Saturday 30 January 2010
Dylan Jones: 'Despite all her problems, Judee Sill made music which sounds as vital today as it did in the late Sixties'
Talk Of The Town
She called her music "country-cult-baroque" – which considering she made it, she is perfectly entitled to do. She had a pure prairie-style folk voice, a fondness for Bach-like melodies, and the sort of winsome librarian looks that could have easily cast her as a Joni Mitchell wannabe. But Judee Sill was never going to be a Joni Mitchell wannabe.
The first artist to release an album on David Geffen's Asylum label back in 1971, she wrote "Lady-O" for the Turtles, "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" for the Hollies, and rather stupidly died in 1979 from a drug overdose. "I did heroin with gusto because I wanted to escape my torment and misery," she told Rolling Stone in 1972. "But then I figured if I could maintain that kind of habit that long, the willpower I'd need to kick it would be a cinch." She was wrong.
A substance abuser from an early age – both parents had been heavy drinkers – she resorted to crime in her teenage years, and after developing a penchant for armed robbery (she carried a .38 and held up gas stations and drug stores), spent nine months in a state reform school. On release, she got even more heavily into drugs, and, eventually, prostitution. "As a hooker, my heart wasn't in it ... all I cared about was getting that needle in my vein."
Not that you'd immediately know this from listening to her records. While her lyrics could only have been written in the late Sixties, her melodies and arrangements sound like sophisticated alternatives to the sort of material being developed by Richard Carpenter. And that's not a criticism. An exponent of the "Laurel Canyon sound", her music sounds as vital now as it did back then – and unlike much of the material made by her LA contemporaries (Carole King, Jackson Browne), it hasn't been diminished by constant rotation.
Her best song, "The Kiss", from her second album Heart Food, is worthy of Brian Wilson, and dovetails perfectly with the Beach Boys' Surf's Up. Catch it now on YouTube, performed by Sill on the Old Grey Whistle Test – where you can also find her singing a heartbreaking version of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird".
Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'
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