 fame. “I hate this country,” Levine muttered off-camera that night last May.
Maybe he meant country music, because Blake Shelton’s country-leaning singers have dominated the show.
“I don’t think Adam meant it literally,” Hill said. “It was sweet that he was so passionate. He was a great coach.”
Maybe so. But Hill hasn’t heard from him since she was eliminated.
‘20 Feet’ tour talk
Hill grew up in the music business. Her father, Robert “Pee Wee” Hill, is a bassist and her mother, Michiko, plays keyboards. The couple, who have a recording studio at their Pasadena home, met while playing in Chester Thompson’s funk group in the 1970s. They also performed with Rufus and Sly Stone.
As a result, Hill has long known some of the other background singers featured in “20 Feet From Stardom,” including Tata Vega, Rose Stone and Merry Clayton, best known as Mick Jagger’s wailing partner on “Gimme Shelter.”
“Merry worked with my dad when he was Billy Preston’s bass player,” Hill said.
There is talk of a tour by “20 Feet” singers, including Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Clayton and others, Hill said. “It’s a matter of when.”
Even though Hill has a degree in music composition from Biola University in Southern California, she says rehearsing with Jackson for the This Is It Tour was “the best schooling ever.” He taught her what it means to be an artist. “He commanded everything — the staging, lighting, music. He was such a hard worker. He did his homework. You could see why he’s Michael Jackson.”
As a background singer, Hill says her job is “to make the artist look good. Being an artist, there’s so much responsibility. It takes a good team.”
Whether she’s singing backup or out front, Hill always sports some serious hair. Which takes longer before each show: doing her ’do or performing vocal warmups?
Hill chuckled. “I do them at the same time,” she said. “It takes about an hour.
“I’ve always loved the crazy ideas on the [fashion] runway. So I check it out. I like to play with shapes, and my hair is flexible. I want to create something epic each night.”
With both her hair and her voice.