Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Jesus Was A Crossmaker - The Sad Ballad of Judee Sill

* Back, way back, when people still bought CDs, I was in Tower Records in Dublin, passing a bit of time when I came across a double album on sale. It was a reissue - The Judee Sill Collection. I'd never heard the name (and the spelling was a bit strange) and the picture of the waif-like woman on the cover, wearing what looked like National Health Glasses, didn't promise a lot. But, curiosity piqued, I stumped up the five bucks and brought it home for a listen....

Judee Sill 
* It might be a bit unfair to call Judee Sill a forgotten singer-songwriter, as a small but fiercely devoted band of fans still keep the flame burning.

But Sill, who had a sad, strange life and recorded some beautiful, haunting, playful, inventive music through her tumultuous time, is not a name you hear very often these days.

Sill is often described as looking like a librarian. Her voice was quiet and fragile yet powerful. And her lyrics are often inscrutable, or at least Dylan-esque in their complexity and depths. The music was heavily influenced by Bach. The vocals were often layered and over-dubbed - her own voice, on top of itself several times. It's early 1970s, woman singer-songwriter, but very orchestral, complex and lush.

The clip down below - of her singing The Kiss - might remind you of other folk-influenced female singer-songwriters of the early '70s. But you can't say it's typical, not when you listen to something as upbeat and playful as perhaps her best known songs, like Jesus Was A Crossmaker or Crayon Angels.

Her voice is incredibly warm and affecting, quietly optimistic. Which is something given her struggles through life.

She was signed to the Asylum label in the early 1970s - the label that David Geffen would use to launch the careers of the greatest singer-songwriters of the era.

But Sill only recorded two albums (now considered lost classics) before addiction, mental illness and a terrible series of bad choices took their toll.

Sill was a chronic heroin addict from her late teens. And had a string of arrests, including several for prostitution and armed robberies of convenience stores in Ventura, California, before she was into her early twenties.

"I did heroin with gusto because I wanted to escape my torment and misery,' she told Rolling Stone in 1972 of her three-year addiction. 'But then I figured if could maintain that kind of habit that long, the willpower I'd need to kick it would be a cinch.'  

She did kick heroin - but that was only one of the many problems which threatened to derail her life and constantly thwarted her attempts to build a career.

Sill was bisexual - and also had a talent for finding the worst men possible (for her at least) going through a string of co-dependent, drug-addled relationships and marriages, all before she briefly tasted success as an Asylum recording artist.

Her childhood was pretty chaotic - her dad, Millford Sill was, variously, an importer of exotic animals for movie work, part-time bar owner and full-time drinker. Sill grew up in her father's bar, and when he died early in her life, her mother married an animator best known for working on Tom & Jerry cartoons. It was a chaotic, bohemian, substance-driven. Her father, brother and mother all died when she was still in her teens.

However, she kept a strong sense of faith and spirituality throughout her life - sometimes saying that she wrote songs that "were aimed at persuading Jesus to give people a break".

By the time she died from drug abuse in 1979, she had long been forgotten. Her once intense relationship with David Geffen broken, which left her very bitter about the music industry.

Judee Sill could have been a Joni Mitchell, today she is not even a Nick Drake - another fragile singer-songwriter of the era who died tragically young but is today revered.

Few people really remember Judee Sill, which is a great shame, as she had a kind of genius.

I would heartily recommend checking out her two released albums and the collection of recorded but not released in her lifetime songs.

Also - there's a very good BBC4 radio doc about her - which you can listen to by clicking on above.



  1. You might like this: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/m/Issue?oid=75224

  2. Sorry, dunno where my original comment disappeared to...
    Very interesting Joe. I'd come across covers of the two songs you mentioned above but never the originals. Must look her up. Thanks for that and keep up the good work!

  3. Cheers Neil - will have a look at that Austin Chronicle piece - thanks for the encouraging words!

  4. Hi Joe,

    Des (“Stolen Village”) here. Hope you are well.

    I enjoy your tweets and blogs, and just thought I’d concur that Judee Sill is one of the great underestimated singer-songwriters of the era.

    Someone recommended Judee to me way back in the Seventies, saying that if I liked Cohen and Mitchell I’d appreciate Judee. I was blown away by the originality of the lyrics and the vivid, unusual Christian imagery – I described it at the time as “like CS Lewis on acid”.

    However, I haven’t listened to her for years. In fact, I’d forgotten all about her until I read your blog. I’ve just revisited the first albums on Spotify and, unexpectedly, they have retained their freshness and withstood the test of time.

    Funny how we make assumptions about people. I assumed from her librarian image and the subject-matter of the material that she was an austere, nun-like character who occasionally emerged from her contemplative life to teach Sunday School. I had to laugh out loud with sheer surprise when I learned from your blog that she was actually a heroin addict with arrests for prostitution and – I never would have guessed this in a million years – armed robbery of convenience stores!


    Anyway, really appreciated the article. Keep up the good work.

    PS: I really enjoyed the book.

    1. Hi Des,

      Good to hear from you and hope you are well, Glad you enjoyed the piece on Judee - she is such a strange footnote in contemporary music - with such a strange story - plus the music is great - CS Lewis On Acid is a great description of her lyrical style. I found it strange but very interesting to me that she lived the life she did but still held onto her Christian beliefs (however quirky and individual they were).

      And the music really holds up today - a true sign of quality.

      Thanks for dropping us a line - all the best - Joe

  5. Often described as looking like a librarian!

    That gave me a laugh! (I'm a librarian)


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