Judee Sill



Originally published in Plan B magazine, April 2009 – www.planbmag.com/shop

Somewhere Out There – Judee Sill

This is a religious song about flying saucers coming at the end of the world to take all of the sensitive, deserving people away. When I wrote it, I think I believed it more literally than I do now, although I still believe poetically that deserving people will be spared.”

Judee Sill’s speaking voice, though darker in texture, tougher and more sardonic than her singing voice, is the best possible introduction to her songs. As she hands out her descriptive buttonholes, busting herself proudly for stealing licks from R&B, gospel, or cartoon soundtracks; as she gives her halting, often angry depictions of the imagistic landscapes conjured by the songs; as she relates so straightforwardly her times of spiritual difficulty, her tone never wavers. Sill’s voice is always companionable, even at its most painful or arcane, and until she leans in to the microphone to sing, and breathes, I sometimes forget she’s gone. Long gone, and not as she hoped, the way the gentle go home, spared the darkness of the end times, but in undeserved pain and confusion.

Maybe she never was one of the gentle. Despite her Californian background, her melodic intricacy and the intimacy of her vocal delivery, Judee Sill is emphatically not a Canyon lady, a flower child baking musical cakes. Her work is structurally faultless by self-imposed, ahistorical standards and subject to a supremely accomplished production ethic, drawing from traditions and techniques as disparate as gospel, bluegrass and baroque classical to form a style she termed ‘country-cult-baroque’. Sill’s working life as a musician was brief: she released only two albums, 1971’s Judee Sill and 1973’s Heart Food, neither of which flourished commercially, despite very favourable critical responses, albeit within the constraints allotted to women musicians at the time.

2009 is the 30th anniversary of her death, and for most of those 30 years, despite a growing underground profile, both albums have been out of print. The lengthy unavailability of her recorded output – by various accounts, the result of oversight or grudge on the part of David Geffen, with whom Sill had a troubled professional relationship – had, until recently, meant that her work was largely overlooked for reappraisal. But since the reissue of both albums in 2005, the Live In London collection and the posthumous Dreams Come True, an anthology of unreleased songs and rarities, Sill’s work has been more readily understood, in part through the influence she has had upon artists as varied as XTC, Joanna Newsom, Elliott Smith and Jim O’Rourke.

Judee Sill committed the capital crime of being better than the male competition,” insists Andy Partridge of XTC, who wrote liner notes for the re-releases and readily admits to a ‘What Would Judee Do’ production ethic. “She should be considered in the same breath as Brian Wilson. In fact [Wilson] is the nearest male I can think of to Judee Sill. Surf’s Up has the kind of arrangements and treatments that she did, the multitracked vocal and the reverb, and the kind of chorus sound on the guitar.”

Her melodies and songwriting are kind of unparalleled, by a certain set of standards,” Joanna Newsom told Plan B in 2007. “She’s really good at one particular idiom, this American vernacular thing that in some ways Van Dyke Parks is kind of the king of, in modern pop music. [Aaron] Copland-isms; the American frontier classical symphonic sound. Almost every one of her songs has these figures that are 100 per cent part of Twenties or Thirties American classical music. And she has these weird gospel harmonies on top of that.”

If Sill looks, with hindsight, somewhat awkward among the pantheon of Seventies female singer-songwriters, she was also anomalous within the context in which she worked. She came to prominence among the Laurel Canyon scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies, the relatively commercial bunch based around David Geffen’s nascent Asylum label, a stable which included Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, and Jackson Browne. In this company, Sill was not considered an especially profitable prospect. An ambitious minor heiress adrift in the sad remnants of hippy culture, she was promiscuous and openly bisexual; witchy-looking, unpredictable and narcissistic, she would never be the cover girl Geffen wanted for his label. Sill was comfortable neither in mainstream society nor in the limited countercultural niches available to women in contemporary Los Angeles. She played bass in several bands, studied Rosicrucianism and theosophy, and kept a small harem of women at her beckon-call – and by 1971, at a time when women musicians were still expected to look pretty and behave, she was already notoriously uppity, growling at inadequately respectful audiences and complaining about her support slots for ‘snotty rock groups’. Sill did not come easily to performance; behind her were her profoundly troubled family life, a stint as a teenage armed robber, reform school, sex work, addiction and prison. Immediately before her was a meteoric, frustrating career as a commercial musician, whose lack of viability would prompt a relapse into depression and ultimately into the addiction that was to end her life; yet the two albums she produced, in the window between periods of chaos and unbearable sadness, contain some of the most consummate and, above all, esoteric pop compositions of any era.

Sill’s self-titled debut, on Asylum in 1971, was the label’s first release. Eleven ambrosial, carefully arranged tracks – Sill listed her influences at the time as Bach, Pythagoras, and Ray Charles – it’s an extraordinarily self-assured and coherent debut, hewn over years spent in the shadow of LA pop bands for whom Sill wrote songs or opened shows. After one such effort, ‘Lady-O’, scored a minor commercial success for the Turtles, David Geffen, until then an agent, was interested enough to give Sill a retainer until his label was up and running.

Characteristically stubborn and competitive was Sill’s insistence on re-recording ‘Lady-O’ for her own album. Both the Turtles version and Sill’s own share the same complex orchestration, but Sill’s is by far the more coherent-sounding; the multitracked vocal, expertly managed phrasing, and creamy quality to the tonal picture, add a sense of completeness to the intertwining of guitar and strings. The vocal is gauged perfectly as a segment of the sound; the earlier Turtles vocal sounds tacked-on by comparison. All the parts at play are fully realised, in all their dimensions: the interplay of melody and arrangement, the tiny shifts of mood as the vocal races the guitar to resolution, Sill’s vocal sustain mimicking the swell and the weight of the strings. The key is the compositional understanding, a grasp of the architecture of the song in macro and micro. ‘May You Savor Each Word Like A Raspberry,’ reads the album inset, and Sill’s version does feel as naturally developed, as perfectly formed, as fruit.

The album foregrounds Sill’s lyrical concerns as much as her idiosyncratic musicality and perfectionism. The songs are a provocative mix of quasi-religious imagery and gender confusion, shot through with a longing for redemption underscored by hard experience, and yet the overall impression is somehow of ease and comfort. Given the conceptual difficulty and metaphysical struggle of the average Sill lyric, the sense of supernatural well-being that she manages to confer on the listener might be surprising, had she not had such a clarity of intent for her arrangements. Multitracked vocals, often in choral form, shimmer through piano, strings, brass and guitar; melodic lines are answered by their chordal context in such satisfying ways, their resonance is barely grasped before being replaced by the next moment of delicious tension or abundant resolution.

‘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 I turned to see its reflection, and the lamb ran away with the crown’, Sill sings blithely in ‘The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown’. The vocal glosses over a shift in time signature between 4/4 and 3/4, as guitar, backing vocals and trumpets swap roles in the melodic picture, presaging an imminent four-part vocal round reminiscent of the closing bars of ‘God Only Knows’. Sill’s interest in both classical mythology and Crowleyan mysticism is visible here – she was an avid reader of Aleister Crowley’s poetry, and the sexual imagery of demonic possession springs directly from early works such as Snowdrops From A Curate’s Garden, while also reminiscent of the sexual ecstasies of the early female Catholic martyrs. Within the lyric, Sill portrays herself variously as the debased, flawed exile from the Garden, and the triumphant beast who sails the heavens on ‘ten crested cardinals’. ‘But I laughed so hard I cried,’ closes the song, ‘and the lamb ran away with the crown.’ A baritone saxophone positively chuckles at the thought as the vocal round fades out, no one line or perspective clearly dominant. In live performances, Sill would use her voice alone to replicate all four parts of the round, then the backing vocals. “I wanted to write a song where good triumphs over evil,” she said as she performed the song in London, neglecting to mention that she had cast herself as the vanquished.

In her lyrics, she’s always wrestling with the devil, and she’s the devil,” suggests Partridge. “The man is Christ and she’s the devil, and she wants the man but she can’t have the man, and she’s gonna kill the man, and he’s gonna kill her – and it’s all one giant fight with herself.”

Seldom is this conflation of sexual and spiritual warfare within Sill’s work clearer than in ‘Jesus Was A Crossmaker’, a song written in the wake of a painful jilting at the hands of country singer and labelmate J D Souther, and produced by Graham Nash. Initially, the lyric identifies Souther with the carpenter-Christ, toolmaker of his own torture and death. Sill presents this idea, morbid in the hands of a lesser songwriter, as deeply hopeful – in a contemporary recording on the Old Grey Whistle Test, she explains that with this realisation, she began to see redemption as available to all of humanity – and yet still she begs for release from the burden of empathy for her torturer. ‘Hiding me, I flee, desire dividing me; he’s a bandit and a heartbreaker – oh, but Jesus was a crossmaker. Sweet silver angels over the sea, please come down flying low for me,’ she sings, trapped in her own Gethsemane. Once again, her voice is multitracked, this time in unison, before breaking into choral harmony – two, three, four parts, as the strings filigree like a baroque harpsichord trill, and backing vocals alternate between human call and angelic response. In one video of a very early solo performance of the song, seated at her guitar, Sill closes by humming an approximation of the string part, so complete is her imagination of the necessary variation. She was later to hum these same approximations to the album’s arranger, her ex-husband, keyboard player Bob Harris, to aid the orchestration of the various parts, since she herself could not at that time notate a multi-instrumental score.

By the time Asylum released Sill’s second album, Heart Food, in 1973, that would no longer be the case. Sill arranged, produced and orchestrated the album herself, and seems more confident still: the gospel influence is considerably stronger, dominating the arrangements of ‘When The Bridegroom Comes’ and ‘Down Where The Valleys Are Low’, and the country idioms also more pronounced, particularly in the sweet fiddle of ‘Rugged Road’. But at the heart of this heart’s food lies the baroque influence that provided so much of Sill’s structural approach to songwriting and arrangement. As Gershwin is to Brian Wilson, so Bach is to Sill. The piano part for ‘The Kiss’, the album‘s second track, closely resembles the prelude of Bach’s first cello suite, transposed into 3/4 and augmented by a legato vocal that recalls the cello both tonally – Sill’s characteristic, swelling sustain and dramatically extended vowel sounds – and melodically. As the piano abandons its arpeggiation to supply insistent gospel chords over the song’s bridge, the vocal finds an ostinato that sets the template for a new counterpoint harmony. The lyric is impressionistic, and the place of the vocal in the mix all but binds it into the dense sound picture, until the string counterpoint emerges to emphasise its most solemn moments. ‘Storms bursting in the sky, hear the sad nova’s dying cry shimmer in memory,’ Sill sings with great tenderness and calm, violins pushing the mind’s eye heavenward as surely as any celestial reference in the lyric. The sum of the parts would be enough, but Sill manages, somehow, more; the effect is both mindbending and heartrending, a healing in sound.

You can try to pin that golden smoke to the wall, but you’re still only getting glimpses of what makes it,” warns Partridge. “ ‘The Kiss’ reduces me to tears faster than any other song I’ve ever heard. The lyrics are a set of clues, they build the tension, and then the melody cuts every string in your body. She was on her way; she could have become the world’s best songwriter and arranger.”

Could have, had she lived. The release of Dreams Come True in 2005, which gathered the early recordings of songs Sill had planned for her third album, as well as rarities, home recordings and a lengthy anecdotal oral history, is sadly the final word on Sill’s life and work. Mixed by Jim O’Rourke, the songs are strangely shiny and cheerful at a time when Sill’s own frustration, always a fruitful source of inspiration, seems to have been turning to despair. When she died, overdosing on codeine and cocaine she was taking to manage the pain of a spinal injury, Sill was once again living hand to mouth and managing a growing addiction, alone and out of touch with the musical community. Many of her former friends heard of her death only later. It’s far too hard a passing for this soldier of the heart, a woman who struggled so mightily, and who built out of her struggle such a strange, merciful refuge for her listeners.

~ by bunnyrabble on May 10, 2009.

10 Responses to “Judee Sill”

  1. Great article, but I think you downplay the role of Bob Harris in the realization of the first LP.
    He was hardly just a “keyboard player”, but had a successful career as an arranger, writing for such diverse performers as:
    The Turtles (that was his string writing for “Lady-O”, not Judee’s), Ray Charles, The Friends Of Distinction, Jack Jones, and many others.
    Although he was known as a jazz pianist, he also played his Wurlitzer for Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention briefly
    in 1971.
    Unfortunately, he was a notorious junkie, and Judee was told by Geffen and his partner Elliot Roberts that she had to stay clean, and keep away from Bob Harris.
    According to a relative of Harris’, Judee told Bob Harris to stay away from her, and adopted a White Goddess stage personae, wearing a white gown at her performances, maybe to convince Geffen that she was indeed, “clean”.
    Again, according to BH’s relative, Judee and Bob used to play at clubs and lounges on the West Coast at night, and then rehearse her songs together after the gigs at Harris’ mother’s house, with Bob making suggestions about chords on the guitar and arrangements.
    In addition, they would rehearse for hours at a very nearby studio, where a friend of theirs’ worked as a recording engineer,and would get a lot of free recording time from him.
    That friend turned out to be one of the producers of the first album.
    Anyway, Harris had an intimate knowledge of her songs, and made a very strong contribution to that first LP that couldn’t be acknowledged at the time.
    You can hear the difference in the arrangements of the next LP, “Heart Food”, which were more “padding” than those on the first LP.
    Other than “The Kiss” and “The Donor” and the songs that couldn’t be included on the first LP because of time constraints, the material seems a little weaker on “Heart Food”, and weaker still on “Dreams Come True”.
    But I believe that first LP is a masterpiece of “chamber-folk” music that, had circumstances been different, would have been recognized as a Judee Sill/Bob Harris effort.

  2. There was more about Bob in an early draft, actually, and thanks for all the info. I’m not sure I agree that the arrangements on ‘Heart Food’ are weaker; I think she explores different idioms equally skillfully, and for me the heft of the various parts is right. ‘Dreams Come True’ is a strange beast, and seems really anomalous as to mood – something for which Jim O’Rourke often gets blamed, though I’m not sure how realistic that is.

  3. The arrangements are weaker on ‘Heart Food’ only in the sense of lack of melodic content.
    The use of octave ‘unisons’ in the strings on the first LP give a strangely Eastern pentatonic sound to the songs, vaguely reminiscent of Alan Hovahnnes.
    I didn’t hear any trumpet in “The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown”; I think you meant alto flute.
    Someone else has commented that the baritone sax might be a bass harmonica- I’m still debating that one.
    It’s still not clear what role Don Bagley played on the LP; maybe some of the ‘cornier’ writing on “Abracadabra”?

  4. Oops- I listened to “The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown” again and there is a trumpet, playing three notes at the end during the ’round’.

  5. This is perhaps the greatest piece of writing about Sill that I’ve come across. It’s quite rare for people who write about musicians to actually write about the music they’ve made (funny how that is), especially from a theory perspective. Judee Sill needs to be heard by way more people. Kudos to you.

  6. Thanks Steve, I’m flattered you think so.

    sgcim: I’ve read various accounts of Bagley’s involvement. Views seem to range widely, let’s say. according to some, he and Harris wrangled the strings between them,. but most later pieces attribute them to Harris and Sill. I’d love to know, so if you do find something definitive, come back and tell me?

    As for trumpets and alto flutes, your guess is as good as mine. I wouldn’t say I had a great ear for brass/woodwind.

  7. Quality piece of writing.

    Superlatives to you and to Judee.

    Now how bout an article of similar vein about Daniel Johnston? The movie “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is a must see and as far as doomed artists goes, Daniel, Judee and Nick form a kind of holy trifecta for me.

    I wonder if I would have been such a dedicated fan of theirs if their personal story was not so grim… I tend to think I would be anyhow…

  8. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Jim Pons, but I think that’s impossible.
    I don’t think he wants to have anything to do with that part of his life.
    I’m going to try John Beck, but he completely dropped out
    of the music biz after that, also.
    The best I was able to do was an e-mail from Mark Volkman of the Turtles- aka Flo from Flo and Eddie with Frank Zappa.
    He has been quoted before on Judee saying something like- ‘she was always stoned whenever we spoke to her’,
    My first e-mail from him went something like this:
    I don’t understand why anyone is still interested in Sill.
    What more is there to say that hasn’t been said in all the articles and interviews? She wrote songs, developed a drug habit, used prostitution to pay for the habit, then OD’d and then died.

    I asked him for Pons’ e-mail address, but he wouldn’t give it to me, but said he’d forward my letter to Pons.
    Pons never got back to me, so I wrote Mark again and made it clear that I was not interested in Judee’s personal life. I just wanted to know about Bob Harris’ contribution to the first LP.
    Here’s what he wrote me:
    “Don’t be concerned it was all so much easier than you thinkWhat I know from being Jim Pons friend for 45 years and having spoke many times about thisisThe first record was mainly arranged by Judee but with Bob really acting as a facilitator.He could hear what she was saying and knew which instrument to suggest that would workfor what she was trying to say to him musically. So he would just respond like being in a tennis game.They would go back and forth until it just was done and that was it She would play the guitar and sit and tell Bob what she wanted to hear. Bob could transpose her verbal ideas intosomething tangible. They both would just go through a song kind of saying “how about this?or that” and then getting to something Judee could eventually say yes that works for me too. She had more ideas then were needed and Bob was an easy going collaborater.He would try and adapt to what she was playing on the guitar because she was a very good guitarist for her songs.That is why we had her play on the Turtles version of Lady-O. Bob didn’t know he was working on her only good songsand it was only going to be this record for him and that was it.But as it turned out people have tried to escalate the music farther then it was envisioned to be.It was a very organic project with great musicians involvedIt only went to Hell when Geffen got involved Mark ”

    This confirms what you said in your great article about Judee humming the parts to Bob, and Bob writing it out.

    Again, Mark has the ‘what’s the big deal?’ attitude about it, but who knows what’s behind that…?
    Bagley did that great cello writing on Joni Mitchell’s LP, so he was capable of more than hack work. Great jazz bassist, also.

    As far as the last post, I don’t think DJ belongs in the same league as JS and ND, but that’s just my opinion.

  9. Judee was my husband’s aunt. Her brother Dennis was his dad. I just ran across this article you wrote about her. Thanks for taking the time. It’s always nice to see articles about her trying to keep her music alive. If you have any questions you can contact me. Thanks

  10. Mark never Tasted the fruit, and for Geffen, Hell and Stan Polley are waiting for him, as he didn’t also pass the test.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: