Judee Sill “Judee Sill”
Judee Sill’s self-titled debut hit the shelves in 1971, the first release on David Geffen’s Asylum Records. Unjustly lost amongst the sands of time, and out of print for many years until it’s reissue a few years ago, Judee Sill is one-of-a-kind, an essential album, a defining example of West Coast canyon country, a hauntingly beautiful record by an extremely delicate soul and one of the 70’s most talented singer-songwriters.
Sill had been playing musical instruments of various kinds since her troubled childhood on the West Coast, which she spent dreaming of being a singer, a songwriter, and a star. An even more troubled young adulthood spent dabbling in hard drugs, armed robbery, and prostitution had landed her stints in reform schools and jail cells. After a near fatal overdose and a brush with the law that left her kicking heroin in a county jail cell, as well as the death of her brother and mother, Sill–who was increasingly drawn to metaphysical topics and occult, religious imagery–began taking her songwriting seriously. Her first big break came after landing a gig writing songs for Blimp Productions in Los Angeles when The Turtles decided to record a version of her song “Lady-O.” It was immediately clear to those around her that Sill had developed a lyrical style as distinctive as her achingly beautiful crystal-clear-as-a-mountain-stream singing voice. The time was ripe for Sill to make her “country-cult-baroque” vision a reality.
Opening with Judee’s fingerpicked guitar and a lone French horn, “Crayon Angels” is a beautifully evocative song, an honest prayer for heavenly hands matched with a gently breezy pastoral vibe perfectly suited to Judee’s delicate voice. Next up, “The Phantom Cowboy” lets Judee’s dirt road roots show through a little more while introducing the archetype of a traveling mystic ridge rider that appears frequently throughout Judee’s body of work. “The Archetypal Man” has even more of a laid-back Topanga-folk vibe with weeping pedal steel combined with baroque orchestral flourishes. “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown” is an absolutely beautiful tune that kicks off with just Judee’s softly reassuring voice and lilting guitar, perfectly expressing Judee’s belief in the possibility of goodness in the world. The lushly orchestrated “Lady-O” goes miles beyond The Turtles recording of the song, showing just how unassumingly evocative Judee’s vocal delivery can be. Similarly, Judee’s performance of “Jesus Was A Cross Maker” is the definitive version of the song, which is perfectly suited to her crystalline vocalizations and the gospel piano inflections that she learned while leading the church choir as a teenager in reform school. Produced by Graham Nash, the song was a last minute addition to the album, obviously in high hopes of a hit.
“Ridge Rider” further fleshes out Judee’s vision of a bohemian saint who rides the rough road to salvation despite its perils, complete with tasty pedal steel and the sound of hoof beats carrying along the chorus. “My Man On Love” is an enchanting folk song full of Christian imagery. “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” plods along at a pace just a bit slower than the rest of the album as Judee again pleads for the gift of peace. “Enchanted Sky Machines”, a song about salvation by UFO, quickly picks up the pace, beginning with another groovy gospel piano part that’s soon accompanied by brassy horns and upbeat drums. The beautifully orchestrated “Abracadabra” closes the album on a tender note and a major key.
Despite it all, Judee Sill didn’t sell as well as the troubadour and her friends had hoped. Nevertheless, she soldiered on to record and release 1973’s Heart Food, an equally outstanding album, which made even greater use of both her gospel influenced keyboard playing and her talent for orchestral composition. Sadly, Heart Food sold even fewer copies than the first album and Judee’s life began to gradually deteriorate. After a handful of auto-accidents in the late seventies Judee once again began turning to codeine, cocaine, and heroine in an attempt to numb the pain she suffered from so greatly. Judee’s life was cut tragically short the day after Thanksgiving
1973 1979, when she died after overdosing on codeine and cocaine. She was 35 years old.
Who knows what heights Judee and her music may have reached had she lived long enough for more people to pick up on her gentle genius? Both Judee Sill and Heart Food rank right up there with the best from giants like Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Sandy Denny, and Carole King, as well as releases by other unsung souls like Collie Ryan, Karen Beth, and Vashti Bunyan. Forty years later there still isn’t anything than can truly compare.