Judith Hill knows what it takes to be a star. As a veteran wing-woman who’s sung backup onstage for musical geniuses (including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Elton John), the L.A.-bred vocalist, 30, had the perfect training for solo success.

“It really is a front seat to greatness,” says Hill, whose role in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom revealed the non-glittery side of background singing. “People think you get to sing for fun, and don’t realize the work that goes into it. You have to add energy to every song.”

A musician by nature and nurture (her parents met in a funk band fronted by Phil Collins’s drummer), Hill grew up humming jazz standards and dreaming of singing like Aretha and Billie. With each career climb—including a stint on The Voice last year—Hill gained star power, but nothing compared to her life-changing gig as Michael Jackson’s duet partner for This Is It, his final tour.

“Watching him opened my eyes to what it means to be a true artist,” says Hill. “I had to pinch myself, like, What did he see in me?” The rest of the world soon will learn: Hill’s Sony Music debut (featuring collaborations with Prince and John Legend) is set for release this fall. “It’s classic soul with a modern hipster twist,” Hill says. “I want people to feel like they’re listening to a record that’s timeless.”