1970s singer–songwriter Judee Sill was the first artist signed to David Geffen’s Asylum record label. But she had a troubled life; after her father died, her relationship with her stepfather was difficult, and she slipped into a life of crime.After she was arrested for armed robbery, she was sent to reform school, where she learnt about gospel music and served as church organist. After a stint in jail she became a professional songwriter, providing material for The Turtles, and with the support of Graham Nash she was able to release her debut album in 1971.
But Sill’s unique, Bach-influenced music failed to break through into the mainstream, and she was dropped from Geffen’s label after frustration at the lack of success of sophomore album Heart Food. She drifted away from music, working as a cartoonist, and died young in 1979 after overdosing on painkillers prescribed for her back, which was injured in an earlier car accident.
While she has always been a peripheral figure, she’s had enough shout-outs from fellow musicians that her profile has increased recently – Warren Zevon covered ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ in 1995, Jim O’Rourke produced Dreams Come True, a posthumous collection of material, while musicians as diverse as Andy Partridge and Liz Phair have acknowledged her influence. As a female singer-songwriter operating in the early 1970s, other introspective artists like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro are reference points, but Sill has her own musical niche – she would accompany herself in four part chorale or fugue, while her influence from Bach and frequent use of religious imagery are also distinctive.
Judee Sill had built up a catalogue of material while working as a songwriter for The Turtles’ publishing company, Blimp Music. Her debut record was the first album released on David Geffen’s Asylum label, and is mostly produced by Joni Mitchell’s longtime engineer Henry Lewy. The exception is the single ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’, produced by Graham Nash, which is noticeably more direct and punchy than the rest of the record. The rest of the material is spacier, with no rhythm section, and Sill accompanying herself, mostly on The Lacoustic guitar, backed by strings and her own multi-tracked vocal harmonies.
As good as the rest of the record is, ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ towers over the rest of the album – written about Sill’s relationship with Eagles associate JD Souther, the propulsion from the rhythm section and the pretty tune make it stand out, and it’s wise that it’s tucked away in the middle of the record. But there’s lots of other pretty stuff here – songs like ‘Crayon Angels’ and ‘The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown’ are pretty and filled with interesting imagery.
One all time great and lots of solid album tracks make Judee Sill an excellent debut from a fascinating and unique singer-songwriter.
Judee Sill disliked touring as an opening act, and she was unable to take her career further with Heart Food. The album received strong reviews, but poor sales, and she lacked the resilience to deal with the album’s failure. Sill produced and arranged the album herself, and it’s fuller sounding than her debut, but generally similar.
It’s similar to Judee Sill in that there are lots of solid album tracks and one standout tune. This time, it’s the extraordinary closing track, ‘The Donor’, a haunting eight minute meditation based on the traditional Church piece “Kyrie Eleison”, featuring complex multi-tracked vocals from Sill. It’s an overlooked masterpiece. There’s also the beauty of ‘The Kiss’ and ‘When The Bridegroom Comes’, and the more pop-oriented feel of ‘Soldier of the Heart.
Sadly Heart Food was Sill’s last studio album – she abandoned her third album, and largely lost interest in music, working as a cartoonist instead.
Dreams Come True
2005, not rated
I’ve never heard this, but am interested in hearing it sometime. It’s a two disc set – the first disc is Sill’s unfinished third album, mixed by Jim O’Rourke, and the second album is a collection of demos and rarities.
Five Favourite Judee Sill Songs
Jesus Was A Cross Maker
The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown