Secret Meeting score: 82
by Phil Scarisbrick
During our recent interview with The Charlatans, we asked them what they would pick for their essential Sunday album. Today we take a look at front man Tim Burgess’ pick: Judee Sill’s eponymous debut album.
In the late 1960’s, Laurel Canyon became a beacon for America’s counterculture. Located in the Hollywood Hills, it became home to many of the most revered artists of the time. Carole King, Jim Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Frank Zappa and John Mayall all resided there. Peter Tork of The Monkees’ house was infamous for drug-fuelled, days-long parties. Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded her album, Ladies Of The Canyon, at the house she shared with then-lover, Graham Nash. In fact, according to Americana folklore, Crosby, Stills and Nash first sang together in that very house. Surrounded by this wealth of talent, it’s no wonder that some names often get buried in its story. One of those artists is Judee Sill.
Born in Studio City, California, Sill’s father was an importer of exotic animals for the film industry. When he died, her mother remarried, tying the knot with Tom And Jerry animator, Kenneth Muse. Her childhood was littered with violence, often coming to blows with her parents. During her teenage years and early twenties, she would commit a series of armed robberies, marry jazz pianist Bob Harris and develop a crippling heroin addiction. This colourful, and often dark upbringing would help shape the music she would go on to make.
Aside from the more rebellious actions, she also learned to play the piano. After being arrested for one of her robberies, she was sent to a ‘reform school’ (or borstal as we’d have called it in the UK). During this time she would serve as the organist for the church. This instilled a love of gospel music that can be heard throughout her work.
After a spell in an adult prison, Sill set about reforming her life and focussed on composing music. She found some success, serving as an opening act for Stephen Stills and David Crosby. This is where she came to the attention of Asylum Records founder and future music mogul, David Geffen. Sill became the first signing to Asylum and soon appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, featured for her song Lady-O, which was a hit for The Turtles. She had been employed by the band to write for their label, Blimp Records. A task for which she was paid $35 a week.
Clearly informed by her Christian faith, Sill’s debut, self-titled record was a mix of folk and country rock. The album’s only single, Jesus Was A Crossmaker, was produced by Graham Nash. The religious imagery is incredibly visual, as she sings of ‘Sweet silver angels over the sea’ . Nash’s production stands out from the rest of the album, adding just enough sheen to make it appeal to radio audiences.
The majority of the songs here were penned during her time writing for Blimp records. Lady-O, Abracadabra, My Man On Love, Crayon Angels and Enchanted Sky Machines were just some of those composed while in their employment. Presented here though, it would be hard to hear anyone but Sill singing them.
Crayon Angels hallucinatory feel was probably written while under the influences of LSD, a drug she’d developed a penchant for in the mid-sixties. Its trippy lyrics like ‘Magic rings I made have turned my finger green/And my mystic roses died’ make it difficult to decipher meaning, but the usual biblical references show that God is never far from her creative thoughts. Enchanted Sky Machine has the same drug-fuelled feel, but also sees Sill dealing with inner turmoil. She seems to be addressing the idea of selling out, be that musically or spiritually though is unclear.
‘I’m lookin’ so hard for a place to land/I almost forgot how to fly’ – Sill sings on Lopin’ Along Thru The Cosmos. This lament of human beings’ inability to be content with what they have, and the constant search for an unachievable goal seems to be Sill at her most personal. Often self-destructive, she never seemed to be able to settle for anything, even when she was achieving success and a growing reputation as a musician.
When she died in 1979, Sill had long stopped recording music and faded into obscurity. A series of car accidents had left her with a back injury that saw her slip back into substance misuse. This would ultimately be what killed her. She died of a drug overdose, although whether she had intended to take her own life is unclear. Whether she had or not, it was a tragic loss of a supremely talented musician.
When you listen to the songs on this record, you hear beautifully crafted accounts of the building turmoil that was clearly present even then. Sill’s debut album would certainly fall into the category of ‘hidden gem’, but that only adds to the tragedy of her speedy ascent and decline. While many of her Laurel Canyon contemporaries would go on to become permanently etched into popular music history, Sill is left to be enjoyed by only those lucky few to have discovered her records. But enjoy them they will, and this stunning debut really is essential listening.