Five Years After Prince's Death

His Protégée Judith Hill is a 'Newborn Woman'
Judith Hill performs at the Prince Tribute Concert at the Xcel Energy Center on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. (TNS)

Judith Hill has issues. Don't we all after a year in this pandemic?

Hill's date back to her childhood as a biracial girl bullied at a mostly white school. To the death of her dear friend Prince five years ago. And to this very day, as her Japanese mother gets hassled for "the China flu."

She addresses her issues on the powerful new album "Baby, I'm Hollywood," a magnetic collection showcasing Hill's rapturously passionate voice and remarkably diverse musicality.

"The driving message of [the album] is not running away from my life or any of the darkness," Hill said last month from her Los Angeles home. "You've got songs that deal with mental health and what it's like to deal with depression and just feeling lost and alone. I dig deeper into more personal emotions and inner thoughts on this record, but I also enjoy telling stories."

Hill, 36, wrote these tunes on tour in 2019. That's when she started to process her feelings and become a "newborn woman," which is the title of one of the songs, a syncopated, Billy Preston-ish piano jam about empowerment that she delivers with liberating sass.

"One day you can wake up feeling you're a newborn woman and the next day you could feel like a total loser again," she explained. "That's the journey of this album, the ups and downs of how I feel."

The 14-song album's fieriest number, her recent single "Americana," sounds as if it were written during the post-George Floyd racial unrest of 2020. Hill says the invigorating rock-soul slammer is about racial identity and the effects of capitalism on communities of color.

"Being a biracial woman in America, sometimes you feel you're not American because you don't fit in the classic image," Hill explained. "They can't figure you out, and you're left on an island without a tribe. It's an identity struggle."

Hill has received blowback about the video for "Americana," featuring her dressed in three distinct ethnic scenarios: a Black revolutionary with dynamite, a kimono-clad woman with a megaphone and an African tribal warrior with a spear.

"It almost offends others," she said of the video. "It's interesting how identity and race can feel like a threatening conversation.

"This year is emotionally charged. Older Asian women are getting attacked. My mother's been stressed this week seeing the rise: Is it safe out there?"

FROM JACKSON TO 'VOICE'

Raised in North Hollywood, Hill is the daughter of a Black bassist, Robert (Pee Wee) Hill, and a Japanese classical pianist, Michiko Hill. (Both play in her touring band.)

"I grew up in an all-white conservative Presbyterian elementary school," Hill said. "It shaped my feeling with not belonging and getting bullied a lot as a kid. And then trying to find my way in a country where if you act like this, you'll get accepted, but if you act like this, you won't. It applies to the Black community and the Japanese community."

When Hill, a tall fashionista, walks down the street, she feels "like a Black woman. I have a huge Afro. In America, it goes way back — if you're a quarter Black, you're Black."

Hill first gained attention as a backup singer for Michael Jackson's planned 2009 world tour. She was going to be his duet partner on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" but he died just weeks before the tour was to start. Hill sang at his memorial service and appeared in the well-received documentary about tour rehearsals, "This Is It."

Hill garnered attention again in early 2013, getting voted off NBC's "The Voice," to the surprise of judges. That summer, her fortunes rebounded as a featured singer in "20 Feet from Stardom," the Oscar-winning documentary about backup vocalists that earned her a Grammy.

In that ever-busy year, Hill signed a record deal with Sony but never released an album.

"How do you write a three-minute hit? That was depleting my soul," said Hill, who toured with Josh Groban in fall 2013 as his opening act and duet partner.

Then along came Prince. After seeing a European TV interview in which Hill said she would like to work with him, Prince reached out to her, helped extricate her from the Sony contract and produced her 2015 debut, "Back in Time."

"Baby, I'm Hollywood," her third solo album, is a splendid showcase for her voice, songwriting and musicianship on piano and guitar.

As someone who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Elton John and John Legend, Hill can definitely sing. On the slinky blues "Burn It All," she goes from her hypnotic deeper voice to her roof-raising upper register. She showcases her soulful chops on the nasty Synclavier-fueled disco funk of "Step Out." She gets jazzy, assimilating African and Middle Eastern vibes on the seductively exotic "Silence."

With its Tina Turner-ish swagger, the ebulliently rocking title track "Baby, I'm Hollywood" is Hill's story, a tale of a boulevard of broken dreams that ends up with "an owning-it moment."

PRINCE IS 'IN MY BLOODSTREAM'

While making the album, Hill said, she heard Prince figuratively whispering in her ear: Is that song for an arena or a club? Are all the parts playable for a band in concert?

"I feel his energy," she acknowledged. "I'm writing my truth. But he's in my bloodstream."

They were close. She was with him for his last concert in Atlanta in April 2016 and afterward on a private jet that made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, after he passed out. He died six days later of a fentanyl overdose.

Hill said she had no knowledge of his drug use or of any illness. The last time she saw him was "sweet and solemn, just enjoying each other's company. Just getting through a traumatic experience," she said, declining to elaborate on the circumstances.

Hill was already downhearted after her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. Then the spiral continued.

"With Prince's death, the depression became this cloud that shrouded me," said Hill. "I'd go to counseling, but I was just like suffocating. I couldn't hear my own thoughts because they were so deafening."

In March 2019, Hill returned to the concert stage at Prince's Paisley Park as part of a private concert, #WomenWhoRock, featuring other Purple associates including Donna Grantis, Liv Warfield and Sheila E.

"It was a bittersweet, intense experience," Hill recalled. "The part I enjoyed was standing in the audience and hearing the music and mingling with people. But it's tough to go back there when he's not there. I cried a lot, and I also got to experience the love of a lot of people that I missed seeing.

"Paisley Park feels like it's vacant. You start questioning your own sanity: Am I alive? There are too many memories and triggers everywhere."

Nonetheless, Hill clearly gets strength from her relationship with Prince, a resilience she displays on the penultimate tune of her new album, "Candlelight in the Dark," a modern-day spiritual dripping with gospel organ and soulful Southern guitar.

"After an entire album of ups and downs, I wanted 'Candlelight' to be the song of comfort," Hill said. "I felt like it was such a powerful message everyone needs right now, just to know there's someone out there looking out for you. I think it's a message God would say to me. But people like my mom or my closest friends would just be there for me. It's that ray of hope."

This article was originally published in Star Tribune.