Local Current Blog

Judith Hill opens up about her ‘very intense’ relationship with Prince

courtesy Judith Hill

In an interview with the New York Times, singer-songwriter Judith Hill has opened up about her “very intense” relationship with Prince. Among the subjects Hill discussed is the fact that she was with Prince, the week before his death, on the flight that made an emergency stop in Illinois after Prince became unresponsive.

It’s the details about that flight that have captured the fascination of readers around the world, but Hill also talked about happier times with Prince, when the two were at Paisley Park making her album Back In Time.

Regarding that flight — from Atlanta to Minneapolis, after Prince performed what turned out to be his last public shows — Hill says the only passengers were Prince, longtime Prince associate Kirk Johnson, and herself. She describes a quiet conversation over dinner with Prince that ended when the star suddenly fell unconscious. The plane made a hasty landing in Moline, and Prince was treated in an ambulance on the tarmac with a shot of Narcan, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses.

Hill describes the incident, including a subsequent overnight hospital stay, as unprecedented in her experience with Prince — supporting the idea that even Prince’s closest friends and colleagues were unaware of anything out of the ordinary until his painkiller use became a source of serious danger to his life. “Never said anything, that this is hurting, never a sign of struggle,” Hill told the Times, saying that all she knows about Prince’s painkiller use is what she’s read in media reports. “That’s why it’s all very shocking.”

In the days immediately following the airborne scare, Hill says that Prince began making steps to address his health issues. Professional help was being mobilized just days later, when Prince died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl. Investigators are continuing to look into how that drug was obtained.

Judith Hill had a unique personal and musical relationship with Prince in the final years of his life.

The New York Times headline identifies Hill as a Prince “protégée,” a term that was applied to many artists Prince worked with throughout his life, but Hill had a long history in music before coming to Paisley Park. In 2013 she appeared on The Voice, and that same year she appeared in the acclaimed documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.

As a supporting vocalist, Hill has sung with artists including Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Michael Jackson. She was part of the band that was scheduled to play with Jackson on his “This Is It” London shows, and her role in those shows was to include a high-profile duet with Jackson. The Times’ Melena Ryzik notes the sad coincidence that Jackson, like Prince, was a towering musical icon who lost his life to the misuse of prescription drugs; but Hill says that her relationship with Prince was different.

“I didn’t know Michael,” Hill told Ryzik, other than through their professional relationship and as a fan. Hill says that she and Prince had a much deeper personal relationship, which — when asked — she neither confirmed nor denied was romantic in nature. “I deeply cared for him,” said Hill about Prince. “He told me that he loved me and that he would always be there for me.”

When Hill told a magazine interviewer that she’d like to work with Prince, she could hardly have dreamed that Prince himself would notice, and invite her to Paisley Park — but that’s exactly what happened, in April 2014. When Hill told Prince she wanted to make an album that sounded like Sly and the Family Stone, he replied, “You don’t need to say any more.”

We met Hill just under a year later, in March 2015, when Prince invited a number of representatives of The Current and other local media out to Paisley Park to be introduced to Hill and hear Back In Time, the rocking, soulful R&B album that — surprise! — Hill was already done making. Recorded at Paisley, the album was produced by Prince, who also played and sang on the album.

At that meeting, Prince asked us all for suggestions on how best to release the album. We offered various ideas, and Prince and Hill listened thoughtfully to all of them. The album surfaced publicly just a few days later, when an unknown — but very large — number of Ticketmaster customers received “a note from Prince” offering a free download (in high-fidelity lossless audio files, no less) of Back In Time.

Hill continued to be a regular presence at Paisley Park. Among other appearances, she played at a Record Store Day party Prince held in April 2015. In October of last year, Back In Time was released in more conventional fashion (after Prince helped get Hill out of a previous record deal); Hill and Prince celebrated with a long night of live music at Paisley Park. “Judith Hill,” said Prince that night. “We love her, and we hope that you love her, too.”

She opened for Morris Day & the Time at Paisley Park in January, showing sublime confidence as a frontwoman as she performed with a band including both of her parents — musicians who met while playing together in the 1970s — while Prince looked on approvingly. The Times story notes that the two parents met Prince that night, who Hill said was “delighted” they were in her band.

In the long line of Prince’s collaborators and “protégées,” Judith Hill was special — not just because of the coincidence of her presence near Prince in his final days, but because of the closeness of their personal and professional relationship. Horn player Marcus Anderson told the Times that Prince would ask Hill for musical advice in a way that “was kind of a first.”