Sunday, August 21, 2016

Singer-songwriter Judee Sill

Marcia did a post on Judee Sill which we're reposting

Judee Sill

"Jesus Was A Cross Maker."  I know this song because of Cass Elliot's version.  Cass was one of the great singers of all time.

The song was written by Judee Sill who had a number of problems but also may have been undermined by David Geffen.

Michael Crumsho (Dusted) notes:

Born in Southern California in 1944, and dead in '79, Judee Sill's life was brief, yet filled with enough dark drama to satisfy a lifespan twice that long. It would be easy to relegate her life and musical career as a series of interesting footnotes in the biographies of other more well-known personas: her self-titled debut full-length was the first official release for David Geffen's Asylum imprint; Graham Nash produced her most well known single "Jesus Was a Cross Maker," which was a minor hit for Nash's group the Hollies; she penned a hit single for the Turtles. But doing so would deny the power and majesty of the two albums she released during her lifetime. Critics reacted warmly to her music, commercial success never followed. By the time of her death at the end of the 1970s, she had vanished completely from the music scene, so much so that when word of her death due to a drug overdose trickled down, more than a few people were surprised – they assumed she had already passed.
Now, in what's become an almost common occurrence for earnest, overlooked folkies, a string of reissues over the past couple of years have stirred up attention, and the recent release of her heretofore unknown third album will hopefully allow Sill's story and music to be heard by the wider audience she so richly deserved.
Judee Sill spent much of her adolescence in the Oakland area. Her father, Milford "Bun" Sill owned a bar, which is where Sill spent a lot of her childhood, learning piano in less than idyllic and seedy surroundings. When her father died of pneumonia in 1952, her mother moved Judee and her brother Dennis to Los Angeles, where the former Mrs. Sill took up and married an alcoholic animator named Kenneth Muse. Sill's mother spiraled downward into a haze of drug dependence and alcoholism, and although the two fought and bickered fairly regularly, Judee became more and more of a free spirit, unfettered by any attempts at parental control. She dealt with abuse at the hands of her stepfather and bounced around between family members, staying where she could to avoid the drama at home.

She would end up signed by David Geffen to his new label Asylum.

Geffen made his initial millions off the back of Laura Nyro.

He was her manager and took more than 10%.

She was supposed to be one of his big acts but then decided to stay with Columbia Records.

She was dead to him at that moment.

Barney Hoskyns (Observer) picks up Judee's tale:

'I remember her coming home one night swooning over Geffen and telling me he was the man for her,' says Pons. 'She also thought he was going to help her get to the top, which she had decided was her destiny.' 
Geffen, who'd made the first of his fortunes on the back of another bisexual songstress, Laura Nyro, landed Sill a lucrative publishing deal with a handsome advance. The money enabled her to make a down payment on a house on the Valley side of Stone Canyon.
'There was a lot of hanging out at her house,' says Straw. 'She was surrounded by her adoring female fans. I remember going round there one morning and there were maybe four or five other women, all sunbathing in the nude.' 
According to an old school friend, Sill went through a series of female lovers whom she treated with mild contempt. 'I just have her around to clean my house,' she would say of some poor besotted creature when friends visited the Stone Canyon house. 
'At that point Judee said and did a lot of things for effect,' says Straw. 'She was a typical self-centred artist who treated everybody around her like they were servants.' 
Although Atlantic Records was interested in her, Sill opted to wait until Geffen's Asylum label was up and running. To kill time she went on the road as a support act, sometimes in circumstances that made her seethe. 'Judee couldn't tolerate crowds that weren't appropriately respectful,' Pons recalls. On her one trip to the UK - when she appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test - Judee bitched about having to open for 'snotty rock groups'. 

Of her first album, John Cody (BC Christian News) explains:

Visions of the eternal run throughout.
‘Crayon Angels’ deals with false prophets; “Crayon Angel songs are slightly out of tune/But I’m sure I’m not to blame/Nothin’s happened but I think it will soon/So I sit here waitin’ for God and a train/To the Astral plane.” 
‘Enchanted Sky Machines’ was about end times, and made clear where she stood theologically; “Then when the skeptics are wonderin’/where all the faithful have flown/we’ll be on enchanted sky machines/the gentle are going home.”
Sill rarely minced words. As she explained regarding ‘Ridge Runner;’ “I had another divine inspiration on how noble it is to not fake it. How doubt can be an ally, really in the long run, as far as your spiritual evolution goes…” 
Her most popular song, ‘Jesus Was A Cross Maker’ was a last minute addition produced by Graham Nash. It’s the only song she recorded that actually mentions Jesus by name.’ Ironically, it’s not about theological concerns. It was inspired by a failed relationship with singer-songwriter J.D. Souther. Her explanation was typically forthright; “I knew that even that bastard wasn’t beyond redemption.” Both the Hollies and Mama Cass Elliot covered the song. Years later Souther would remember Sill with great admiration; “there was nobody more important on the L.A. singer-songwriter scene.” 

The album garnered exceptional reviews; Rolling Stone raved, and Newsweek labeled her songs ‘spaced-out spirituals’ and declared her ‘one of the most promising new singers in the business.’ 
For all the positive press, sales were dismal. The album never even placed in the Billboardtop 200 charts. 

She followed up with Heart Food, her second album.

Fiona Sturges (The Independent) adds:

Introducing one track, she explained to the audience how she had been trying to write something that "would somehow musically induce God into giving us all a break... Since that time I've decided that I shouldn't get any more breaks because I already squandered them in weird places. But I'd like to sing this song for you in the hope that you'll get a break."Sill had already had her biggest break but she broke it. David Geffen signed her to his label, Asylum, in the early Seventies and released two albums but, as the fortunes of her label mates The Eagles soared, she felt she wasn't getting the attention she deserved. After Sill announced on stage one night that Geffen was gay, word got back and he fired her. 

What's her place in music?  Stephen M Deusner (Pitchfork) offers:

There are cult artists, and then there are cult artists. Judee Sill is a little of both. In one sense of the word, she remains an obscure singer-songwriter with only a passing familiarity with the mainstream (she wrote "Lady-O", a hit for the Turtles) but with an avid audience devoted to tracking down every note she recorded. In the other sense of the word, Sill's songs have many of the trappings of an upstart California cult: astral planes, heavenly spaceships, apocalypse, and a unique understanding of a certain crossmaker. By today's standards, it can sound a bit loopy, but also much more benevolent than other cults and cult artists. Hers is a distinctly compassionate worldview, which seems natural given that music served as an escape from the harsh burdens of her reality: broken family, heroin addiction, health problems, stalled career, and an early death.

 Tim Page (Washington Post) shares:

Sill's lyrics might be described as high hippie Christian, cries of "Kyrie eleison!" melding with references to angels and astral planes. Her words are very much of their time and place -- and yet, even at their weakest, they more than suffice to decorate her unpredictable and irresistible compositions, which are nowhere near so easy to pigeonhole. According to Michele Kort, the author of Rhino's excellent liner notes, Sill insisted she wrote "country-cult-baroque -- country for the pedal-steel guitar, clip-clop Western beats and the twang in her voice; cult for the esoteric nature of her concerns and her small-but-fervent audience; and baroque for the Bach-like melodies she favored." 
But there is sun-splashed, deliciously over-marinated California pop here, too. Brian Wilson would have been proud to have written "The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown" (and the arrangement is so slick and pitch-perfect that he might have served as its producer). "Ridge Rider" proves a heretofore undreamed-of hybrid of Heitor Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasilieras" and cowboy music. "The Archetypal Man" swerves from straightforward balladry to jazz-baroque scat singing right out of the Swingle Singers. And "Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos" is an anomaly -- a popular song that actually earns the full orchestra that accompanies it. Yet it never seems overdressed: to the contrary, this is one of the most spare and evocative love songs ever written, addressing aging, rootlessless, exhaustion, need, loss and resignation in a few lines that must have been cut from the heart. 

Annie Nilsson (The Toast) offers:

It was impossible for her to do things by degrees. She immersed herself completely in her songwriting, living meanwhile in rundown studios; in flop houses full of male musicians (until they kicked her out for playing better than them); in “a ‘55 Cadillac with five people, sleeping in shifts.” She worked obsessively: studying the writings of Pythagoras, listening to “Bach and Ray Charles” for inspiration, taking LSD for the mind-broadening benefits. (She called it the White Peace, as opposed to heroin, which was The Dark Peace.) She believed she could reach people’s spiritual and emotional cores through the careful use of four part choral harmony and strings. She believed she could write lyrics pure enough to “entice God to give us all a break.” Sometimes it took the better part of a year for her to consider a song finished, but once she did, that was it, it was perfect.

Her contemporaries (of the so-called Laurel Canyon Scene) were at the time telling straightforward stories with their lyrics, but she employed a complex and shifting system of symbolism and oblique references in hers. To tackle subjects like love and faith and longing, she sang of cowboys, the Cosmos, enchanted sky machines, something called the Cryptosphere. To that end her songs about religion feel like love songs; her love songs feel like lying alone in an echoing cathedral, talking to God; and her only song with Jesus in the actual lyrics is really about her boyfriend leaving her for Linda Ronstadt.

For more on Judee Sill you can listen to the BBC radio program below.

Here's C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot:"
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }