From left, guitarist R.J. Ronquillo, backup singer Jojo Martin and opening act Judith Hill perform in Kansas City for Josh Groban’s “In The Round” tour.
From left, guitarist R.J. Ronquillo, backup singer Jojo Martin and opening act Judith Hill perform in Kansas City for Josh Groban’s “In The Round” tour.
October 22, 2013

When Judith Hill opened for Josh Groban in Kansas City last Wednesday, her fluorescent orange jumpsuit was the brightest thing on stage - until her backup singers pulled out lime-green inflatable trumpets.

Her colorful performance was a mark of mixed influences: Her parents' African-American and Japanese heritages, her history with Michael Jackson and her composition experience, to name a few.

The 29-year-old singer has a vast musical background. She grew up with musician parents and studied music composition at Biola University in southern California. She was chosen as a background singer for Michael Jackson's "This Is It" world tour and was selected to duet with Jackson on the ballad, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." After the tour was cut short by Jackson's death, Hill sang "Heal the World" at his public memorial.

Since then, she has sung as a background singer for Stevie Wonder and competed on NBC's reality singing show, "The Voice."

Now, she's opening for Groban on his "In the Round" tour, which places the stage in the center of each venue so that the audience surrounds the performers.

In an interview with the Daily Times Herald, Hill described Groban as welcoming and fun.

"What's unique and cool is he's funny, and goes with how the room is reacting (at each concert)," she said.

The "In the Round" tour has Hill singing two duets with Groban at each concert - but it also allows her a half-hour show of her own at the opening of each night. This is the first time she's toured and performed solo, she said, and it's a completely different experience compared to that of a backup singer.

That experience is featured in "20 Feet From Stardom," a 2013 documentary directed by Morgan Neville that showcases several backup singers, including Hill, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer and Táta Vega. The women have sung backup to Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Madonna - standing 20 feet from stardom onstage - but in this film, they're the stars.

Neville's research for Hill's part of the documentary involved following her around with a camera for several years, doing interviews and showcasing her day-to-day life and her shows.

"He said, 'I'm putting together this documentary about background singers,' and I said, 'That's awesome, because no one's really touched on the subject,'" Hill said. "When I finally saw the final product, I was completely blown away. He did an amazing job telling the story."

After Hill's role as Michael Jackson's backup singer was cut short, several years passed before she took the stage at "The Voice," wowing the show's four judges - Adam Levine, Shakira, Usher and Blake Shelton - with her rendition of Christina Aguilera's "What a Girl Wants."

She advanced through the show, covering songs such as James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend,"'s "#thatPOWER" and Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel," and reached the show's top eight before being voted off.

Hill described her time on the fourth season of "The Voice" as intensive, and said it was a valuable experience.

"Basically, you're living in a hotel a lot of the time," she said. "You make a lot of friends; you're sequestered and can't go anywhere, because you're focused on the show. It starts to get very intense toward the end. You're on the stage performing, and literally the next hour, you're off working on the next one."

Covering other artists' songs on the show helped her hone her sound and learn how to better write for her voice, she said.

She added that writing music is a big part of her work. In college, she wrote a symphony and was able to conduct an orchestra's performance of it.

"It's so rewarding when you get up on that stage and conduct the orchestra and it comes to life, all the blood, sweat and tears you put into that piece," she said. "Later in my career, I want to revisit that world, definitely."

As evidenced by the funky outfits the singer wears on the "In the Round" tour and showcased during her performances on "The Voice," Hill said she has always loved fashion and enjoys working with stylists for her shows. Offstage, she enjoys spending time with her Labrador retriever, Affy - short for Africa - as well as going out dancing with her friends, riding her bike and spending time outdoors. Her interests include history, archeology and geology.

When it comes to the music she listens to, Hill's interests range from Sam Cooke to Celia Cruz to Kanye West. Her favorite song is "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong.

Hill has an album coming out soon that she describes as a mixture of soul and pop.

"It's everything from fun uptempo songs to more ballads and inspirational stuff," she said. "I think it's going to be exciting and fun. It celebrates a lot of different sides of me, my influences - whether world music, voices, choirs, hip-hop beats - wrapped into pop songs. That's my thing and what I love to play with."