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Aimsel Ponti

Aimsel Ponti is a Content Producer at MaineToday.com and a music writer for MaineToday.com and the Portland Press Herald. She has been obsessed with - and inspired by - music since she listened to Monkees records borrowed from the town library when she was six years old. She bought her first Rolling Stones record at a flea market when she was in 7th grade and discovered David Bowie a year later. She's a HUGE fan of the local music scene and covers it along with national musical happenings in her "Face the Music" column and with artist interviews that appear in print in the Portland Press Herald and online at Mainetoday.com. You'll also find her out and about absorbing live music like a sponge and roaming around local record shops and flea markets. Aimsel is also the host of Music from 207 on 98.9 WCLZ and appears monthly on the WCHS TV show “207” to talk about...music of course.

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Posted: December 16, 2014

Judith Hill…20 Feet from Stardom and closing in fast. See her Wednesday night in Portland!

Written by: Aimsel Ponti

Los Angeles-based singer Judith Hill, 30, is on the verge of stardom. Of this I am certain. She’ll  be in Portland on Wednesday night opening for Matisyahu. More on that in a minute.

Judith Hill

Like many, I was introduced to Hill in 2009 via the documentary concert film, “This Is It.” It was released four months after the world lost Michael Jackson and it’s an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the rehearsals and all that was involved in getting Jackson and company ready for what was to surely be an incredible return to the spotlight world tour.  Judith Hill was recommended to Jackson to be a back-up singer and not only did she get the gig, she was chosen to duet with Jackson on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” The rehearsal footage of the song in “This Is It” is my favorite part of the film.

12 days after his passing, Hill sang lead vocals on “Heal The World” at Jackson’s memorial service and it was the song heard ‘round the world.

Many thought she should release something immediately but she instead chose to spend a couple of years refining her sound by collaborating with others and giving her pipes a workout as a back-up singer for Stevie Wonder with whom she toured with for a year. Hill also opened several dates for Josh Groban and worked in the studio with both Rod Stewart and Elton John.

In 2013 Hill  appeared on the fourth season of “The Voice” and made it into the Top 8 before being eliminated, much to the shock of many fans.

I didn’t watch “The Voice” but that wasn’t  the only thing that happened in 2013 that put Hill on the map. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville made a film that won the Oscar for Best Documentary. If you haven’t seen “20 Feet From Stardom” yet, please promise me you will because yes, it’s that good. The film shined a light on several back-up singers including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill among others. When I watched the film I remembered Hill from “This Is It” and upon hearing her sing “Desperation.” I nodded my head and smiled.

And so when I got an email a few days ago asking if I’d like to speak to Hill in advance of her appearance as the opener for Matisyahu at The State Theatre on Wednesday night, I typed the word YES so emphatically I almost broke my keyboard.

48 hours later, Hill and I were on the phone and it was the first day of a string of eight shows with Matisyahu. She was in Montreal and I was in heaven.

How did it come to be that you’re opening these shows for Matisyahu?

We did a collaboration song together. And that’s how we were introduced and I think from there Matis invited me to join me for his little tour and so I was excited to do it.

 Where can we hear this song?

It is something that will be released shortly but it’s a song that no one’s heard yet.

Think we’ll hear it on Wednesday night?

Yes, we’re gonna perform it.

What’s the name of it?

It’s called “Daddy’s Little Girl.”

What’s the timeline of your debut record and what’s it going to be like?

It’s gonna be a classic soul record with some funk in there well. It’s coming together really nicely. You’ll be hearing it in a couple months. We’re looking at March to release it.

How does it feel to finally to be putting out a record? What are your emotions?
I’m really excited. It’s been a longtime coming. I’m excited for the new year, I think a lot of exciting things are gonna come out of it and it’s gonna be really, great and people are finally get to hear what I’ve been working on so that’s really exciting.

I just heard that “20 Feet from Stardom” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Music Film. That must be very exciting on many levels.

Yeah it’s completely exciting. Really crazy. I had no idea that was going to get nomination so we’re all really excited for that.

 Is there a possibility that you or anyone from the film will be asked to perform at the Grammys Award Show in February?

Maybe. There’s a possibility that might happen. That would be really incredible.

 I think it would be great if they had a montage of singers from the film or you could just go up there and sing “Desperation” and I think we’d all be ok with that.

Who will be with you on Wednesday night in Portland?

It will be a very stripped down show. It’s acoustic and it will just be me on the piano and singing.

It will be five years this summer since we lost Michael Jackson. As a fan, I’ll hear a song on the radio every once in a while and it will hit me that I can’t believe he’s gone. What is his presence in your life today?

It’s very present I have to say. Every time I sing, when I hear his music it still takes me all the way back like it happened yesterday. It’s bittersweet. There’s a lot of sadness there but also just so much greatness. He just passed on so much to me and I was so honored to work with him in that short amount of time. It never goes away. That experience will always be a part of my life and I’ll always feel it. I feel very grateful and blessed to have been one of the last people there with him.

As a seasoned back-up singer who has done a number of tours, what’s your biggest take away from that? What have you learned from that experience as you forge ahead with your solo career?

That’s a good question. I think that understanding  each part of the band and how important every person on that stage goes into making this big picture. I think that studying it from the background singer’s point of view you just learn so much about what it takes to put a great show together and now that I’m putting my show together I see it completely different. I see how important it is that the band is locked and the singers, they create their own personalities and it’s all going into this big picture. All the greats that I’ve worked with, the thing they have in common was that they were so in control and they knew what their vision was and they took control of the situation and created it and that’s why they’re so great. So I think that as a solo artist that’s the main thing I take away from it; being leader and being in control and showing everyone on that stage what you want them to do and then making it happen.
I’m not so sure I subscribe to the old cliché of “everything in its own time” but it sounds to me like you wouldn’t trade in that experience with those people.

I wouldn’t trade it because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all those experiences.

What would you say to an up and coming musician because it’s just a different world we live as far as the music business goes and the field is so crowded.

Yeah, the field is so crowded but the business is changing so much. It’s also a very exciting time for new, innovative thinkers to come out and so something bold and challenging and great. No matter how many people are in the game, people will make room for something that’s amazing and powerful and something that connects and we have so many different vehicles to make that connection. There’s so many things you can do as an independent artist. It’s an exciting time to just go for it and really be innovative and not just in the music but in your visual presentation and in your business plan you can create so many different avenues and ways to get your music out to people. So I would just encourage any new artist to be smart with their business and come up with different ways and also just be master of their craft and create something powerful and I think they’ll find that there will be place for their music and their statement and people will listen.

Where do you go ahead when you’re performing live? What is it like when the lights dim and you’re up there? How is that for you emotionally, physically, spiritually? Talk to me a little about that.

Usually I say a prayer before I go on stage and I think that my connection with God is the most important thing. I always tune into that first and I kind of stay in that zone. But when I get on stage something happens to me. It always kind of breaks free from me. I tend to be a shy person when I’m off stage but when I get on that stage I feel very empowered and I feel like the music is my voice box. It just all kind of becomes very spontaneous and I just get excited up there. But the most important thing is that I stay centered with my prayer, that’s kind of what gets me going in the right place.
See Judith Hill live on Wednesday night at The State Theatre.  Show starts at 8 p.m. Don’t be late!

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