Sill Judee Sill was another of those songwriters who I caught a glimpse of in the 1970s, only to lose sight of altogether until the Internet came to the rescue (others included Jaki Whitren, Brian Protheroe, Chris Rainbow and Chris White – more of them all later). Sill’s story, though, is a tragic one – her discovery by David Geffen in 1971 and the subsequent record deal might have helped salvage a life that was already going off the rails by that time. The album Judee Sill was the first release on the Asylum label, and included the single “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” produced by Graham Nash and covered later by many others, including Cass Elliot, Warren Zevon and Judy Tzuke. Sill became associated with the Laurel Canyon group of singer-songwriters that included Carole King and Joni Mitchell. A second record, Heart Food, appeared in 1972, but it wasn’t enough to sustain her career. Sill disappeared from view, worked as a cartoonist for a while, and died in November 1979 of a drug overdose.

For years the recordings were hard to get hold of, and they didn’t get reissued on CD until 2005, along with the remnants of a third album, Dreams Come True made up of demos from 1974. The songs, all originals, are folk-influenced (though classical, country and gospel aspects are there too), and many of the lyrics and titles use a strange mixture of religious and sexual imagery. Most striking of all are the intricate multi-tracked vocals laid down using elaborate counterpoint and rich harmony. “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” (from the first album) has all of this. The biblical references in the lyrics are clear: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29); “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). But they are mixed up with mythology and mysticism, such as images of demonic possession derived from the poetry of Aleister Crowley, which Sill had read.

Though the beast within me’s a liar
He made me glow with a strange desire
And I rode on the fire
With a blue sacred opal to bless the battleground

But by the end of the song the demon has been exorcised. “But I laughed so hard I cried/And the lamb ran away with the crown.” And on those words Sill constructs a celebratory choral ending, skillfully weaving together three separate vocal melodies and an instrumental line played on baritone sax. It’s an ending that might have been produced by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Both of the two 1970s albums are full of strong, individual material – it’s great to have them back.

Update, Sept 2014:  It was great to hear a documentary about Judee Sill on BBC Radio 4 in which we heard how she categorized her own style of music as “country cult baroque”. Andy Partridge of XTC called her song “The Kiss” from Heart Food “possibly the most beautiful song ever written”.

Update, Feb 2015: Judee Sill, Live in London, the BBC live recordings from 1972-3, are now available.

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