We’re back with another FORGOTTEN ARTISTS article and this time Tim Martin is writing about one of the most enigmatic of musicians, Judee Sill.
Every so often Judee Sill gets “rediscovered for a new generation”. When she does it’s nearly always the “The Strange and Tragic Tale” that captures the writer’s attention and the music tends to slip into a supporting role. While her life and music can’t really be separated, you’ll have to look elsewhere for the drugs, guns, prostitution, and death tale, we’re going to talk about the songs.
According to legend, her debut album flopped, mostly due to Asylum focusing on The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. While accurate dates and numbers are a bit hard to come by, she had at least 6 months head start on the Eagles and ‘Judee Sill’ sold a quite respectable 50,000 copies in its first year. The first verse of the opening song ‘Crayon Angels’ ends “So, I sit here waiting for God and a train. To the Astral plane.” That could be a manifesto for the whole record. Sill’s writing was fully mature even at this stage, having been writing for about 3 or 4 years, including ‘Lady O‘ a minor hit for The Turtles. The songs that are held up as her finest, ‘Jesus Was a Cross Maker’ and ‘Crayon Angels’ on this album, obscure others that are at least as good. ‘The Archetypal Man’, ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos’ among them. What may have held the album back was the production. Apart from having a number of hands on the faders, including those of Graham Nash, the lack of any drums and the prominent orchestral sections were probably out of step with a world ready to embrace the simpler country-rock of The Eagles.
Sill said, possibly not entirely seriously, that her main influences were “Pythagoras, Bach and Ray Charles,” and it’s Bach who leaps out of the record along with the gospel backing of singers Clydie King, Rita Coolidge and Venetta Fields and the sound of pedal steel. These all remained on her second album ‘Heart Food’. Opener ‘There’s a Rugged Road’ is one of her most “country” songs but if there is a song that has cemented Sill’s reputation it is the next song ’The Kiss’. Like many others, including Ruth Barnes who presented a very good, if far too short, documentary on BBC Radio 4 in 2014, I found Sill when her Old Grey Whistle Test performance of ‘The Kiss’ was repeated in 2007. The simplicity of this performance and her clear haunting voice seems to stop time while she is singing. The contrast with the recorded version with a French horn part worthy of Brian Wilson or Van Dyke Parks and her tracked vocal is stark. The other song she sang on OGWT was ‘The Pearl’ a song that sounds like it came from her time supporting Crosby and Nash, with Doug Dillard’s banjo contrasting with the string backing on the album version. The tracked vocals that she used on quite a few of her best-known songs suggests a lack of confidence in her singing voice. When you hear her sing accompanied only by her guitar or piano, she needn’t have worried, her voice has a pure tone that was only really equalled by Karen Carpenter. That would have been a duet to hear.
The rest of ‘Heart Food’ is made up of a mix of simpler country flavoured songs like ‘The Vigilante’ with a loping western beat and more impressionistic songs like the complex choral ‘The Donor’. Overall, another tour de force, and in contrast to the view that Asylum had given up on her is the cast list, including Chris Etheridge, Spooner Oldham and Jim Gordon, and time and money spent on orchestration and recording. Henry Lewy, Joni Mitchell’s arranger was held over from the first album, but production and arrangement credits go mostly to Sill herself. There were obvious singles here particularly ‘Soldier of the Heart’ which could easily have been a hit with the arrangement stripped down for radio play. And that seems to be the problem, the music was too complex and out of tune with what the public wanted to hear.
She was dropped by Asylum following ‘Heart Food’ and drifted back to the “tragic life” that ended in 1979 when she was found following an overdose. The verdict in all drug-related deaths at the time was suicide, but those who knew her are convinced that she was on her way back. It seems she had bever stopped writing and recorded sporadically. A third “official” album was pieced together in 2005 by Jim O’Rourke from sessions in 1974. ‘Dreams Come True’ is clearly unfinished but has some strong songs. O’Rourke has done a good job of sympathetically mixing it from the material he had to work with and despite some rather intrusive drums, the elements of the Sill sound are all there.
A documentary is in post-production according to IMDB, possibly to be called “Judee Sill – How to Give my Heart Away”. The makers were interviewed by Shindig magazine earlier this year, but there is little other information online about it. Which leaves us with the hard facts, her music, most of it sublime to the point that, on the Radio 4 documentary, Andy Partridge can’t listen to ’The Kiss’ without breaking down in tears. If you don’t know her music start where many of us have with the Old Grey Whistle Test film of that song and prepare for a journey into her music that may last a lifetime.
‘Abracadabra: The Asylum Years (Rhino)’. The best way to buy the two “proper albums” ‘Judee Sill’ has original versions of two songs, seven live versions and a home demo and ‘Heart Food’ has an outtake and eight demo versions
‘Dreams Come True – (Water)’ The third album demos mixed by Jim O’Rourke and a disc of demos of varying qualities, some of them duplicates of the above.
‘Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973‘ (Troubador) The other essential Sill artefact. Acoustic Guitar and Piano and that wonderful voice. Almost worth it for the between-song stories on their own
‘Songs of Rapture and Redemption: Rarities & Live’ (Run Out Groove) Vinyl and digital-only. Contains seven songs from a support slot for Crosby & Nash Boston Music Hall just after the release of the first album and twelve outtakes and demos all available on earlier releases.
Avoid: Tommy Peltier feat Judee Sill ‘Chariot of Astral Light’: she sings backup and plays guitar and piano on a couple of songs and sounds in bad shape.
The BBC Radio 4 Documentary is worth a listen. Find it here.