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.