Overlooked No More: Judee Sill, Singer Whose Life Was Cut Short

Top Photo: Judee Sill performing on a British TV show in April 1972 while on tour to promote her first album.Credit…Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, via Getty Images

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

The story that runs parallel to Sill’s rising stardom was one of misfortune and adversity that culminated in her death at the age of 35.

23 January 2020 | Minju Pak | New York Times (original link)

Judee Sill’s career had all the makings of a great singer-songwriter story.

She was at the center of the 1970s folk-rock scene in California, alongside contemporaries like Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther.

She became the first artist that David Geffen signed to his storied Asylum Records label, whose roster would go on to include Bob Dylan, the Eagles and Tom Waits, among many others.

And she toured with major musicians like Graham Nash, who contributed to her debut album, and David Crosby.

In a sea of male singers and songwriters, Sill emerged, along with Joni Mitchell and a handful of others, as one of the few women who wrote and sang their own songs.

But the story that runs parallel to her rising stardom is one of misfortune and adversity that culminated in her death, at the age of 35, on Nov. 23, 1979.

Though the cause, a drug overdose, might have seemed to have resulted from the trappings of such a career — particularly at a time when excess was synonymous with the music industry — Sill’s existence was much more labyrinthine.

Sill in London on tour to promote her second album, “Heart Food,” which was released in 1973. In a sea of male musicians, Sill emerged as one of the few women who wrote and sang their own songs.Credit…Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, via Getty Images

Judith Lynn Sill was born in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 7, 1944. Her father, Milford Sill, who owned a bar, died of pneumonia when she was 8. It would be the first of a series of personal tragedies and troubles that formed an undercurrent in her life. Her mother, Oneta, soon moved Judee and her older brother, Dennis, to Southern California and married Kenneth Muse, a Hollywood animator. Sill later talked openly about the abuse in her household.

“My stepfather was dumb and cruel, and my mother began to get more unreasonable herself,” she told Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 while on tour promoting her first album. “So there was violence all the time. I always had scars on my knuckles. We had such violent fights at our house that the police and newspapermen would come.”

To escape her fractured family, Sill made decisions that would land her in reform school and later, in jail.

After her first marriage, right out of high school, was quickly annulled, Sill sought a way to escape her unhappiness. An acquaintance introduced her to a man who was experienced in armed robbery, who brought her along on his excursions to liquor stores and gas stations. By the time she was 20, she had been caught and sent to reform school.

Her second marriage, in her early 20s, was to a man she had met while attending Los Angeles Valley Junior College. He introduced her to heroin.

“I knew I was gonna become a junkie, and I did,” Sill told Rolling Stone. At one point she turned to prostitution to fund their habit.

Through it all, she dabbled in music. Spending time in her father’s bar as a girl, she said, she “started playin’ piano and found out I could harmonize with myself.” In reform school, she was the church organist.

It was during a stint in jail, having been convicted of forgery and narcotics possession, that she started fantasizing about writing her own songs. After she was released, she immersed herself in it, drawing inspiration for her songs from books about religion and the occult.

“I could see that I was gonna have to write songs that were about those things,” she told Rolling Stone. “I came to some important inner realizations, tryin’ to make the laws of nature work for me instead of against me. I felt instinctively that it was my duty to throw myself into it all the way, so I did.”

She sold one of her songs, “Lady-O,” to the rock band the Turtles, which released it as a single; it made it onto the Billboard pop chart in 1969. She would record the song for her first album two years later.

It was around this time that David Geffen was starting his own label and looking for talent.

“She sent me the demo and a letter,” Geffen said in a phone interview. “It was unlike any letter, about prison, being a heroin addict, so I called her up, and she came up to see me, and she played me some of her demos.”

Her voice was strong, with a Southern California drawl, her intonation rising and falling on every word within a phrase.

“She was a unique songwriter, a wonderful singer, and had an unusual tale to tell about herself,” Geffen said.

He signed her in 1971, and later that year she released her first album, called simply “Judee Sill.”

From the first song, “Crayon Angels,” to the last, “Abracadabra,” her lyrics addressed the metaphysical. One song, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” had its seeds in a devastating breakup with a fellow songwriter. Afterward, as a salve, Sill read Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1952 novel, “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

“I was so excited when I was writin’ that song because it was not only the best thing I’d ever written, and I knew it, but it took the weight off my heart and turned it into somethin’ else, and I was able to forgive the guy for the horrible romantic bummer he’d put me on,” she said. “And I gained a new kind of strength from it, from that combination of forgiveness and creation.”

The song, the only one on the album produced by Graham Nash, was released as a single.

“Jesus Was a Cross Maker” expressed some of the recurring themes in Sill’s work, including temptation, redemption and a quest for a higher meaning, as in these lines:

One time I trusted a stranger

Cuz I heard his sweet song

And it was gently enticing me

Though there was something wrong

But when I turned he was gone

Blinding me, his song remains reminding me

He’s a bandit and a heart breaker

Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker.

Sill released her second album, “Heart Food,” in 1973.

In a 2006 review of her music, the Pitchfork critic Dominique Leone wrote: “Unfairly lumped in with other female, proto-adult contemporary songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Carole King, Sill was much closer in spirit to Brian Wilson, Nick Drake or one of her idols, J.S. Bach. She had a gift for making very complicated things sound simple, beautiful. Often, her arrangements took advantage of a chamber orchestra or layers of vocal harmonies, and rather than seeming pumped full of grandeur, they were tiny miracles of poetic efficiency.”

Sill was working on songs for her third album when she died. The Los Angeles medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, The Washington Post wrote in 2006, “but those who knew her better have always contended that the ‘note’ found near her body — a meditation on rapture, the hereafter and the innate mystery of life — may just have been part of a diary entry or, perhaps, another one of her haunted, haunting songs beginning to take shape.”

Though Sill did not reach the pinnacles of stardom, her music continues to resonate more than 40 years later.

Warren Zevon, Shawn Colvin and others have covered her songs; Greta Gerwig sang one, “Rugged Road,” in a scene in the 2010 film “Greenberg.” Every decade or so Sill’s music is reissued. Intervention Records obtained the rights to her albums in 2017.

In 1974, Sill recorded material for a third album at the studio of Michael Nesmith, best known as a member of the Monkees. Those songs were released in 2005 as “Dreams Come True,” a double CD, by Water Records


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