Interview: The Ups and Downs of Jennifer Hudson
The outsized achievements of Jennifer Hudson are matched only by the tragedies the 29-year-old has endured. The performer, first introduced to audiences as a runner-up on the 2004 season of American Idol, went on to win an Oscar for Dreamgirls and a Grammy for her eponymous solo record released in September 2008. However, it's the triple homicide that took the lives of her mother, brother and nephew just a month after her first album was released that seems to lurk in the corners of I Remember Me, the new Hudson record released March 22.
"I feel like I've lived four or five different lives and I don't have much left to recognize myself from 10 years ago, nothing is the same," says Hudson, who wrote and recorded the bulk of her new album not far from where she was raised in Chicago. "Even for myself, my life is like watching a movie, and sometimes, I'm like, 'What's going to happen next?' At times, I don't know, but my mother always told me I could find the positive, no matter what, and I feel like that's what this record is about."
I Remember Me, which was mostly written by Hudson with a host of collaborators, including Alicia Keys, R. Kelly and Ne-Yo, alternates between ballads and club songs, but always features Hudson's show-stopping vocals. Like other American Idol success stories such as Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert and Carrie Underwood, Hudson's new album holds a populist appeal: It makes sense both at the dentist's office and at a nightclub.
"On American Idol, you have everything you need and you're sheltered," says Hudson, who grew up singing in her Baptist church. "What I always tell people who want to do the show is, 'Dude, prepare yourself for what comes after.' What are you going to do when it ends?"
The singer, who cites Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin as idols, speaks with a Midwestern drawl and punctuates even the difficult parts of conversations with laughter. After carving a quick path to the top after her American Idol season concluded, she's practically a living embodiment of an old Joan Rivers adage: If you want to connect with the American public, there's no better medium than TV.
"I had no idea that so many people were watching, but all of a sudden I'm an inspiration. I'm like, 'I am?'" says Hudson, who made her first major public appearance after her family tragedy with a stunning, emotional performance of the national anthem at the 2009 Super Bowl.
"I never thought I could be as happy as I am today with everything that's happened. You think, 'How am I ever going to get through this?' I feel like it's some kind of special journey I'm on."
Hudson has every intention of remaining vital in both music and movies, where she'll next appear as Winnie Mandela opposite Terrence Howard in Winnie, a film targeted for a big September premiere. Having given birth to her first child, David, in August 2009, Hudson says her new record is the most personal artifact of her improbable past 10 years.
"I never had my own sound before and I feel like I just woke up and started writing this, it's a way of putting how I feel into words," she says. "I don't have much left to recognize myself from 10 years ago, but there's this scar on my hand that I got when I was four and it reminds me that even if all of my surroundings are different, I'm still the same. The scar's still here."
For Hudson, the scars are just as real as the voice, the tragedies and the success that will forever remain a part of her story. When she sang "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" in Dreamgirls, one could be forgiven for thinking she was talking about her life post-Idol. Since then, for better or worse, she's had to live with that pronouncement every day.
"In high school, everyone knew who Jennifer was and I'd go through the hallways speaking with everybody," she says. "Today, the world is like that on a larger scale. People feel connected because they've watched me from the beginning, and I just say: 'None of us have any idea what's in store for us, just do what you love and keep going.' In terms of this crazy industry, dude, it don't really matter to me."
I Remember Me by Jennifer Hudson is out now on Sony Records. For more information, visit JenniferHudson.com.