California’s Judee Sill had a troubled childhood, losing her father to pneumonia at eight years old. Her mother’s second marriage was often violent, and as a teenager Sill spent time in reform school after committing armed robbery. At reform school she served as a church organist and learned gospel music; although she wasn’t a Christian artist, her songs would contain a lot of Christian imagery. After her mother died, when Sill was 20, she spiralled into drug use, forgery, and prostitution, and wound up in jail.
Upon release, Sill worked as a song-writer, writing for the Turtles, and signing a record deal with David Geffen. While you’d think 1971 would be the ideal time for an introspective, acoustic musician to attain mainstream success, it eluded Sill. She only recorded one more album, 1973’s Heart Food, before suffering from debilitating pain after a series of car accidents, and succumbing to a drug overdose in 1979.
‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ was inspired by Sill’s relationship with JD Souther, a solo artist who often crossed paths with the Eagles. Much of Sill’s debut was produced by Henry Lewy, a long time engineer for Joni Mitchell, but ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ was earmarked as a single and produced by Graham Nash, who also played organ. While much of Judee Sill is just Sill’s guitar or piano accompanied by orchestration, ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ has a fuller arrangement.
The drummer switches gears several times from marking time to propelling the song forward, giving it a series of crescendos. It’s perhaps distracting, but it elevates the song into something more unusual than standard singer-songwriter fare. While both of Sill’s albums are worth hearing, ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ is the moment of brilliance that she should be remembered for.