When a band like the Fleet Foxes start name checking her and doing covers of her song ‘Crayon Angels’ we thought now might be a good time to re-evaluate the life and work of Judee Sill. Still largely unknown, even amongst those who were around in the early 1970s, her music is remarkable and has truly stood the test of time.
The biggest tragedy of Judee Sill is not her life, seemingly terrible as it was, but that this will overshadow the legacy of her small but brilliant output.
She was born in 1944 into a dysfunctional family plagued by alcohol and abuse from her stepfather who she described as “mean, dumb…used to beat dogs.” During her teenage years as well as learning to play a variety of instruments she began mixing with ‘low rider’ types which eventually led her to become a bank robber, albeit one of the least successful of all time. She herself admitted she was the type of felon who would walk into a bank and say “OK, mothersticker, this is a fuck up!” Not surprisingly she got caught and spent time in a juvenile detention centre. This proved invaluable as she learnt the church organ and gospel music much of which inhabited her later songs.
Having been released she scratched out a living as a musician playing in bars. However, her choice of company invariably included heroin addicts and after she herself got hooked she again found herself in trouble with the law and spent in jail.
Her luck began to turn around when Jim Pons, bass player with the Turtles, offered her work as a songwriter and subsequently her song ‘Lady-O’ was recorded by the band themselves. This led her to come to the attention of David Geffen who was about to start his own label Asylum to which Judee became his first signing in 1970.
Her first album was released in 1971 and received critical acclaim. Described by Jon Landau in Rolling Stone magazine as:
“One of the prettiest records I’ve heard this year. The lyric content is religious, the melodic contemporary tuneful. But the core of the album lies not so much in any particular song as in the musical conception as a whole.”
Indeed a common theme on both her studio albums was one of Christian imagery. However, she was not simply a ‘Christian folk singer’. There was ambiguity in her lyrics and the story of Christ became something of a metaphor for the struggle of good versus evil and the hope that good will prevail. The song ‘Lady-O’ a love song to a woman, a song of religious significance? Maybe neither, maybe both.
This was also no saccharine, sweet homage to her God. Many of her songs sounded sweet, but she sang about pain and darkness and the struggle to attain spiritual purity.
The most famous song on the album was “Jesus was a crossmaker”. This was produced by Graham Nash who by then had joined the premier league of rock royalty and was one of the high priests of Laurel Canyon. The song has been covered subsequently by many including, ironically perhaps, the Hollies (without Nash) as well as the Turtles and Warren Zevon.
Despite critical acclaim, the album failed to make much of an impact and her second and final release ‘Heart Food’ failed to gain much attention and as a result it faded from sight selling very few copies indeed.
The themes on ‘Heart Food’ remained largely similar, however, her musical ability had increased and she orchestrated much of the album herself. One of the most successful songs on the album was the “Kiss” which you can watch on this old grey whistle performance from 1973. Again it is a song that can be taken on various levels both as a love song and as a religious/spiritual communion.
Listening to the album again in 2009, the song that stands out is “The Donor”. It is an astonishing accomplishment; especially if you bear in mind Sill’s orchestrated the track herself. It helps to demonstrate that Sills was not just any singer songwriter but a composer and musician of great vision and ability. Stephen Holden in the Rolling Stone magazine describes it as:
“More impressive from a technical standpoint is “The Donor” an elaborately produced Kyrie Eleison in the form of a sustained fugue.”
After the commercial failure of the ‘Heart Food’ Judee disappeared from view although she continued writing, performing and recorded an album eventually released in 2005 as ‘Dream Come True’. However, her health deteriorated and after battles with drugs and several car crashes she passed away in 1979.
Judee Sill will never rank up alongside the likes of such artists as Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. However, one wonders how their careers would be judged if they had only released 2 albums during their lives. Judee Sill left behind a small body of work, however, it is sufficient to demonstrate that she was an incredible, naturally gifted songwriter of great vision and beauty.
Judee Sill (1971)
Heart Food (1973)
Dreams Come True (released 2005)
Live in London 1972 – 1973 (released 2007)