Judee Sill with acoustic guitar in 1971. Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns.

Judee Sill Worked with Every Important Singer-Songwriter of the 1970s—and You’ve Never Heard of Her

In Rediscovery, GARAGE trains its eye on a creator who has hitherto been lost to the sands of time. This week: the 1970s folk artist Judee Sill.

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Jun 28 2018, 3:04pm

Judee Sill with acoustic guitar in 1971. Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns.

Joni, Linda, the Eagles—all fine people (presumably) and musicians, but there was another who was treading the treacherous road of the music industry with them in the 1970s and has since been relegated to a niche, considered an insider’s artist: Judee Sill. Contrary to the sweet, halcyon image of the folk singer strumming away with flowers in her hair, Ms. Sill was an ambitious artist with a rough context. Hailing from California, she escaped an abusive home as a teen, managed a few armed robberies sometime around finishing high school, and experienced reform school (where she discovered gospel music) and addiction before eventually becoming the first signee to release an album, her self-titled debut, on David Geffen’s new Asylum record label in 1971. Joni Mitchell’s then-lover, Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) produced the record’s first single, which carried the delightfully declarative title of “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” and was said to be written as a heartbroken tribute to songwriter JD Souther. To be clear though: I don’t think either of those gents’ tunes can hold a candle to Judee’s; her work burns bright enough on its own.

Openly Christian (she was the church organist at the reform school), she definitely cut a figure through the music scene, but entirely in her own style. Where others wanted to rock out, Judee was insisting on lyrical reflection, romantic longing tinged with religious fervor, and intricate arrangement for strings. Just try trashing a hotel room to her songs—you’ll probably end up weeping with your head firmly lodged in the mini trashcan. From Judee Sill’s first track, “Crayon Angels,” to “Lady-O” (both of which were purportedly originally written as part of a $35-a-week writing gig for the Turtles), it’s clear there was something special happening. In the first few lines of “Crayon Angels,” agnostics and atheists alike might get squirmy:

“Nothing’s happened, but I think it will soon / So I sit here waiting for God and a train / To the Astral plane”

But I say buck up and deal with it: this is a train to the Realm of Judee and if you can’t handle her at her waiting for ascension then you definitely won’t deserve her when, finally, the holy breath touches her like a wind song.

Just try trashing a hotel room to her songs—you’ll probably end up weeping with your head firmly lodged in the mini trashcan.

Audiences apparently weren’t having it back in the 1970s though: her second record, 1973’s Heart Food, didn’t sell well, and, according to some sources, her frustration with Geffen’s level of support led her to refer to him by a slur word for homosexuality while onstage on tour in the UK. That put the kibosh on promotion for her record, and her career never recovered.

My dearest Judee is back in the news, but under unfortunately miserable circumstances as the music playing in the background of a recent Instagram Story by Asia Argento commemorating Anthony Bourdain’s death. Some think J.S. also killed herself, but it’s not my place to measure the degree of intentionality in her 1979 overdose, a tragedy that was barely noticed at the time. Women who are geniuses die in obscurity all the time, I know. Judee isn’t memorable because of a salacious life story; her music outlasts her, and I’d prefer to let soldiers of the heart keep their secrets there too.