To fans of her music, Judee Sill is hardly a person at all. She is a spirit and a voice; a phantom; an icon. Her music is far less personal, say, than Joni Mitchell’s or Laura Nyro’s – more ethereal and composed, like a cathedral in the sky. Her lyrics reveal little of her life or personality, stirring the mystery with parables of ridge riders and enchanted machines. How strange then to find a life bursting with material, lived with fervor and recklessness, just begging to be told.
The incredible details come piling on top of one another. After an early childhood ducking fights in her father’s roughneck bar, Judee lived in Los Angeles with an alcoholic mother and an abusive, Oscar-winning stepfather. After high school she took up armed robbery, then spent time in reform school, where she played organ for the church choir. Back on the streets, she worked as an itinerant bassist and ingested daily LSD. Then she moved onto heroin, and prostitution to feed a $150 a day habit. Busted for forging checks, she spent three months in prison, where she experienced a magnificent vision of transformation.
Upon release, Judee committed herself to songwriting with blinding devotion. “I got out of the drug thing,” she told the Los Angeles Star, “and started using all this fierce gusto within me for something – in a direction.”
Amazingly, her plan worked. Within a couple of years, she was writing the best songs anyone had ever heard. “She was light years ahead,” singer-songwriter J.D. Souther told journalist Barney Hoskyns. “I thought Jackson Browne was the furthest along at having learnt songwriting, but then I met Judee and thought, ‘Fuck, man, she’s school for all of us.’”
When Judee first visited Britain in 1972, she was riding a crest of expectation. Her first big break had come in ’69, when the Turtles covered her song “Lady-O.” Soon she signed with über-manager David Geffen, who handled acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joni Mitchell. Geffen booked her to open for Crosby & Nash across North America, and she began to find an audience. He also made her the inaugural artist on his era-defining Asylum Records. Her shimmering, note-perfect debut, Judee Sill, hit shops at the tail end of 1971.
In advance of her spring visit, practically every British music paper raved over the album.
“This is a beautiful album in every sense of the word,” said Sounds,.
“Highly recommended,” wrote Melody Maker,.
“Destined to develop into a powerful force,” proclaimed NME,.
Over the weekend of March 18, Judee opened for folk-rock stars America (another Geffen act) at London’s Royal Festival Hall. She proved a great hit, and soon the music papers came knocking. On March 25 Melody Make, r ran a feature interview.
“I actually write my songs backward,” she told journalist Chris Welch. “I take a climax and then I build up to the introduction.”
On April 8 she managed a hat-trick, featuring in new issues of NME, Record Mirror,, and Disc & Music Echo,.
“I like playing in Britain,” she told NME,. “People over here are much nicer. I think maybe their taste is more culturally mature.”
During her month-long stay, Judee recorded two sessions for BBC Radio. The first, cut March 23 at London’s Paris Theatre, aired eight days later on the In Concert, program. Introducing her songs, Judee sounds hopeful, nervous and little breathless. “Excelsior, onward and upward,” she declares before introducing “Enchanted Sky Machines.”
Musically, however, she delivers with dead-eye precision. She sings confidently and powerfully, and even manages an impressive imitation of a vocal round on “The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown.” Other highlights include a floating, angelic “Lady-O” and an excellent version of her single “Jesus was a Cross Maker.” Performed on acoustic guitar, rather than at the piano, the song sheds the gospel flavor of its studio version, emerging as an epic folk number and a sly showcase for her distinctive finger picking. Without the lush embellishments of the studio, her songs succeed fully by their own merits. What’s astounding is how little they lose of their crystalline grace. If anything, these performances reveal more clearly than ever the structural and melodic precision of her songs: even raw and unvarnished, they shine like diamonds.
“In solo performance I thought she was terrific, more saintly and not so technically oriented,” says her lover and musical collaborator David Omer Bearden. “Especially at home when there was nobody around… She did blow your mind.”
Two weeks later, on April 5, Judee returned to the BBC for In Session with Bob Harris. She performed mostly the same set of songs, though this time without a live audience. In addition, Harris conducted a short, illuminating interview, included on this disc. It provides a rare opportunity to hear Judee in conversation, where she sounds focused and somewhat defensive. When Harris asks why she dislikes opening for rock bands, she replies, “I’m trying not to think about that now,” and then adds, as if casting blame, “I’d almost forgotten about it.”
Remembering Judee today, Harris says, “I liked her music immediately. There was a vulnerability about her voice that I found very endearing.” But he adds, “She wasn't the easiest, loosest person to be with. She'd had a rough time in her life and seemed suspicious of people. She was keen to mention financial hardships in particular… My memory of her performance is of her imploring the audience to buy the album because she needed the money.”
The power of Judee’s story rests on an essential juxtaposition: she lived the most chaotic life but made the most orderly art. More than most artists’, Judee’s music displays a crystalline perfection. She lets loose no wasted words, no stray notes, no willowy asides. And yet her life was full of false starts and wrong turns.
While her first trip to England caught her on the cusp of major success, her second trip, in early 1973, saw the start of a long and tragic downward turn. Judee had recently completed her sophomore album Heart Food, a dark and rumbling tour de force, and Asylum booked her to tour Britain with cult folksinger Roy Harper. She left in January, now traveling with David Bearden, to whom she had become profoundly attached. (Their incredible, passionate and volatile love deserves liner notes of its own. Suffice to say, the gloomy majesty of Heart Food would have been impossible without it.)