Photo by Marcus Green
Producer and songwriter Justice Hill, 29, got his start in the Chicago scene in the mid-2010s playing keyboards as a sideman. He also makes soulful hybrid pop under his own name, and in April he released his debut full-length album, Room With a View. On Saturday, August 14, he'll play a patio show at the Hideout with his group Nightime Love.
As told to Leor Galil
I moved to this small town in Michigan when I was ten. My mom got married, so I moved to this 4,000-person town. I was struggling to fit in; I wanted to swim, I wanted to be a scientist, and I never really found my stride. Once I started playing piano—I would just play at school—I was like, "Wow, this is awesome." It grew into something I couldn't stop doing. I would skip lunch, go to the practice room, and play. In the summer, I would have my mom drop me off at the school while she went to work so I could just practice the piano all day. The music teacher would let me in. I just needed to get better, and I just loved improving—it just became my sole thing.
I felt like I had complete control over something for once, and it allowed me to be a more confident version of myself. I just got addicted to that feeling.
I had teachers here and there, but there was never one point where someone took me under their wing. My choir teacher in high school, we kind of talked about what it would look like going forward if I actually chose to do music. She was like, "You know, it's gonna be really tough." But she helped me prepare my piece for Berklee College of Music. Once I decided to do that, I had a few people in my life help me.
I went to Berklee for two and a half years. I dropped out and I stayed in Boston for about two more years, just using the facilities. There was a teacher there who I really liked, my arrangement teacher. He taught me, "Going to music school's not like any other school. It's not like you leave and now you're an engineer. Or you go to school for business and now you have a business degree. You're a musician when you go to school there, and you're a musician when you leave, no matter what. You go there to teach yourself how to get better."
I would just practice every other day, like, eight hours a day, until I got where my peers were. In my small town of Allegan, I was very good, but all of a sudden I was really low. To my credit, no one really showed me jazz and stuff, but my first week at Berklee College of Music, I asked someone—in front of a lot of people—who Miles Davis was. And that did not go over very well. They were like, "Who the fuck are you?" I was like, "I'm Justice." And then, here I am, a month and a half later, listening to John Coltrane and having my mind blown. I always felt like I had something to prove when I was in college, so I'd practice a lot.
My aunt, who was my best friend my whole life, passed away suddenly in 2014. I went into a pretty deep state of depression dealing with the grief, and I wanted to be closer to my family. My grandmother lives in New Buffalo, Michigan. I'm from Michigan—I grew up there. So Chicago is a place I could do music. I had one really good friend who lived here. I wanted to be somewhere I could still pursue my dreams but be closer to my family, so I chose Chicago, and I'm really glad I did. I've lived here for six years now, and I love it.
Breaking into the music scene was really tough for me. I really struggled to find someone to take me seriously. I immediately got a job bartending, and I'd go out and be like this gangly, loud, goofy guy that says he can play piano. So it took me a while to really find someone, and then one night at the Promontory I met my most frequent collaborator, Eshé All Day Hues, who's actually on two of the songs on my album. Eshé was looking for a keyboardist and just gave me a chance. We ended up becoming best friends. We recorded an album the next month, and that was the first person that started introducing me to other players in town. The band Eshé had at the time is now pretty much my band: my drummer Jalen [Little], [guitarist] Rob Campbell, and a lot of lesser-known people in the city who are such amazing players.
That took me to jams at Moe's Tavern. I used to go there for jams every week. I eventually started playing for this burlesque show at the Drifter. I got all these weird, fun gigs. There was this one gig we played, where I got to play—I say "got to," but it was almost "have to"—"We Got the Funk" for an hour straight. It was nuts. We had a 20-piece band, so it was big. It was at Moe's. The band went onto the carpeted floor, everyone's drinking dollar beers. It was a good time.
There's two iterations of Room With a View. Some of these songs I started writing maybe four or five years ago; some of them I did just during quarantine. Maybe two years ago, I had a version of the album that I was pretty happy with, and it would always be something where I was like, "No, this isn't working." Or, "This one song doesn't fit here." About a year ago, I decided to scrap it all and start from scratch, so I rewrote half the songs. I've been working on it for three and a half, four years, but this version of the album took me about eight months.
I sent the files to be mastered at 10 AM, January 6. I tweeted, "Greatest day of my life, I just finished my album." And then the insurrection happened four hours later. I was like, "That didn't last very long." [Editor's note: The relevant tweet still online reads, "Just finished mixing the album."]
The day the album came out, I felt a sense of accomplishment I never felt before. I just really wanted to create a body of work that moved me and moved others. I feel like I've completed that goal in some way, and that feels good. It's unreal. v