Up until fairly recently I had never even heard of Judee Sill, but after falling for one of her songs on the radio, it suddenly seemed that I saw her name everywhere. Radio documentaries I keep an eye out for had covered her in depth, my favourite bands name-checked her frequently; she was another one of those ‘greatest artists you’ve never heard of’ who, in fact, everyone has already heard of. Apart from me. So, despite being a slowpoke, I caught up quick: what else could I do?
For those who still don’t know, Judee Sill came out of an extraordinarily troubled youth (addiction, crime, prison, etc) to become one of the truly great singer/songwriters and, having been adopted by the fashionable Laurel Canyon set of the time, she went on to release two of the finest albums of the 1970s. Sill’s self titled debut from 1971 is deceptive: her stereotypical ‘girl with a guitar’ image leads to comparisons with more obviously folky ladies of the era, but there was always much more to her than that. The baroque string flourishes which zip in and out of “The Phantom Cowboy”, the extended harmonies and playful, bouncing synths on “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown” and the joyous, bittersweet gospel pop of her best known song, “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” all highlight unexpected and at times contradictory elements of an album that still never forgets its folk and country roots. But in spite of its at times unconventional approach, it’s a record that feels perfectly at home with itself, flowing with an elegance and an elemental beauty that’s very much its own.
1973’s Heart Food may possibly be better, but it’s a tough call to make. It’s more adventurous still and draws at times on the influence of Bach, most clearly on the rapturous, delicate “The Kiss” and the LP’s stunning, multi voiced climax, “The Donor”, where Sill singlehandedly emulates a full choir over a doom-laden solo piano. As with the debut, many of the lyrics are drawn from religious imagery and it’s often difficult to separate the sacred from the secular: the Joni Mitchell-esque “When The Bridegroom Comes“ blurs the lines between romance and religion, while “The Vigilante” finds Sill returning once more to country, combining her twin obsessions, God and cowboys.
While you could fork out £20 each for the vinyl reissues, the Abracadabra set is much better value for money. It features both LPs in full, but also adds outtakes, a wonderful short live set and, best of all, the solo demos for the Heart Food LP. I don’t usually have much time for demos but, shorn of their studio setting, Sill’s songwriting is so evocative that stripping the songs back only seems to add to their impact. These gentle, intimate takes are very much the equal of the finished album and, for those who already have the original records, they are worth the price alone.
After Heart Food flopped, everything fell to pieces: she got into a self inflicted argument with label boss David Geffen that led to her being dropped, and then subsequently faded back into obscurity and addiction, dying from an overdose aged just 35. While she remained virtually unknown in her lifetime, the word finally seems to be getting around about her remarkable, singular talent. If you want to discover her music for yourself, Abracadabra is the perfect place to start.