It’s 6:20 a.m. on a Monday morning in July, and an uncaffeinated Hudson is busting full throttle through her warm-ups during a sound check for a performance on “Good Morning America.” It was her first TV appearance in support of “Spotlight,” the debut single from her first album.
Hudson shakes off any concerns about the ungodly hour. (“The band got there at 4:30 a.m.,” she notes.) Melendez, meanwhile, clutched his venti Starbucks as he watched. “Good Lord, she makes me feel old,” he sighs.
It’s easy to forget Hudson’s youth, perhaps thanks to the years she’s spent in the pop culture spotlight. At 26, her career path may be impossible to duplicate: She went from being a choir singer at her church in her hometown of Chicago to a Disney Cruise Line chanteuse to an “American Idol” contestant to an Academy Award winner for best supporting actress for her role in “Dreamgirls.” Thanks to the ever-expanding entertainment landscape, what this means is that Hudson has built a significant career on a multiple-octave voice–without releasing an album.
All that changes Sept. 30, when her self-titled debut drops on Arista/RMG. Even under the guidance of Sony BMG U.S. chief creative officer Clive Davis and RCA Music Group senior VP of A&R Larry Jackson, “Jennifer Hudson” faced a difficult task: With a voice that can do anything and an artist who has generated a fan base from numerous outlets, how do you narrow down what the album will contain so that it retains her broad appeal?
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The answer: You don’t. “Jennifer Hudson” defies classifying and will offer up everything from pop to R&B to gospel.
“We are intent on being true to her, but at the same time to establish that she is a recording star,” Davis says. “She has the ability, she has the youth, she has the range, she has the awareness.”
Jackson says the album came together during the course of a year after “really making a true, concerted effort not to push her in a contrived, young kind of direction. We could easily do a trendy, faceless, interchangeable kind of record, and I can say proudly that we stayed away from what could be a cliche with her.”
In the end, the theme of the album is simple: play to the crowd. “Jennifer Hudson” features a gospel tribute to her days in the church choir with a rendition of “Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There” and a track that Diane Warren penned for the singer’s lung-busting balladeer side, “You Pull Me Through.” The album will also include the classic “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls” and “All Dressed in Love” from the recent “Sex and the City” soundtrack.
“It is risky, because people expect you to just do one thing,” Hudson says. “I’m going to take the chance and show what else is a part of me.”
Besides Warren, among the collaborators on “Jennifer Hudson” are Ludacris, Robin Thicke, Rock City, Timbaland, Tank and the Underdogs. (“Who can’t Clive get a hold of?” Hudson jokes.)
The label hopes that the album’s diversity will help appeal to the broad spectrum of Hudson’s fans, from moviegoers to those who still pen irate blog posts about her ejection in the No. 7 spot during the third season of “American Idol.”
In a way, the album does demonstrate the versatility Hudson showed on the reality show, where she went from singing “(Love Is Like A) Heatwave” by Martha & the Vandellas one week to Elton John’s “Circle of Life” the next. There is, of course, one key difference: “With ‘Idol,’ you only get a minute or so to sing a song,” Hudson says. “You can’t show all your talent in that moment. With each experience you try to show more and more and more.”
The strategy to get fans of Hudson the movie star onboard the career of Hudson the recording artist may not actually be much of a challenge; that was the path of Davis’ own introduction to Hudson. He signed her after he saw her screen test for the part of Effie in “Dreamgirls.”
“”That was the catalyst,” Davis recalls. “I called [Hudson’s theatrical agent] Nicole David at William Morris and said, ‘I’d like to meet with Jennifer.’ I signed her after she had done the ‘Dreamgirls’ filming and before it came out. For my Grammy party in February , I agreed to showcase her.”
And what a showcase it was–the video of Hudson’s live performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” at the event has since been placed on YouTube, where it has tallied almost 1 million views.
Hudson has long been something of a YouTube star; unofficial behind-the-scenes videos filmed by members of her support staff feature her belting out songs from the balcony of a hotel room in Venice (before she worries that the staff is going to kick her out) and eating an ice cream cone while being chatted up by a fan. Such off-the-cuff moments are becoming official with the release of “Jennifer Hudson,” as her MySpace page will feature segments about the making of the video for “Spotlight”; in addition, a Yahoo performance session is in the works.
Even on the dinky square screens of YouTube, Hudson’s presence as a live performer is undeniable, and her label has been quick to employ it. She performed at the recent Sony BMG international managing directors conference in Rome and at a London benefit for Alicia Keys’ charitable foundation, Keep a Child Alive.
While plans for a formal tour to support the album haven’t been solidified, label executives hope Hudson can make some appearances after the initial crush of album promotion is over, because the last part of the year will see her resuming her other career.
She returns to acting with the Oct. 17 release of Fox Searchlight’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” based on the best-selling 2002 novel by Sue Monk Kidd. Set in 1964 in North Carolina, it stars Keys, Queen Latifah and Sophie Okenedo as a trio of beekeeping sisters who take in Lily, portrayed by Dakota Fanning, and her nanny, Rosaleen (Hudson). (The film is co-produced by Will Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment, and Melendez–who also is Smith’s manager–says Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, pushed the project to the screen after she fell in love with the novel.)
“I remember doing ‘Dreamgirls,’ and that’s all I had to do, and that was crazy,” Hudson says. “I would look at Beyonce, because she was doing acting and singing, and I’m like, ‘How the hell can she do that?’ Now I’m looking at it like, ‘Oh, God, all right, if she can do it, if Jamie [Foxx] and Queen [Latifah] can do it, then it means it can be done.’ ”
As it turns out, the rigors of a movie shooting and promotional schedule are serving Hudson well in her music career. For the video for “Spotlight,” Hudson spent a 22-hour day filming with director Chris Robinson (who directed Keys’ video for “Fallin’ ” and Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown’s “No Air”) in Los Angeles. The video is already airing on MTV, BET and VH1 Soul.
The final scene in the “Spotlight” video was shot at 4:30 a.m. and depicts Hudson, backlit, walking through an alley toward the camera as she sings about an overbearing lover.
Again, Hudson eschewed the caffeine to help her through the long day. Why?
“I loved every moment of it because that’s what I dreamed of doing,” she says. “I used to practice my little moves for my videos in the mirror in my room, with a brush in my hand. I was going to live up every single minute of those 22 hours.”