A New Album – And Lawsuit – Puts Prince Protege In Spotlight

Judith Hill is used to false starts in her career.

Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, file
Attending the Fragrance Foundation Awards in New York.

She was set to have a major platform as Michael Jackson’s backup singer for his “This Is It” comeback concerts when he died before they could begin; she was also a leading contender on NBC’s “The Voice” in 2013 before getting voted off before the finals.

So Hill seemed unfazed when she discussed her newest career hurdle: lawsuits involving her debut album Back in Time, featuring her mentor Prince.

“Obviously, it’s unfortunate, but I think that people are getting behind me and seeing the realities of what it is to be in this business and the struggle and the fight, and supporting me as I go through this,” Hill said by phone last week.

The 30-year-old Hill’s album was released, for free, to Live Nation email subscribers late last month, along with a personal note from Prince.

“Please spend some time with this music and then share it with someone U love,” Prince wrote.

Days later, a producer who signed Hill to Sony’s label sued Prince, claiming the superstar interfered with plans to release Hill’s debut album, squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars spent developing Hill’s career and recording her first album. The lawsuit contends Hill was told not to record with Prince several times, but she did it anyway.

The attorney for the producer, Jolene Cherry, declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Hill did not get into specifics. However. Hill has filed a lawsuit of her own against Cherry with various claims including fraud, and is asking a New York City court to declare she has no contractual obligation to her.

“I just see it as another point in my story, like the lyrics in my song ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’,” said Hill, who was also featured in the 2013, Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.”

“Sometimes you have to cry a little bit longer,” she said.

Hill’s attorney Peter Haviland called the lawsuit crazy and said: “Prince supports, promotes and gives opportunity to truly exceptional talent like Judith Hill.”

She is set to open for Prince during his U.S. “Hit & Run” pop-up tour. The two connected after he saw an interview in which she mentioned she wanted to work with her musical idol; he invited her to his Paisley Park studios near Minneapolis to record.

“Rather than being cooped up in a studio in a traditional way … it was all about bringing it back to the live music and the old-school way of doing it,” she said. “It brought purity back to the songs that I had written. … I felt really honored to have learned so much from him in that process.”

He also urged her to perfect her live show.

“That is what drives the career. The music is just part of the advertisement of the show,” she said. “One of the things he talks about a lot is finding unconventional ways to put music out, and there’s so many ways to do it now.”

Prince’s influence can be heard on the album, with its funk leanings and guitar licks, and he helped with her arrangements. But Hill is credited with writing all the songs on the album, with occasional help from others. The first track, “As Trains Go By,” a searing political song, references the police-related killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

“It’s sad and it’s heartbreaking to see that we are still struggling with the same things that we have been struggling with for the last 100 years,” she said.

So far, thousands of albums have been downloaded, said Hill (Live Nation did not return requests seeking comment). It’s unclear where the album will go from here, given that it is now in legal limbo.

Photo: NPG Records/AP Photo
Performing at the LG Arena in Birmingham, England.

It seems to be another bump in the road for Hill on her path to stardom, but she is undeterred.

“I am the greatest in what I’m doing and that’s going to keep rising with every chapter in my life, but the goal is the music. … Stardom is just the byproduct,” she said. “The most important thing for me is my message gets heard.”