Ten and a half years ago, a 22-year-old Chicagoan stepped in front of a trio of judges to audition for the third season of American Idol.
Jennifer Hudson would finish in just seventh place that season, but she'd go on to win an Academy Award for a supporting role in the movie Dreamgirls and a Grammy for her first album.
Tragedy struck Hudson in 2008, when her mother, brother and nephew were murdered. The trial wasn't concluded until 2012.
Afterward, it was months before she came back to the studio to start recording her third album. She'd earned her fame by recording big emotional ballads, but in her new album, JHUD, Hudson tells NPR's Arun Rath that she was looking to do something different.
"It's expressive of my energy and my everyday person," Hudson says. "Whereas the other music before, the space I was in was was more about ... singing right notes and being just about that. But now this time, I have a new take on what music represents for me and it's more about celebrating it."
Hudson calls this infusion of energy "Jenniferizing," and she says it drives her new album.
Hudson says she has often been considered a more serious, somber artist and actress, in part because of what she calls her "very heavy life experiences." But she says that's not really who she is; that's not Jennifer Hudson.
"It's something I understand and it's a part of me, but the thing that's most of Jennifer is my positive energy," she says. "That's why this was so important to create in this way and for people to get that and understand that.
"Even in the heaviest times I find the brightest light," she says.
Hudson was more heavily involved in writing and producing the songs on JHUD than she was in her previous efforts, a new level of artistic control that she calls one of her favorite parts of the album.
This time, she says, "I didn't record anything I didn't love.
"Each song, it's a piece of me."
Hear more of the conversation at the audio link.
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ARUN RATH, HOST:
Ten and a half years ago, a 22-year-old from Chicago stepped in front of a trio of judges to audition for the third season of American Idol.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")
RANDY JACKSON: All right, what are you going to sing?
JENNIFER HUDSON: "Share Your Love With Me" by Aretha Franklin. (Singing) It's an evil wind that blows no good, yeah, yeah.
RATH: Jennifer Hudson would finish in just seventh place that season. But she'd go on to win an Academy Award for her role in the movie "Dreamgirls" and score a Grammy with her very first album. But she's also faced unthinkable tragedy.
In 2008, her mother, brother and nephew were murdered. The trial didn't wrap until 2012. It was months before she came back to the studio to start recording her third album. Hudson had won over audiences singing big emotional ballads. But she told me this time she wanted to take a new direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANGEROUS")
HUDSON: (Singing) I do it for the thrill even if it kills. Dangerous - you make me feel dangerous.
RATH: Jennifer Hudson's new album is called "JHUD." And she dropped by our studios at NPR West to talk about her new sound.
HUDSON: It's expressive of my energy and, like, my everyday person. You'll definitely get that, like, whereas the other music before, the space I was in was more about, like, singing - you know, singing right notes and it being just about that. But now this time, like, I have a new, like, take on what music represents for me, you know. And it's more about celebrating it.
HUDSON: And the energy of it - feeling the energy from the people, them feeling my energy, which is what I call Jenniferizing. I'm Jenniferizing you with that energy in that album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE AIN'T GOIN' NOWHERE")
HUDSON: (Singing) He ain't moving, he ain't goin' nowhere. He ain't moving, he ain't goin' nowhere. There's so much to learn from what your boyfriend says. Take advantage when he thinks you're not listening.
RATH: The brightness in a way, it's almost a little bit surprising because you've been through some rough times recently. And it's nice to hear the happiness.
HUDSON: Yeah, you know, and I just think overall I've been, like, tokened as a very heavy artist, a heavy actress, a heavy life and life experiences. And it's like but that's not me, you know? It's - I guess it's something I understand and it's a part of me. But the thing that's most of Jennifer is my positive energy that brings me out of all of it. So that's why this was so important to create in this way and for people to get that and understand that, you know.
RATH: You can be deep without being heavy.
HUDSON: Yeah, like, even in the heaviest times I find the brightest light.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T DESCRIBE")
HUDSON: (Singing) I feel like I'm in love. That is nice but not good enough. I feel like saying something that's for us, that defines what's in our hearts.
RATH: So it sounds like, and I really feel like I hear this on the record, that you're being more yourself here.
RATH: There are more songs from you on this album.
HUDSON: Oh yes. Oh my God, that's probably one of my favorite parts of this album. This album - one, I did not record anything I didn't love. And so...
RATH: Have you done that in the past?
HUDSON: Oh, my God yes.
HUDSON: On album one and two it was like oh, OK, well, they said sing this. It was - before it was Jennifer just sing this. OK, I can sing anything, sure. I'll sing it. Whereas now it's like no, I didn't sing anything I didn't love.
And I helped write a lot of stuff. I helped produce a lot of things, you know. If I didn't write it, I was able to construct it musically the way I wanted it to go, you know. And that's why through each song it's like a piece of me.
RATH: Which is the first song that you sat down and wrote kind of in this new mindset?
HUDSON: Wow. I know "Walk It Out" for sure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK IT OUT")
HUDSON: (Singing) I've got you hypnotized. I've got you staring. And from the look in your eyes you want to walk it out with me.
We ended up changing the verses to me whatever - from my perspective of whatever I decided to write for it, which made it that much more true to me. And in this song, it's like this reminds me of growing up. You know, this reminds me of the South Side of Chicago. This reminds me of when we used to sit on the porch and the boys would be playing basketball in the playground or the girls walking to the store, jumping rope. And they're trying to talk to us. You know what I mean?
Like, it just took me back to that space. So even when we got to the music video, I was like we need to shoot this in Chicago. And it took me back to growing up, you know? And I wanted to just relive all of that. And that's what that song I feel like gave me. And that's the way it ended up, in that space.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK IT OUT")
HUDSON: (Singing) I know you want to take me to your room. And I want to go your way, way, way. But you've got to treat me like a lady. We should just get to know each other, yeah. And I'm down to go all the way, way, way. But not on the first date, yeah.
RATH: In your performance, I read that you learned about performing singing in gay bars. There was a line, you said - where is it? You said that that was my training.
HUDSON: It was. It was. I mean, because I didn't start singing with my eyes open until I was like 19, OK? Because I spent the majority of my time singing in church or in school.
And by the time I got to, like, high school, I would go with my assistant - who's my assistant now, Walter Williams. And we would go to the gay clubs and it would always be, like, drag queens lip-syncing. They would be dressed for the gods. And I loved it.
It would be like a talent show and there was a prize. But the people would give you tips. So I was - I'm sitting there like wait a minute, they're lip-syncing? This is an interesting concept. OK, they're not real girls. But they're drag queens and they're fierce.
Wait a minute. I'm a real girl. And I got big hair too and eyelashes. Hold on. And I sing for real. So what if I came in here and started singing? What would happen? And so that's what I started to do. And they used to dress me and make my costumes. I had my own glam squad. And I would go perform. And then I started to, like, win all the money. And that was our thing, yeah. And I used to make, like - that's when I really started to, like, get out and perform.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING BACK THE MUSIC")
HUDSON: (Singing) OK, so here we go. Give me that.
RATH: So it's been almost exactly 10 years since you were on "American Idol." What's it like to look back on that?
HUDSON: Oh my God. You know, I am the type of person...
RATH: It's 2014.
HUDSON: I still - it's so fresh in my mind. Like this is the 10-year anniversary. And to think how far I've come and it's amazing, like, wow, in 10 - 10 years.
RATH: A lot of us are still sore feeling like you got robbed. But...
HUDSON: Oh please, please. You know, I can't complain, you know, like...
RATH: Yeah, you've done pretty well.
HUDSON: I've done extremely well. And that's the thing that blows my mind though. Because, let me say this, when I auditioned for Idol, I didn't say I wanted to win. I said I want to do this for the experience.
I feel as though, like, if I say something it, like, happens. And I said no, I want to do this for the experience and it haunts me because I'm still experiencing it to this day, 10 years later. Like, without Idol and all of that, then would I be sitting here right now?
And look at how much I've been able to - a career I've been able to build and the things I've been able to experience. I would've never guessed I would've won an Oscar and a Grammy off of my first album and everything else. You know what I mean? And so I'm still experiencing it to this day.
RATH: Jennifer Hudson, it's been such a pleasure speaking with you.
HUDSON: Thank you.
RATH: Thanks for coming in.
HUDSON: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING BACK THE MUSIC")
HUDSON: (Singing) Bring back the music. Bring back the love. Bring back that feeling, feeling of love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.