Judee Sill: An Appreciation

❉ Samantha Veal pays tribute to the enigmatic singer/songwriter, and her enduring music.

“Fightin’ him, he lights a lamp inviting him
He’s a bandit and a heart breaker
Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker…”

Judee Sill’s musical candle may not have shone as brightly as other female singer/songwriters, but then again she wasn’t like them. She wasn’t Joni and she wasn’t Nyro. Her work was darker, more insular and also more spiritual. At her peak, she raged at David Geffen for not being able to promote her material, but one could lightly sympathise with him – how could he sell something as unique as her?

It’s the classic dark and tempestuous backstory that one just KNOWS is right for a biopic. As a child, she learned piano in her father’s Oakland bar. When he died, her mother remarried and moved her and her brother to LA. Both mother and the second husband were, according to Sill, violent alcoholics and life took the inevitable downward spiral. Sill “fell in with the wrong crowd” at her new school and was allegedly involved in gas station and liquor store heists (she also later said she had married one of the robbers as a teenager).

See, this is what’s so fascinating about her to me – her story is hazy. The material is there in all its splendour- her beautiful between-song narration on the “Live In London” recordings giving us her warm, rich and soothing speaking voice- but it’s hard to draw a detailed picture of the woman herself. Reform school, bisexuality, drug abuse…it’s all a background to the inscrutable Musical Mona Lisa herself.

Reform School led her towards playing the church organ, and thence into the gospel and evangelical music that would later colour her work. After her release, she continued to play piano in a school orchestra. The death of her Mother saw her leave her Stepfather’s home and then drift into drugs and sex work. Marrying a pianist in 1966, she briefly moved to Vegas and became a heroin addict before moving back to LA and sinking deeper into addiction. During one of her petty crime jail sentences, she learned her brother had died. She then set about songwriting- one can only imagine the mental source material she had at her disposal.

This seemed to be the chance she had at Turning It All Around. She got to open for David Crosby and Graham Nash, and her work was starting to get the attention both it, and she, deserved. David Geffen welcomed her into the Asylum stable (THE label to be on) and her self-titled first album featured the single Jesus Was A Cross Maker. The double-tracked vocal and simple piano was her motif- here fleshed out beautifully with soaring harmonies.

Frustratingly, the album was not a massive success, but she soldiered on to create her second album- Heart Food – containing my personal favourite The Kiss. Her work continued to be coloured by and filled with quasi-religious fervour and again, the album did not sell well. She had a very public falling-out with Geffen over his lack of support and promotion and left Asylum under a cloud.

A third album was planned, but no other labels were willing to take her on and she lost interest in music. She then faded from the scene, disappearing in the same mist that she arrived in. She died of a drug overdose in 1979 – it was said subsequently in the Washington Post that no obituary was posted at the time of her death and therefore a lot of her friends didn’t know she had died, such was her withdrawal from everyone’s lives.

So, while her life story is sketchy, the works she’s left us most certainly aren’t. She couldn’t be categorised, and she should be celebrated because of that. Good rest, Judee.

“Sun sifting through the grey
Enter in, reach me with a ray
Silently swooping down, just to show me
How to give my heart away”

❉ Samantha is in her mid-40s, and likes to be told she doesn’t look it. She used to be in charge of a cemetery and her favourite almond-based product is marzipan. She fits bouts of catsitting in around her desk-jockey day job, and has been halfway through writing a debut novel for a good few years now. In the meantime, she’ll have a strong white coffee with one sugar please, thanks.

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