Unsung Figures No.6: Judee Sill

The latest in our series exploring peripheral musical figures looks at the troubled life and ambitious musicality of this Californian singer-songwriter.

The first time I heard Judee Sill, which I’ll admit is less than a few years ago, my initial reaction was that this was all very lovely and her voice very pleasant but it was a little lacking in edge or bite. Something grabbed me though and having borrowed the albums from the friend who played her to me I listened again, intrigued by an underlying quality in the music that suggested I might want to dig deeper. One song had a title that made me want to pay attention to the lyrics, just to see what she was getting at. Its intriguing name was ‘Jesus Was A Crossmaker’ and it had verses like:

I heard the thunder come rumblin
The light never looked so dim
I see the junction git nearer
And danger is in the wind

And either roads lookin grim
Hidin me, I flee, desire dividin me
He’s a bandit and a heart breaker
Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker…

What did any of this mean? I had no idea, but the sheer strength and darkness of the imagery, juxtaposed as they are against her soft, clean everywoman tones and the radio-friendly production, fascinated me. After some digging around I found an alleged quote, a fragment of stage chatter where she explains that she had the title but nothing else until “I was having a really unhappy romance with this guy: he was a bandit, and a heartbreaker. So one morning I woke up and realised that “he’s a bandit and a heartbreaker” rhymes with “but Jesus was a crossmaker”. And I knew that even that wretched bastard was not beyond redemption. It’s true, it’s true; I swear. It saved me, this song. It was writing this song or suicide, y’know?”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60dwSWq2e6A

Writing this song or suicide? There’s the edge in her music I had been digging for, right there.

Judee Sill was born on October 7th 1944 in Oakland, California. Her father, Milford “Bun” Sill was a herpetologist and used his knowledge to earn some of his living importing rare lizards, often for use in films or TV shows. Her father also owned a bar which is apperently where a young Judee first started playing around with the piano, as well as sitting under tables when the bar was full and quietly harmonising with whoever happened to be playing. When he died of pneumonia in 1952, her mother decided to move Judee and her older brother Dennis to Los Angeles. Shortly after her mother took up with the animator Kenneth Muse, marrying him much to young Judee’s chagrin.

It seems her mum and new step-father had a relationship not just with each other but with alcohol as well, and as Judee began hurtling through her teens she developed an increasingly fractious relationship with both Muse and her mother.

Sill’s mother died in 1963, although how and why is not clear. What is clear is that Sill moved through a few different high schools and began experimenting with drugs and making friends with various nefarious characters, all of which led to her robbing liquor stores and gas stations for a short while until she got caught and wound up in a reform school.

After school had run its course she wound up taking a job in a piano bar and moved in to a house with a friend who also happened to be an LSD dealer. Sill would explore this particular drug with gusto. Later she met and subsequently married a piano player called Bob Harris (he would play with The Turtles later on, and briefly Frank Zappa’s Mother’s Of Invention) and the two of them moved to Los Angeles. Within months of meeting each other both had fallen in to desperate heroin addictions, with Sill apparently resorting to prostitution at times to pay for their habits. At some point this all led to her being jailed for narcotics and also forgery (of what is unclear).

It was only after this that she decided to take her music more seriously and began writing songs on guitar in earnest. After a chance encounter with Graham Nash she ended up touring as a support act for him and David Crosby. She caught the attention of David Geffen who immediately signed her to his Asylum label. One of the first things she recorded was ‘Jesus Was A Crossmaker’, which Nash produced, purposely going for a sound that would suit mainstream radio. The rest of the album would be produced by Henry Lewy and featured guitar and piano led tracks overlayed with strings and stunning multi-part vocal arrangements by Sill which drew heavily on her love of Bach’s fugues and chorales. Lyrically the album is steeped in spiritual and cosmic themes, as if she wanted to avoid writing about anything so trivial as love and explore something bigger. For example, on ‘The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown’ she sings:

Once I heard a serpent remark
“If you try to evoke the spark
You can fly through the dark
With a red midnight raven
To rule the battleground”

So I drew my sword and got ready
But the lamb ran away with the crown…

This is imagery that belongs in biblical tales or Greek mythology. It displays Sill’s cerebral approach to songwriting perfectly, as does the whole album. Yet despite critical acclaim and radio play the album sold very modestly, and in 1971 you have to remember there were plenty of singer-songwriters of a similar ilk to compete with, such as Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and plenty more besides.

Her second and final album, Heart Food, was entierly produced and arranged by Sill and is arguably an even better album, with stand-out track ‘The Kiss’ featuring some of the most beautiful vocal arrangements you’re ever likely to hear and the 8 minute long ‘The Donor’ drawing more explicitly on Bach than ever before with its ‘Kyrie Eleison’ refrain (see Mass In B Minor) and complex choral arrangement. Yet once again she was long on acclaim but short on actual sales and eventually Asylum seemed to lose interest, despite plenty of touring and television and radio appearances, including a number of sessions recorded in Britain for the BBC.

Details of her last years are patchy. She drifted away from the music business and was involved in more than one car accident which led to failed surgery to correct a back complaint. This led to an addiction to prescription pain-killers and inevitably back to heroin (minus Harris who by this time had died, as had her brother all adding to the tragedy in her life) and also cocaine all of which got hold of her and never really let go. Judee Sill died of an overdose of cocaine and codeine on November 23rd 1979 in her apartment in North Hollywood. She was 35 years old.

In the years since her death Sill’s records have slowly but surely accumulated cult status but still most people have no idea who she is. Her songs have been covered by the likes of Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt, Judie Tzuke and Fleet Foxes, and amongst songwriters she is held in high esteem. And so she should be. Her all too brief recorded output displays a rare lyrical and musical ambition, and they are quite simply two hugely accomplished and beautiful records. They and she are very worthy of your attention.

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