In the Sill of the Night

Judee Sill – Live In London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973

I love the name of the label which has put out this fantastic Judee Sill album. It’s a helluva label name when you think about it. And don’t let them fool you. A rose by any other name would not have caught on. All these bands and hipsters who get creative with their label names ought to think about this one here: “water”. Something you need, right? Something you can’t live without, huh? Something that brings life! Water! Just like the music this label releases. Maybe I’ve been going on and on, being facetious to some extent, but when a label is able to dig up something like this release, I believe said label is due some praise. Sill has long been a cult figure, though if more people had been paying attention there is no doubt she could have been a major player. Not only did she have great songwriting abilities, she had a passion and conviction which made you become invested in every word she sang. Oftentimes, passion so intense can only be acquired after overcoming tragedy and pain and unfortunately Sill carried more tragedy and pain around in her tourtured soul than a group of people could handle.

The bleak outlook Sill conveyed through her music was rooted in painful childhood experiences. Despite being born into a wealthy family, Sill found no solace in her family’s wealth and serves as the poster girl for money not buying happiness. Her father passed away while she was very young and her beloved brother died soon after, giving Sill the bleak view which would manifest itself through her life and through her art. Her mother ended up remarrying but Sill despised her stepfather and wasn’t too thrilled with her mother deciding to remarry someone who Sill felt did not hold a candle to her father. So, how to get back at them? The way most kids do – run away. But instead of just saying it and coming back home in time for dinner like most of us did when we were little, she decided to live her life as a constantly rambling artist who never really settled down anywhere. It was when she began her journies that she started turning her love for music into something more. She began to perform at clubs and coffeehouses, or any other little hole in the wall allowing her to sing. While she was just performing for kicks at first, it soon turned into a serious pursuit for Sills and had the dual purpose of supplying her with cash so she could support her heroin habit. Unfortunately for Sills, when she was just getting started and performances were either for free or few and far between, she turned to other means to get drug money, including prostitution. By 1969 she had served a few months in person after getting busted and managed to kick her habit by the time she was released, at which time she decided to focus her energies completely on music. Shortly after her return to Los Angeles she was introduced to future record label mogul David Geffen who was, at that point, just starting up his new Asylum imprint devoted to singer/songwriters. Immediately impressed with Sill’s singing and songwriting talent, Geffen signeed her up immediately for his label. Geffen introduced Sills to Graham Nash who produced some songs for her debut, the rest being produced by Bob Harris, Sill’s onetime husband. Though her first album, the self titled Judee Sill, was released in 1971 to great critical acclaim, it stiffed despite the heavy miles logged by Sill on the tours she did with members of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Compared to (and on the same label with) Joni Mitchell and even Carole King, it could have been too much of the same thing for audiences to distinguish enough difference in Sill’s work to latch on to her as a personality in her own right. A perfectionist, Sill’s next album took over two years to make, a rarity at that time. When she finally released the self-produced Heart Food in 1972, she had learned no one else could convey her own vision better than herself. Thus, she made sure her album was layered in lush strings and heavily orchestrated. All the extra effort was for naught, though, as the album was greeted with raves from critics but almost universally ignored by the public. Soon after, she withdrew from the public eye and resumed her drug habit.

If I was to review this album in one word, I would say the word would be “heartbreaking”. Though Sills performance is fantastic, it is hard to banish from one’s mind how much she had suffered to get there and how much she was to suffer down the line. Her voice is one of a kind, and her accomplished guitar playing ( not to mention her production and arranging skills) signal an immense talent who was just unable to capture the public’s attention at a crucial time. Folk music would never again be as popular as it was during those years and as singer/songwriters ended up turning to light pop as their means of getting over, Sill’s more substantial music languished forgotten by all but a few die hard fans. Luckily, like fellow cult artist Nick Drake, time has added to her mystique and now her recording are sought out by music cognescenti as Holy Grails deservinga closer look. After listening to this live performance, you will know why. Gone are most of the bells and whistles of her albums, replaced by the stark elegance of her voice, guitar and beaten-down heart.

Some say Judee Sill sang true soul music and I agree, though don’t expect boomin’ bass beats or the Memphis Horns on these tracks. Expect heartfelt songs conveying a sense of loss and desperation and a performance straight from the depths of Sill’s heart. Sill poured everything into her career and was devastated when she didn’t see much of a return. For all of her immense talent, she died broke from a drug overdose, years after people had completely forgotten about her. In fact, when learning of her death, many of her peers were surprised, thinking she had already died years earlier such was how completely she vanished from view. Now, courtesy of Water, she has reappeared, in a way. Take advantage my friends, of this newly found live recording, to get to know the music of someone you should have known already. This is killer. Pick it up.