The greatest 35 minutes in the history of recorded music is the first (eponymous) album by Judee Sill. A big claim, but I’ll stand by it.
To go into the particulars of her life story would take more time than I have here, but a brief summary may put her music into context. She was born Judith Lynn Sill in 1944. Her father and older brother both died when she was a young child. Her mother remarried, to a Tom and Jerry animator, and both her mother and stepfather had alcohol problems. She fell in with the bad kids at school and her situation at home became increasingly strained; she couldn’t stand her stepfather, whom she saw as mean and narrow-minded. At fifteen she ran away from home and met a boy a couple of years older who made his money as an armed robber. The pair of them held up liquor stores and petrol stations across the San Fernando Valley until they were caught and Sill, still a minor, was sent to a reform school, where she learnt to play organ, piano and guitar.
On her release, her mother by this time dead, Sill married a man named Bob Harris (not that Bob Harris) and the pair became addicted to heroin. Sill was arrested and sent to prison – a real one this time – where she was left to go cold turkey, puking and convulsing in solitary confinement. Once out of jail, she began using again, working as a prostitute to fund her habit. It was at this time that she began writing songs, songs that would eventually bring her to the attention of David Geffen, manager and mogul-in-waiting, who made her the first signing to his new label Asylum.
Despite this tumultuous personal history (I have only time to mention in passing her bisexuality; her time spent writing for the Turtles, who discovered her living in a car; her crush on Geffen (who is gay); her shatteringly unsuccessful relationship with fellow songwriter John David Souther (who has had the good grace to admit her dazzling artistry – ‘She’s school for all of us’); her later car accidents (one of which she was rescued from by a passing John Wayne); and many other episodes besides.
But really, none of this is the point. None of this makes her music any better or worse. Knowing it probably doesn’t even really help us understand her any better.
The point is that there has never been a songwriter who handled the big stuff with as delicate a touch as Sill. The really big stuff. Existence. God. The universe. Everything.
A Christian of deep but unconventional faith (she was an avid reader of apocryphal, mystical, and Rosicrucian texts, which all fed into her writing, and perception of God), her religious songs were shot through with erotic imagery, while conversely her love songs have a holy reverence to them. Yet her music is substantial without being weighty. It’s deep but seldom heavy. It is free of the self-seriousness that characterises even the best work by, say, Joni Mitchell or Neil Young,
Sill released two albums in her lifetime of the most astonishing quality, the influences of Bach chorales and early church music clear in her chord structures, her lyrics reflecting the theosophical texts she eagerly devoured, her melodies like no one else’s in the history of popular music – the end result not that far removed from the work of her contemporary Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters sonically and formally, but elevated by a grace that none of them could achieve.
A junkie armed robber and former hooker who looked like a librarian and sang like an angel, Judee Sill was the greatest singer-songwriter who ever picked up a guitar.
The author’s recent EP, to download or stream for free: