Judee Sill (born Judith Lynne Sill, October 7, 1944 – November 23, 1979) was an American singer and songwriter. The first artist signed to David Geffen's Asylum label, she released two albums on Asylum and partially completed a third album before dying of a drug overdose in 1979. Her eponymous debut album was released in late 1971 and was followed about 18 months later by Heart Food. In 1974 she recorded demos for a third album, which was never completed. The demos were posthumously released with other rarities on the 2005 two-disc collection Dreams Come True.
Judee Sill was born in Studio City, California, on October 7, 1944, and spent her early childhood in the Oakland area. Her father, Milford "Bun" Sill, an importer of exotic animals for use in films, owned a bar in Oakland, in which Sill learned to play the piano. When he died of pneumonia in 1952, Sill's mother Oneta moved with Judee and her older brother Dennis to Los Angeles, where Oneta soon met and married Tom and Jerry animator Kenneth Muse.
In a 1972 Rolling Stone magazine interview, Sill described her home life after her mother's remarriage as unhappy and frequently violent due to physical fights between Sill and her parents. She transferred from a public high school to a private school, where she met other rebellious teenagers, some of whom were allegedly involved in crime. Either during high school or after her graduation (depending on the source), Sill and a man she had met committed a series of armed robberies of businesses such as liquor stores and gas stations. Sill and her robbery partner were soon arrested and she spent nine months in reform school, where she served as church organist and "learned a lot of good music" including gospel music.
After being released, Sill briefly attended San Fernando Valley Junior College as an art major. She also played piano in the school orchestra and worked in a piano bar. At some point between 1963 and 1965 (depending on the source), her mother died, and she left college and moved out of her stepfather's home. She started doing LSD and other drugs, moved in with an LSD dealer and joined a jazz trio.
In April 1966, Sill married pianist Robert Maurice "Bob" Harris. The couple lived in Las Vegas for a time, but both developed crippling heroin addictions within months. When Sill moved back to California, she resorted to prostitution, scams, and check forgery to support her habit. A string of narcotics and forgery offenses sent her to jail, and she learned that her brother Dennis had suddenly died. When she got out, she immediately set to work as a song composer.
Sill encountered Graham Nash and David Crosby and toured with them for a time as their opening act. After some initial interest from Atlantic Records, David Geffen offered her a contract with his new Asylum label. She sold her song "Lady-O" to the Turtles, and was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. Harris worked on her first album and was also involved with the Turtles (which led to his short stint as keyboardist with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention in 1971).
Graham Nash produced her first album's first single, "Jesus was a Cross Maker", which was released to radio on October 1, 1971. The album, Judee Sill, was released on September 15, 1971. It featured Sill's voice in multiple overdubs, often in a four-part chorale or fugue. She worked with engineer Henry Lewy, noted for his work with Joni Mitchell throughout the 1970s. The album was not a commercial success.
Sill took over the orchestration and arrangements on her second album, Heart Food, which included "The Donor". Heart Food was released in March 1973 and was critically acclaimed, but sold poorly, leading to the end of her association with Geffen and Asylum Records. Sill's friends have said that she lacked the resilience to cope with poor album sales and bad reviews of her work, and that she was dropped after she refused to perform as an opening act, a task she disliked. According to another source, Geffen pulled support for Heart Food and refused to release any more of her records after Sill, frustrated over what she perceived as his lack of support for her career, publicly referred to him using a gay slur.
She continued to write songs, and in 1974 began to record new material for a planned third album. By this time, Sill was once again suffering from drug abuse and other health problems, and her music was not regarded as marketable. She also was beginning to lose interest in music and focus on other pursuits, including theosophy and animals. In the mid-1970s she worked for a time as a cartoonist with a Los Angeles animation studio. Her 1974 recordings were never finished. Twenty-six years after Sill's 1979 death, the unfinished songs were mixed by Jim O'Rourke and released, along with a collection of rarities and home demos, as the album Dreams Come True on the Water label.
Sill's personal life was turbulent, and she was affected by the early deaths of her father, mother and brother. Sill claimed to have been married twice, saying in interviews that she was briefly married either during or just after high school to a classmate, that her parents had the marriage annulled, and that he later died in a rafting accident. A friend of Sill's has written that she claimed to have married her robbery partner as a teenager. Sill's second marriage was to Robert Maurice "Bob" Harris on April 27, 1966 in Clark County, Nevada. They divorced in 1972.
Sill was openly bisexual and had relationships with both men and women. Her romance with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther inspired her song "Jesus Was a Cross Maker". Souther later wrote the song "Something in the Dark" about her. She had a long-term relationship with poet David Omer Bearden, who contributed lyrics to Heart Food and toured and performed with her; Sill dedicated Heart Food to him. As Asylum's first published artist, Sill also had a close friendship with David Geffen, which went awry after comments she made in frustration at not receiving enough promotion for her second UK tour.
After a series of car accidents and failed surgery for a painful back injury, Sill struggled with drug addiction and dropped out of the music scene. She died of a drug overdose, or "acute cocaine and codeine intoxication," on November 23, 1979, at her apartment on Morrison Street in North Hollywood. The Los Angeles coroner ruled her death a suicide, taking into account a note found near her body, but some who knew her have contended that the note, which reportedly contained "a meditation on rapture, the hereafter, and the innate mystery of life", was not a suicide note but rather a diary entry or song concept. Her ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean after a ceremony organized by a few close friends at the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades. According to a 2005 Washington Post story, by the time of Sill's death, she had become so obscure that no obituary was published, and for many years a number of her friends were unaware she had died.
Although Sill's music was not commercially successful, a number of later songwriters have been fans of her work, including Andy Partridge, Liz Phair, Warren Zevon, and Shawn Colvin. She was also included in The Billboard Guide to Contemporary Christian Music; her faith was debatable, but she made frequent use of Christian symbolism in her lyrics, combined with a "lack of sensuality" and the "denial of the physical". Her music has been described as "intensely devotional".
Singer-songwriter Laura Veirs's "Song for Judee", on the 2016 album case/lang/veirs, is about Sill's life and death. In an interview with CBC music, Veirs said of the track, "We weren’t sure we were going to track this one because not everyone in the band loved it. We recorded it on a whim and all fell in love with it. It’s about a tragic songwriter from the ’70s named Judee Sill. I love how the bouncy chorus offsets the darkness of her story."
In 2005, Sill's unfinished recordings, mixed by Jim O'Rourke, were released along with other rarities and unreleased demos as Dreams Come True, a 2-CD set on Water Records. Sill's two original albums, Judee Sill and Heart Food, were also released that year as individual CDs, each with bonus tracks, on the Rhino Handmade label. The next year, Rhino released Abracadabra: The Asylum Years, a 2-CD set of both albums with bonus tracks.
In 2007, an album of Sill's live performance tracks performed for the BBC was released as Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973.
Terry Hounsome's 1981 book New Rock Record lists a Sill album titled Tulips From Amsterdam. Unsure of the information's source, Hounsome later removed the listing from his database.
In addition to her own releases, Sill appears on Tommy Peltier's Chariot of Astral Light (featuring Judee Sill), which was recorded in the 1970s but not released until 2005 on the Black Beauty label. Sill contributed guitar, organ and backing vocals to six tracks on the album and is pictured with Peltier on the cover.
"Jesus Was a Cross Maker" has been covered by the Hollies on their 1972 album Romany; by Cass Elliot on her self-titled 1972 album; by Warren Zevon on his 1995 album Mutineer; and by Rachael Yamagata in 2005 for the soundtrack of the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown, in which Yamagata's version is played over the opening credits. The soundtrack album for the film contains versions by both Yamagata and the Hollies.
Jane Siberry contributed vocals to a cover of "The Kiss" for Ghostland's album Interview With The Angel. This version was also released on Siberry's 2001 compilation City."The Kiss" was also covered by Bonnie "Prince" Billy on his 2004 CD single No More Workhorse Blues; by Neil Cavanagh on his 2008 album Short Flight to a Distant Star; and by Matt Alber, using Sill's original piano arrangement, on his 2011 album Constant Crows.
In 2009, the independent label American Dust announced the release of Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill, featuring covers of Sill's songs done by Beth Orton, Bill Callahan, Ron Sexsmith, Daniel Rossen, Final Fantasy, Marissa Nadler, Frida Hyvönen and Meg Baird, among others.
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