Judith Hill Sang With Pop Royalty. Now She Is Composing Her Own Story.

The first time the musician Judith Hill performed her anguished requiem “Black Widow” for an audience, she wept, right onstage.

The song’s title is an epithet that has been directed at her for years by tabloids and trolls because as a vocalist and artist, she had been close with two of pop’s biggest stars shortly before their deaths. She was Michael Jackson’s duet partner and performed at his televised memorial in 2009. And for two years before Prince’s fatal overdose in April 2016, she was his protégée, collaborator and more. They shared what she has called “an intense relationship”; he told her he loved her.

Prince’s sudden, accidental death derailed her promising career — which he had been guiding — and she spiraled into deep grief, depression and self-doubt as online cruelty rained down. It took years before she was able to face what happened, personally or musically.

“It was a deep wound,” she said onstage at a recent showcase at Mercury Lounge in Lower Manhattan, after the soulful, fierce “Black Widow.” Then she brushed her tears away — “enough of that” — and soon started another number, “Dame De La Lumière,” a detailed tribute to her mother and grandmother, with a rippling, urgent chorus that has become her anthem: “Bad times make strong women.”

Both songs are on “Letters From a Black Widow,” her new record, due Friday. It is a concept album that reckons forcefully with her past — not just the boldfaced part, but also the myriad woes and distortions that conspired to make her feel fearful and less-than. The dozen tracks that finally tumbled out chart her path of self-reflection and forgiveness, with achingly personal lyrics paired with muscular funk, soul and blues, and backed by her shredding, soaring guitar. It’s a new reach for an artist known mostly for her acrobatic and emotional vocals; she wanted her determined message to resonate, too.

“I felt unmuted,” she said, “like I was free to say something now, because I felt like I had really put a muzzle on myself for so long, and was just afraid. And it was very, very liberating to do that.”

Getting there involved therapy; a hallucinogenic trip to a hot springs with friends; and the guitar, which she first picked up in 2016, before Prince’s death. The instrument proved to be transformational. “It helped me work through the trauma,” she said in an interview earlier this year at her house in Los Angeles, where a Gibson, Strat and Taylor lined a newly built studio. If the piano, her lifelong instrument, was her melodic through-line, the guitar, on which she is self-taught, gave her a different vibe. “I do kind of see her as a panther,” she said, smiling. “She’s the warrior energy.”

Hill, who will turn 40 next month, was 4 when she wrote her first song, a gospel number. She grew up in a churchgoing musical firmament in Los Angeles: Her mother, Michiko Hill, was born in Tokyo and plays the keys, organ and piano; her father, Robert Hill, who is Black with roots in Alabama, is a bassist known as PeeWee. They worked with acts like Sly and the Family Stone and Chaka Khan. Now they tour in Hill’s backing band. “It’s a family affair,” as she put it at the New York show.

They live just down the road in Los Angeles, she said a few months ago. She was cozy in a pink sweater, sipping tea in the first home she has owned, her respite from the road. Fans and those in the industry who have been rooting for Hill know her peace is hard-won.

“As they say — now she can breathe,” said the singer Darlene Love, who has known Hill for years. They were both featured in the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” about background vocalists, for which they also earned Grammys.

Hill, fresh off being a competitor on “The Voice,” was an upstart then. “We called her the baby,” said Love, who started her career in 1960s girl groups. “We were looking at her to become the star out of this movie.”

Her ambitions were known, Love recalled. “I remember Stevie Wonder told her one time, you know, ‘Don’t get so caught up in singing background for me that you miss your shot’” at being the lead.

It started to seem like it would happen, especially when Prince took an interest in Hill after catching a TV interview where she named him as her dream collaborator. From 2014 to 2016, she jammed, recorded and performed with him, becoming a regular presence at Paisley Park, his estate outside Minneapolis. Together, they produced her debut album, “Back in Time,” in 2015. He met her parents.

Then he died, and everything unraveled. She shelved the video for her title track, on which he contributed guitar, bass, drums and vocals, and retreated to Los Angeles, awash in shock.

That’s when the online viciousness hit. “I got a lot of hate messages, some death threats. It got real dark,” she said. (And, she added, it’s still coming.)

The pop singer Daniel Bedingfield, a longtime friend of Hill’s, was part of the inner circle that tried to bolster her in the period after Prince’s death.

“I didn’t really know how it was going to go for a few years,” he said in an interview. “We’d be sitting at a restaurant, and then one of Prince’s songs would come on, and that would be the end of the day. And it was everywhere we went, all the time. A very rough moment.”

Though Hill continued to record and perform in the years that followed, she was having a crisis of conscience about her identity as an artist. “I struggled with really being able to feel like I was enough, or that my story mattered,” she said. “I always felt like my name only mattered because it was in relation to someone else.”

During the pandemic, Bedingfield (known for the early 2000s hit “Gotta Get Thru This”) helped organize the hot springs camping trip that changed Hill’s outlook, with an assist from some magic mushrooms. While Hill’s friends were off on their own journey, “I went on a real full tilt spiritual trip,” she recalled. She had a vision of a mountain, looming; it symbolized everything she thought she had recovered from in therapy.

“It was very sobering to see that vision and just realize, wow, I’m still hurting,” she said. “I felt God’s basically saying to me: It was never your job to remove the mountain. It’s too big — you can’t move a mountain. Just allow it to be there.” That gave her permission to acknowledge her trauma, not try to run around it. “It was the first time I allowed myself to feel that way, because I kept trying to fix myself,” she said.

Her new album starts with that imagery: “I can feel the mountain,” she roars on the ballad “One of the Bad Ones.”

Her therapist, too, counseled her to face the “Black Widow” taunts through writing; she did it for herself, at first, with no thought of an audience. The song opens with plaintive piano and a whoosh like a cold wind blowing in. Her lyrics murmur of being hidden, then trapped. A spoken-word interlude is raw emotion, as a chorus of voices call her Black Widow and accuse her of killing two musical heroes. “That’s not my name!” she spits back. But then she crumbles: “Maybe it’s true.” A jagged guitar line arrives like a rescue; soft gospel-tinged humming closes it out.

As Hill composed — she wrote and produced the entire album herself — her joy in the production overcame her worry about publicly rehashing these experiences. Daniel Chae, a violinist and session string player for artists like Kacey Musgraves and Zach Bryan, said recording with Hill pushed him into new, harder territory: “Her arrangements were so complex, my jaw was on the floor.”

Hill’s goal with the album was for it to sound sophisticated but propulsive, especially live. She often starts writing with the bass line, “thinking about how I want us to rock onstage,” she said, “because we are a touring band.” Her father will add his flourishes on bass, along with her mother on the organ; their generational groove is rattling, marrow-deep — and danceable.

“Weaponizing funk is something I love to do,” Hill said, “because to me it feels like battle-cry energy.”

Sophia Whitehurst, one of her background singers, has been harmonizing with Hill since they were in a middle school church group. “At a young age, you knew that she was different,” said Whitehurst, who has performed with Lizzo at the Grammys. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her go off key, or lose control during the middle of a run, or anything. Her vocal strength is just out of this world — the range, the agility, the grit and soul behind it.”

At Mercury Lounge, center stage in boots and fringe, Hill closed her eyes as she tore into her guitar, erupting with powerhouse vocals. The effect was of an artist fully in command of her instrument and her gift. After her tearful “Black Widow,” the crowd — some members crying too — was briefly quiet, taking it in, then exploded into applause and bravos. Teon Brooks, a Brooklynite, didn’t know Hill’s story; he bought a ticket to the show after hearing “Dame De La Lumière” and was amazed at “the buffet” of Hill’s range. “She fed us,” he said.

For Hill, unleashing this music was release, and affirmation. “I realized,” she said, “I’m a lot stronger than I thought.”

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