Late songwriter Judee’s Live Set released by Water Records

San Francisco’s Water label is releasing the first live collection from the late Judee Sill – “Live In London” taken from 3 BBC performances. Press response so far has been pretty ecstatic – understandably so as Sill created one of the most unique bodies of popular song in the 70’s, a novel mix of folk, gospel and Classical influences. She was in fact the first artist signed to David Geffen’s Asylum label, tho her perspective was much darker and more troubled than any of her better known label mates (Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell).
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    It’s tempting to wonder if the singer-songwriter Judee Sill, who died in 1979, would have had a less tortured life now than she did in the ’60s and ’70s, and whether her self-destruction (drug abuse was the tip of the iceberg) might have been better treated. But her mixture of BrillBuilding pop, Southern California folk-rock, gospel and Bach belongs strictly to her time. Her three studio records with bands and orchestras are full of intensity but here is proof that her songs had a kind of inviolate perfection even when she was the only one performing them. “Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-73″ (Water) contains flawless performances of songs like “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” “The Kiss” and the gospel tune “Enchanted Sky Machines,” which she introduces thus: “It’s a religious song about flying saucers coming – at the end of the world? – to take all the sensitive, deserving people away, and then take them back when the holocaust is over and start the new age. You know?” Only in the ’70s.Ben Ratliff/New York Times

 

     It’s startling to hear Judee Sill speak on Live in London. She’s been gone nearly 30 years, and the circumstances of her death– an overdose that may or may not have been accidental– play into her cult as surely as do the circumstances of her life. She had an unsettled upbringing, turned to prostitution to feed her drug habit, and then went to jail, where she experienced a type of epiphany and so began writing songs and living up to her vast musical talent. She wrote for the Turtles, signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records, and became something of a legend in the Los Angeles of the late 1960s and early 70s. Her redemption through music would seem too easy and too pat were it not for the fact that she wrote luminous folk-gospel songs whose intricacies never lessen their impact. Nevertheless, today she lives on almost solely through her music, thanks largely to Water Records’ reissues of her two proper albums, the odds-and-ends Dreams Come True (with its ecstatic opener “That’s the Spirit”), and now Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973, a compilation of three live radio performances.

     Sill speaks so differently than she sings. Explaining the origins and meanings of her songs, she rambles and peppers her speech with “um’s” and awkward pauses; her jokes rarely hit their mark, which she seems to foresee about halfway through, so that the conclusions are rushed and self-conscious. She sounds like neither a star nor a cult figure, but simply a woman who is a little nervous in front of an audience or perhaps a little too self-serious. In her interview with the BBC’s Bob Harris, she consistently misinterprets his questions, giving half-answers or taking off on barely relevant tangents. When she sings and plays guitar or piano, however, that unease falls away. She’s perfectly at home in song.

     For her contemporary audience, however, this is one of very few opportunities to hear her speak. Furthermore, it’s one of the few opportunities to hear her talk about herself. Despite her tumultuous life, which could have fueled countless autobiographical songs, Sill rarely wrote confessionals, instead penning spiritual inquisitions. “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” and “The Kiss” both consider the intersections between holy love and worldly love, and “Enchanted Sky Machines”, she explains, is about flying saucers rescuing the sensitive people at the end of the world. Appropriately, she sounds liveliest when she’s at her piano (which she learned at reform school), pounding out galloping gospel licks for “The Donor” and 50s r&b rhythms on all three versions of “Down Where the Valleys Are Low”.-Stephen M. Deusner/Pitchforkmedia.com

 

     If Judee Sill’s story isn’t fodder for a Lifetime TV movie, then nothing is: the early deaths of her father and brother; an alcoholic mother remarried to an evil stepdad; ensuing drugs, crime, reform school, prison, and prostitution; redemption through folk music; discovery by Graham Nash; two ’70s albums on David Geffen’s Asylum label; then back into dope, obscurity, and death from an overdose. Decades later: posthumous accolades.

     Now, after Sill’s two official albums have been given the deluxe treatment by Rhino, Water gathers her live solo sessions for the BBC. Stripped down to acoustic guitar and piano, Sill loses none of the intricacy or intimacy of her studio recordings. Balancing committed spirituality with street-smart vulnerability, these crafted songs – classically ornate but R&B real – are delivered by a voice that has no right to be as unvarnished as it is. Because the CD collects recordings from three different BBC appearances, some songs – including her signature “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” “Down Where the Valleys Are Low,” and “The Kiss” – turn up two or three times. Probably not the place to start a Judee Sill collection, but a welcome addendum.  Jeff Tamarkin/Boston Phoenix

 

     David Geffen saw the talent in Judee Sill — who, along with Carole King and Joni, was one of the key players of the Laurel Canyon Sound — and he made Sill the first artist signed to his fledgling label. “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” was Judee’s first big single from her acclaimed eponymous debut and a fixture during her London dates of ’72-’73, the best of which are featured on Judee Sill Live In London; The BBC Recordings 1972-1973, out in the States next week.

     The song appears twice on the live comp, this rendition coming from Judee’s April 5th, 1972 performance on In Session With Bob Harris. It’s beautifully mastered, her voice pure, accompanied by classically moving chords on an acoustic and a teadrop melody like Joni’s. Really gorgeous stuff, been on repeat all afternoon at the HQ. Enjoy.  Scott Lapatine/Stereogum.com

 

     Live in London is the latest in a series of re-releases from Judee Sill. It stands as the second volume of posthumous material to be released since ‘freak folk’ cast people’s attention back to similarly underappreciated folk singers like Karen Dalton and Linda Perhacs. This release – collecting her two live sessions for BBC Radio’s In Concert program and an appearance on In Session With Bob Harris – also marks the point at which the volume of her posthumous output matches that released during her life. As Michael Crumsho pointed out in his Dusted feature, “The Life And Times of Judee Sill,” the high drama of Sill’s life and early death only surfaces obliquely in the her serene, baroque compositions. The pull of ‘confessional’ music – strongly attached to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake alike – is largely absent from these stripped-down but flawlessly executed songs, which recapitulate her best-known ‘hits.’

There’s a fair amount of repetition here: Live in London contains three versions of Heart Food‘s “The Kiss” and “Down Where The Valleys Are Low,” and two versions each of “Jesus Was A Cross Maker,” “Enchanted Sky Machines,” and “The Phoenix.” The differences in the recording quality or interpretation of these tracks – all of which were culled from the years 1972-73 – are minimal; their inclusion here would feel simply archival but for their undiminished power. An added bonus is that the disc features a slightly nervous Sill in a five-minute interview with Bob Harris. Juxtaposed with the mellifluous vocal lines of her songs, her speaking cadence comes off with a different proportion of whimsy-to-everyday – she comes off like a cross between Mother Goose and a pusher. The brief but pithy song introductions Sill delivers overshadow the polite interview, by turns establishing the context from which they emerged (the Sill-penned minor Turtles hit “Lady-O” was written while living with five others out of a Cadillac in the Hollywood flatlands) and drawing attention to ethereal-apocalyptic lyrics of songs like “Enchanted Sky Machines,” which tells of how sensitive, deserving people will be conveyed to the New Age by flying saucer.

     Sill’s music never found a middle ground between the metaphysically striving classicism of her arrangements (appropriately, she began her musical career as church organist in reform school) and the ad-hoc, vernacular immediacy that allied her with the contemporaneous singer-songwriter movement. But then again, as Live in London reminds us, Sill was never looking for a middle ground. Though much of her biography seems to retrace Christian dichotomies – addiction and salvation, the sins of the flesh and the transcendence of the spirit – her music operates synthetically, ambivalently. There’s none of the familiar agony. As she says in a humbly confident, clipped introduction to the then-newly-penned “The Kiss”: “I cant decide whether this is a romantic song or a holy song, but whatever it is, it stands for that brief communion of a kiss. Whether it’s actually a kiss, or whether it’s just a moment that’s locked in, you know. I don’t know. Uh, I hope you like it.”

     Her songs’ appeal is precisely the ballast that comes from their acceptance of the often indistinct division between the holy and the human. Tracks like “The Lamb Ran Away with The Crown” come off like frayed, prodigal parables, fables that stray from their morals only to return, transformed by the weight of experience. Her voice is remarkable for the same reason, striking a balance between new age whimsy and sudden gravitas. Unaccompanied here, her voice fully commands our attention – it isn’t able to disappear, as she often does on her albums, into harmony with her famously meticulous arrangements. Her lighter-than-air vowels crash over gospel-inflected phrasing only to sublimate again, repeating in an extended, placid cyclical movement. Sill’s work is free of strife, but leaves plenty of space on the surface for even a casual observer to take in all the vicissitudes, the daily expediencies that gradually but inexorably change the meaning of the story. Live in London is no revelation, but as anyone who’s spent time with Sill’s music knows, that’s never been the point. Brandon Bussolini/Dustedmagzine.com

 

Judee in Disguise
     Over the last few years, a cult has grown around the small-but-powerful catalog of the late Judee Sill. As vital a part of the early-’70s L.A. singer/songwriter scene as any of the usual suspects, she released only two albums in her lifetime before dying of a drug overdose in 1979. I know, I know, sounds familiar: the under-appreciated genius whose life and work were snuffed out too soon. But the fact is that Sill was an undeniably brilliant artist. Picture some LaurelCanyon triangulation of Brian Wilson, Bach, and Joni Mitchell, with a heavy dose of post-Dylan religious imagery thrown in, and you begin to get the idea. A couple of years ago, Dreams Come True, a collection of demos, was released, extending the legacy a bit further. Now, illuminating Sill’s story even more is Live in London, a collection of songs she recorded for the BBC in her heyday. She tackles tunes from both of her studio albums, and even without the savory production that initially made Heart Food and its self-titled predecessor leap out of the stereo, the material still stands up mightily. Her between-song comments and an interview segment also serve to demystify her aura for those who weren’t around when she still roamed the earth, at last making her seem more like a living, breathing human than some ethereal, tuneful sprite. Jim Allen/MTV.com Urge

 

     It’s hard to reconcile Judee Sill’s almost unnoticed 1979 death from overdose and these startlingly intimate, vibrant sessions as events that occurred within the same decade. While Sill’s arrangements on record are lovely and intricate, these performances find her accompanying herself on guitar or piano, just singing out clearly and strongly.

     Fans know that precious little of Sill’s turbulent personal life found its way into her poetic lyrics, at least directly. Those intrigued by this very Californian personality will be thrilled to hear her speaking, earnestly and timorously, between songs and in a personable interview with a BBC host. Though the disc’s 18 tracks include multiple versions of “The Kiss,” “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” “Down Where the Valleys Are Low” and “The Phoenix,” that’s just as fine as can be.- Mike WolfTimeOut NY
 

     It’s wonderful to finally have an official release of the late Judee Sill’s recordings done for the BBC during 1972 and 1973. They have been bootlegged for years, passed from person to person among the — then few — faithful on ragged umpteenth-generation cassettes. When Rhino’s Handmade imprint officially released her two albums with supplemental material, the way was created for the rest of her recorded output to see the light of day in an organized fashion. In 2005, San Francisco‘s Water Records got out her long unreleased third album in a deluxe package, and they have also handsomely put together these tapes in one place. First and foremost, the disclaimer: there is repetition here, especially the material from her debut album. And for whatever reason, producers Filippo Salvadori and Carlton P. Sandercock have broken up the actual concert sessions, interweaving them for what one presumes are aesthetic reasons. In other words, the songs recorded for the BBC’s In Concert (with Sill playing solo on guitar and piano) are interspersed with one cut from its program In Session with Bob Harris recorded two weeks later. The other cuts from the Harris sessions are intercut with another In Concert program recorded a year later. It doesn’t matter musically, but it may to those rather serious archivists who prefer to listen to things chronologically.
     The set flows beautifully. The earlier version of “Enchanted Sky Machines” (it’s here twice, as are “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” and “The Kiss,” while “Down Where the Valleys Are Low” appears three times), with its gospel piano riffing, is utterly moving and delightful. Likewise, Sill’s guitar playing is far more sophisticated than is displayed on her studio offerings (check the 1973 version of “There Is a Rugged Road“). Subsequently, “The Kiss,” freshly written a bit before these concerts, makes its first recorded appearances here, before Heart Food was recorded. The vocal performances from 1973 tend not to be as strong — they are wispier, less authoritative, more tentative. But, as Sill comments in one introduction, she says she has a sore throat, which may be the reason. But in 1973, the sheer excitement of her first two appearances wasn’t missing — which does not mean the songs suffer; they are just more melancholy, which adds different twists to their meanings, especially on the final version of “The Kiss.” It’s heartbreaking. There is also a track here that includes a nearly five-minute interview with Harris, which does add to rather than subtract from the authority of this set of music. This is about all of it now; there is very little left to issue as the story bleeds into pop history. Hopefully, the musical shelf that now exists will add weight and heft to the true and visionary contribution that Judee Sill brought to the entire LaurelCanyon scene of the early ’70s. Thom Jurek/Allmusic.com

 

     The late, legendary songbird Judee Sill in the past few year has seen a bit of a revival thanks in part to the 2006 release of Abracadabra: Asylum Years (Rhino Handmade), which collected material from 1971’s Judee Sill and 1973’s Heart Food and assorted unreleased tracks. Her involvement with the late ’60s/early ’70s SoCal singer-songwriter scene brought her into contact with the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and devotees of her music have long ranked her alongside Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. To this day performers among and aficionados of the contemporary freak-folk scene continue to discover her ethereal, mysterious muse.

     Now comes a collection of live performances cut for the BBC in the early ’70s but never officially released on record. Titled Judee Sill Live In London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973 (Water Records), it features five tracks recorded on March 23rd, 1972 (at the Paris Theatre, London) for the “In Concert” radio show, seven recorded on April 5th, 1972 for “In Session With Bob Harris” and six recorded on February 15th, 1973 (at Golders Green, London) for “In Concert.”

Sills, a gifted songwriter and singer, experienced a life that was rarely less than turbulent, as Water explains:

     To fans of her music, Judee Sill is hardly a person at all. She is a spirit and a voice; a phantom; an icon. Her music is far less personal, say, than Joni Mitchell’s or Laura Nyro’s – more ethereal and composed, like a cathedral in the sky. Her lyrics reveal little of her life or personality, stirring the mystery with parables of ridge riders and enchanted machines. How strange then to find a life bursting with material, lived with fervor and recklessness, just begging to be told. The incredible details come piling on top of one another. After an early childhood ducking fights in her father’s roughneck bar, Judee lived in Los Angeles with an alcoholic mother and an abusive, Oscar-winning stepfather. After high school she took up armed robbery, then spent time in reform school, where she played organ for the church choir. Back on the streets, she worked as an itinerant bassist and ingested daily LSD. Then she moved onto heroin, and prostitution to feed a $150 a day habit. Busted for forging checks, she spent three months in prison, where she experienced a magnificent vision of transformation.

     Upon release, Judee committed herself to songwriting with blinding devotion. “I got out of the drug thing,” she told the Los Angeles Star, “and started using all this fierce gusto within me for something – in a direction.” During her a month-long stay in England in 1972, Judee opened for folk-rock hitmakers America at London‘s Royal Festival Hall and recorded two sessions for BBC Radio. The first, cut March 23 at London‘s Paris Theatre, aired eight days later on the In Concert program. Two weeks later, on April 5, Judee returned to the BBC for In Session with Bob Harris. She performed mostly the same set of songs, though this time without a live audience. In addition, Harris conducted a short, illuminating interview, included on this disc. Judee recorded her final BBC session February 15, 1973 at Golders Green Hippodrome, a 700-seat converted music hall in North London. The performance aired March 12 on In Concert.

     Tragically, Sills’ albums never sold all that well despite critical kudos, and a third, final album went unreleased until it appeared in 2005 on Water (and featuring a contemporary remix by none other than Jim O’Rourke) as Dreams Come True. But by that time Sills was long gone: she’d dropped out of the music scene, resumed her heroin addiction, and died of an overdose in 1979 at the age of 35. Fred Mills/Harpmagazine.com

Author: James McQuiston

Ph.D. in Political Science, Kent State University.

I have been the editor at NeuFutur / neufutur.com since I was 15. Looking for new staff members all the time; email me if you are interested. Thanks!

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