Judith Hill auditioned for The Voice hoping for a shot at fame just like everyone else, landing on coach Adam Levine's team after a four-chair turn during the blind auditions. She quickly moved to the head of the class because of her stellar powerhouse vocals, seasoned stage presence and her close connection to Michael Jackson. (Before Jackson's death, she landed a gig on his ill-fated This Is It tour as his duet partner and sang at his memorial service.) Labeled a frontrunner early on, Hill was eliminated from the competition in a shocking upset earlier this week alongside teammate Sarah Simmons.
Hill called Rolling Stone while in New York to speak about getting the boot, Levine's controversial "I hate this country" remark and how working with Jackson may have sealed her fate on the show.
Were you shocked by your elimination?
I had such a blast during Monday night's performance [of will.i.am's "#thatpower"]. I felt like it was really the first time I could let my hair down. I was really happy I got to do that, so I went into Tuesday's elimination more confident and feeling like, "OK, I gave a great performance last night." So, yeah, it kind of took me by surprise.
In retrospect, would you have changed your song selection?
Honestly, no. I chose that song for many reasons. One, the lyric really stood out to me and, especially coming off of doing the Michael Jackson song the week before, I wanted to do something very celebratory, and "#thatpower" is so positive. Just the words, "I'm alive, I can fly, I got that power," it was the perfect lyric for me and I really connected with it. Also, the song gave me a chance to really stretch out musically and do something unique onstage. I felt like it was an important moment for me.
Is that the type of music you'd like to do going forward?
That's my style. When I do uptempo songs, I like to bring in the funk and world music and different elements. That song in its raw form is not particularly my style, because I'm not a dance artist, but it gave me a chance to create more of a soul-funk vibe, which is definitely my style.
Right before you and Sarah were eliminated, Adam was caught muttering, "I hate this country." What do you think about that whole controversy?
Adam is a very passionate guy. I think he was just speaking in the moment with the frustration of Sarah and I leaving. I don't think he meant it literally. It was just that Team Adam took a really hard hit.
What did he say to you right after you got eliminated?
He was like, "Don't forget, this is a game show. It has no bearing on who you are as an artist. Don't let this stop you." He was very encouraging.
Who do you think will win?
Oh man, at this point, anything can happen, as you can see. Michelle [Chamuel], Danielle [Bradbery], Sasha [Allen]. . . but really anyone could win. Amber [Carrington]. It's hard to say. All of them are great.
Is there an artist whose career you'd like to emulate?
Lauryn Hill's always been a hero of mine. And Bruno Mars, Janelle Monáe and Adele, those are the current artists I would reference in terms of who's been able to do really amazing pop records with really cool, organic throwback elements of soul in there as well.
Name a dream collaboration.
Oh man. Well, I'd love to work with Timbaland. But in terms of artists, I'd love to do a collaboration with Prince. Or Barbra Streisand. I'd definitely have to do a ballad with her, though. (laughs)
Do you think your close connection to Michael Jackson hurt you on the show?
I think a lot of people always root for the underdog, and I found myself being considered a frontrunner because of my story. Going into the competition, I didn't know that that was going to happen. But once I got on the show, it was like, "Judith Hill, singer with Michael Jackson and frontrunner." It was a lot of pressure and stress in my life that I didn't know was gonna happen.
You seemed honestly torn up about performing his song "The Way You Make Me Feel" on the show. Why was that?
I'm a very sensitive person and I wasn't really prepared for the intense reaction people were having to my association with him. I think I took it to heart too hard, and I got a little bit hurt by some of the comments. At the same time, I'm just torn up by the whole thing in general and am just now realizing how deeply [his death] affected me. These last three years was just kind of a build up, I think. Singing that song was a release, actually. I'm glad Adam had me do it.
Do you find it frustrating that a show called The Voice isn't just about vocal ability?
It definitely comes down to other things, rather than just your voice and putting on a good show – like America feeling like they know you. I don't think I realized that going into the show. But it's not really the real world, so I'm not discouraged. I feel like to have a career as an artist you don't need to meet the same criteria as you do to win a singing competition. They're two very different animals.
What advice do you have for future Voice contestants?
I would tell them to really think about who they are as people. The Voice is not just a singing competition. It really comes down to how you come off as a person and how you connect with America with your story, and being relatable to people. I'd let them know to be prepared for a roller-coaster of emotions. You gotta be strong. But I do recommend it; it's a great experience. It really helps you find yourself as an artist.
What's next for you?
I'm working on my album right now, although I don't have a label yet. Then I hope to tour. I'm also featured in the upcoming documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, about background singers and how they've done so many things but people don't know their names. Their stories are just amazing, and I'm honored to be a part of it. It was something I was working on before The Voice. The director followed me around with a camera, and a few weeks before I went back for the battle rounds, I found out it was one of the first films to be picked up at the Sundance Film Festival.