Jennifer Hudson and Carole King on Aretha Franklin, ‘Natural Woman’ and Co-Writing Original Song for ‘Respect’

Jennifer Hudson and Carole King each have a lot to celebrate this year. King will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a performer at the next ceremony in October, after previously qualifying as a songwriter. Hudson, who won a supporting actress Oscar in 2007 for her first film role, in “Dreamgirls,” is being talked up as a serious contender in the upcoming awards races for her starring turn as Aretha Franklin in the long-awaited biopic “Respect,” which reaches theaters Aug. 13.

Besides possible time spent at awards podiums in the near future, something these two artists share is having co-written an original song for “Respect” that brings something new out of their eras-spanning connections to the Queen of Soul. King, of course, co-wrote the blockbuster ballad “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” which, if it wasn’t the star-making breakout for Aretha, was certainly her star-cementing song back in 1967. Hudson, as everyone knows, was handpicked by the late legend to portray her on-screen. The end-titles theme they co-wrote with Jamie Hartman, “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” ties up Franklin’s story, but though they’re too humble to say so, it’s their theme, too — two greats in their own right whose paths homeward have just happened to pass through Aretha’s shadow.

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Hudson: Matt Sayles for Variety; King: Kirsten Shultz for Variety

The pair worked on the song together via Zoom — a necessity not just because of the pandemic but because King, an admitted recluse, rarely leaves her longtime home state of Idaho. Variety reconvened them on that platform to talk about how the new song developed and their mutual love of gospel music. Also discussed was King’s impending Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and her counsel as a music-business “elder” of nearly 80 to Hudson, who is half her age.

Carole King: Jen, you inhabited Aretha. Did you take her home with you after you shot?

Jennifer Hudson: She’s still with me, almost every day in some way. Sometimes, coming off of the film, while taking pictures with someone, I’m like, “Oh wow, I’m smiling like Aretha.” Or “That response was more Aretha-like.” You identify little things like that in yourself that are still there. Or, a lot of my own personal wardrobe now is things that resemble things that she would wear — a lot of fluffy, furry little jackets with leopard prints and things like that. Those things helped me embody character at times, because clothing can make you feel like the character you’re portraying. And I still do the piano [after learning it for the film]. I’m still trying to master it. And guess what? The song I can play the most is “Natural Woman,” so far. I’m going to do it for you one day. Oh my God, I’m gonna play that.

King: Jennifer, I’m going to hold you to that. Not all of us have your range or your gift. I don’t have the vocal chops that you have. I have the same feeling at times when I sing or when I write, but I know that you are blessed to be an instrument. And I know you know it.

Hudson: I don’t take it lightly at all. So thank you for that.

King: It was Zeke Lewis, your A&R, who brought us together, right, Jen? He’s with Epic and thought that this would be a great combination, and the three of us [including Hartman, a longtime Hudson co-writer] just clicked at that first meeting, when we talked about ideas. Jennifer really contributed so much about Aretha and her understanding of the little girl Aretha that wasn’t heard. … She was an incredible person with so many incredibly painful experiences, and being not heard and being ignored… “Respect” is so the appropriate title of the movie, because she did not even have that. She didn’t even know what it was, I don’t think. Her mom respected her, but her mom passed away so young. What she overcame in her background — her personal background, and in the background of the Black community — and didn’t even realize that she had the power to do until she found it. And then she demanded respect.

Hudson: Demanded it. … I just felt that was necessary for the narrative of the underlying story. It’s like, how can you have a voice that everyone hears and uses and is influenced by, but it’s not necessarily your own? So for her to be able to find her place and who she became, which rested in her voice, that was to me the narrative at the heart of “Respect.” And Miss King could have not done a better job putting it into words. I think that stemmed from their relationship. I feel like we both came from an honest place of our experience with her.

King: I got my start writing on assignment. You’ve heard the story of “Natural Woman”: Jerry Wexler [Franklin’s producer and co-head of Atlantic Records] is in his limo on Broadway as Gerry Goffin and I are walking, and he pulls up alongside us and says, “Hey, I got a title for a song for Aretha. You want to write it?” “Uh, yeah.” We went home and we listened to WNJR, which was the R&B station emanating from Jersey, where we actually lived at the time, and that’s when we wrote “Natural Woman.” … I’m glad I had an important role in her life. I didn’t realize that I would at the time. Also, let there be credit due: Gerry Goffin wrote that lyric from the viewpoint of a woman.

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Matt Sayles for Variety

And the writing-on-assignment thing was something both Jamie and I are attuned to, For this new song, we got in the head of Aretha, and we got in your head, after you gave us all those wonderful thoughts. We were so happy when we brought you what we had, and then you expanded and elaborated on it and made it your own.

Hudson: My only goal was to meet Ms. Franklin’s request and add every element that was a part of her legacy — and I mean, if that’s not Carole King, I don’t know what is. Having you added was like the final button on the film. I hope Aretha’s heart in heaven is as joyous as mine is with you doing it.

Variety: Carole, you did some co-writing back in the ‘90s, with people from Mariah Carey to Elvis Costello. But not so much lately. It must be hard for anyone who would like the privilege of writing with you, or getting a song from you, to get the ask in.

King: I haven’t written a song for quite a while. I was a little rusty. I’m mostly focused on other things; I have a whole other life that I’ve been doing for the last 30 years. What you see in my background is the Idaho forest, and I have been working to try to protect the Northern Rockies ecosystem for so long. It’s really hard to do, because I speak for little small grassroots groups, and there’s a whole big movement that is going in a different direction. They don’t see the ecosystem-ness of it; they just try to protect wilderness — a small chunk, and then they let other parts be developed. But I’m hanging in there and doing everything I can to keep up with folks in Congress and the administrations that will listen to me. That’s what I’ve been focused on as my cause in my later life, more than songwriting.
I can still do it — as this just proved, because I didn’t even know if I could still do it. But it’s just that I said, “Well, OK, I’ve done that. But this forest needs my help.” But I could not say no to this.

Variety: There is a gospel throughline in the final stretch of the film. The story ends with a reenactment of Aretha filming her “Amazing Grace” concert in church. Then, over the credits, we see the real Aretha singing “Natural Woman” for you, Carole, at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. Carole, you’ve said in your autobiography that you felt the chords in “Natural Woman” were gospel chords, even though it’s secular lyrics. Then, finally, there’s the new song, “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” with an extended gospel-style introduction that you, Jennifer, came up with. Was it by design to take the audience to church for so long, stylistically, at the end of the film?

King: Jen engineered that. She was the one who described how she wanted a transition.

Hudson: It’s Aretha’s roots, the gospel, and it’s mine also. What was most important to me throughout this entire film was holding onto her faith, her gospel roots, and it’s in me as well. So we needed to open up the doors of the church, as we say. Even as you listen to the different songs in the film, yes, other genres were a part of her background, but the base was always the gospel. And so I just wanted to tie up the bookends.

King: I obviously wasn’t raised in the Black church, but I have been writing with and for people for so long who were. I was little more than a teenager when I starting doing that. So I don’t have the childhood roots, but I love that music. It speaks to me and is so strong in me. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning and want to put on something that’ll lift me, I’ll go to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. One of my favorite things is their song “My Help.” [She sings, with full vibrato.] “My help, my help, my help cometh from the Lord.” Right?

Hudson: [Laughing] Yes, ma’am!

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Kirsten Shultz for Variety

Variety: Carole, it’s so rare that there’s a pop standard that is a signature song for two stars. “Natural Woman” is that for you and Aretha both. It’s the climactic song on “Tapestry.” When you cut it in 1971, several years after it was so big for her, did you worry at all that maybe it already belonged solely to Aretha at that point?

King: It’s a really good question. Lou Adler, who produced the album, thought it’d be a good idea to redo “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” That was very different because the original hit [in 1960] was by a group [the Shirelles]; I’m a single person and I did it in a different, slower way. With “Natural Woman,” I did have the thought: How do you follow Aretha? But then I realized, I’m the writer. Do it as I would do it. Charlie Larkey, who was by then my husband, was playing bass, and it was just him and me, and it was lovely, intimate and heartfelt — me being me, allowing the music to come through me in the way that my music comes. So I wasn’t intimidated. It was just kind of almost a professional question: How do I do this? And, well, Jennifer, you must have had that, with the film.

Hudson: I understand everything you just said.

King: But you made it your own. You made her life come out of you in a way that was both you and her.

Variety: Watching that footage during the end credits of you, Carole, watching Aretha sing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center honoring you six years ago — maybe this is a superfluous question, because what you’re feeling there is all over your face. But what was going through your head?

Hudson: I want to know that too!

King: I can take you through it. She was supposed to be a surprise. I had dinner with her the night before, and I’m at dinner thinking, “Hmm. I wonder who she’s here for.” [Laughs] At the show, the very first thing I see her is her come out wearing the mink. Was it Clara Ward who wears the mink in the movie? Aretha took her inspiration from those gospel singers with that, and I was like, well, that’s cool. Then she sat down at the piano. She’s a great player, but she had not been playing piano in her later life like she used to. In that footage, you see me turn to my daughter and I say, “She’s playing!” Then everything went up and up and up, and she gets to [sings] “You make me feel so aliiiive,” and I’m like, “Oh, my God.” She was giving her all in a way I had not seen her give in a long time. And then, of course, she drops the mink. I was in the balcony, but my friend who was on the orchestra level heard it go thud. [Laughs] I didn’t get to see her again after the performance, but later I read an article in which she said she was doing it for me.

Hudson: I am so mad to this day that I was not there in that very room. I totally understood every tear that Obama cried when she sang that song. I’m getting chills even thinking about it. I don’t even know if I could put it into words. First of all, when I see greatness, I just want to be in the presence of it. And it does not get any greater than Aretha Franklin. Then, I’m sure Obama grew up also listening to “Natural Woman.” All the history in it, all the substance in it… To see this woman sitting here today — or 2015 at the time — in the flesh, playing and singing, and it’s Aretha Franklin, to be able to witness that is a gift. It is. At least for me.

Variety: Not everyone gets to go through life without losing any of their power, but it was inspirational, even shockingly so, to see Aretha that undiminished in her last years.

Hudson: Yes. Yes. And that’s where “Singing My Way Home” came from. You just said it. Even in her last days, what was she doing? She was on the piano, still singing. And she sang until she sang her way home.

Variety: Carole, it’s a milestone year for you for several reasons. Is the 50th anniversary of “Tapestry” as big a deal to you as it is to everyone else?

King: Well, it’s a very, very big deal. I’m not going out and doing interviews about it — though this obviously is turning out to be partly about that, so that’s very lovely and sweet of you. It is extraordinary to me that that album (a) lasted so long and (b) reached so many people around the world. I was in Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s office waiting to see her, early in my 30 years of doing the [environmental] work. I met a woman from Afghanistan who was wearing a hijab, and she told me that like when they were in the harem, they had a cassette player in the corner and listened to “Tapestry.” That blew me away.

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Matt Sayles for Variety

Variety: As for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you were already in once, as a songwriter, inducted alongside Gerry. Does it matter to you now, getting in a second time as a solo performer?

King: Well, sure, it’s a great honor. In fact, I’ll tell you what a great honor it is: I’m actually going!

Variety: You’re leaving Idaho?

King: Yeah, I’m leaving Idaho, exactly. You know, Jennifer, you’re quite a bit younger than I am, but I love that you’re out there and doing all this stuff. I’ve always been reclusive and kind of an introvert and a hermit. I’m not an introvert in the sense that, once I’m around people, especially if they’re really nice people and I like them, I can get all excited. But I don’t go many places. If I go out on tour, once I’m out, I enjoy being onstage, working with the audience, but the rest of it is “Really? Do I really need to be doing this?” So I admire you so much for being everywhere, and I know how much work it is. Do you get time for yourself?

Hudson: No, ma’am, but I guess it’s a part of the job. To get a tribute from beautiful people like yourself, it’s worth it.

King: Well, I will tell you, remember, when you feel like you need some time, put on your own oxygen mask first, or you won’t be any good to other people.

Hudson: Yes, ma’am. I’m listening.

King: I mean, don’t go to extremes like I do. [Laughs] But remember to take a moment and reserve some time for you. Jen, I love you so, so much. And it’s very hard when you get famous to be real, to stay real. And you are so grounded. There are such high expectations when there are a lot of people who love you. I’m speaking for myself; I know a lot of people love me too. And I used to be overwhelmed when I met people; I used to really be intimidated by all the love. I’d get on stage and people would be just like [she makes a roaring sound], before I even sang a note. And then I learned that it isn’t me that they love — although they do, because my work is part of me and reflects who I am — but they love what I represent. And that is that I have provided the soundtrack of their lives. And I’m likable enough, I suppose. [Laughs]

The other thing I learned is that when I meet people, often they will say, “Oh, my God, ‘Tapestry’ is the best album! I have a ‘Tapestry’ story,” and they tell me a story that I’ve heard many times from many people. The way I deal with that is, I look them in the eye and I realize that it’s the first time that they — that person — is telling me the story. And I give them all the attention that person deserves. Do you have the same thing, Jennifer?

Hudson: You are so right. I’m learning that more and more as I go, to understand people’s connections, because it is the narrative of their lives. And from our perspective, it may appear differently. But I just know for me, everything I do does come from the heart, and what comes from the heart reaches the heart. And I do like to allow people to have those moments.

I do not take any of it lightly. And I am so grateful to even be sitting here with you and to have done a song with you. I’m in awe just sitting here, I really am. It’s a blessing.

King: It’s a blessing for me, too, because I am an elder — that is how I describe myself. I’m going to be 80 next year. That is a number that I cannot even imagine ever attaching to myself. And yet what I feel is so blessed is to have somebody like you that is carrying this light and this love and this positive energy forward. You embody everything that I believe in about somebody being real and seeing themselves as an instrument, and respecting the fans and understanding their role. It’s kind of a weird thing to be a person who a lot of people love. You know, it’s hard to take that in, because it’s so big. And what are we? Just people, just like anybody else.

Styling (Hudson): Wayman & Micah/Forward Artists; Hair (Hudson): Kiyah Wright/Muze Agency; Makeup (Hudson): Adam Burrell/ A Frame Agency; Look 1 (Hudson, white dress): Dress: Brandon Maxwell; Shoes: Le Silla; Rings: Ananya, Grace Lee; Look 2 (Hudson, black jacket and pants): Jacket and Pants: Dolce & Gabbana; Shoes Manolo Blahnik; Earrings: Melinda Maria: Rings: Dru, KatKim