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A singer/songwriter with deeply religious overtones and a penchant for the occult, Judee Sill is one of rock's more interesting and lesser-known stories. The daughter of old Hollywood money, Sill's father died when she was just a child, and her brother died in a car crash soon after, leading to a bleak outlook on life that she expressed in an arty, disaffected attitude. She disliked her stepfather and condemned her mother for remarrying; as a quiet form of vengeance, Sill set out to travel America and live a rambling lifestyle. She had been interested in playing music although was seemingly not serious about it until she began her travels, playing small coffee houses and dives for fun. She and her friends had always been into drugs for recreational and exploratory use, but as Sill stayed out on the road she began using heroin regularly, eventually developing a hundred-fifty-dollar-a-day habit. It was rumored (partly by Sill herself, although never confirmed) that she at one time had to prostitute herself in order to support her addiction.
In the late '60s Sill was busted for heroin possession and served three months in prison, during which time she was able to kick her habit; when she returned to the world at large, she focused solely on making music. She returned to Los Angeles where, through her Hollywood connections, she was introduced to David Geffen. Geffen was in the process of creating Asylum Records, which was to focus exclusively on non-rock material. Taken by Sill's abilities as a writer and performer, Geffen immediately signed her to Asylum; her self-titled debut was also the first official release for the new label.
It was through Geffen that she met Graham Nash, who quickly became a fan, and produced the first single for her album, "Jesus Was a Cross Maker." The rest of Judee Sill was orchestrated and produced by Bob Harris, Sill's ex-husband. Judee Sill was released in 1971 to immediate acclaim. Lushly orchestrated, the album featured Sill's voice in multiple overdubs, often in a four-part chorale or fugue. The album fit in well with the light rock/folk-rock underpinnings of what came to be known as the "Laurel Canyon sound" associated with other female singer/songwriters such as Carole King and Joni Mitchell (Mitchell, also signed to Asylum, was at work on Ladies of the Canyon at the time, which was also produced by Bob Harris). A tour as the opening act for Nash and David Crosby exposed her intimate songwriting and skillful guitar playing to a larger audience, but her record failed to make much of an impact, despite the somewhat heavy airplay of "Jesus Was a Cross Maker." A self-professed perfectionist, one song could often take her a year to write, and it wasn't until late 1972 that Sill returned to record and release her second and last album, Heart Food. It too received enthusiastic reviews but did poorly commercially. Sill took over the chores of both orchestrating and arranging Heart Food, with the production relying more heavily on multilayered strings and lush expanse. Unable to draw a sizable crowd yet unwilling to play as a support act, Sill's name and moderate fame both receded, and she disappeared from view entirely. Rumors abound as to what happened next, although it is definitely known that she returned to her heroin addiction as well as becoming heavily involved with cocaine. Graham Nash has said that he learned as early as 1974 that Sill had died of an overdose, a claim that would later prove to be incorrect, but considering how closely the two had worked only a few years earlier it does illustrate just how completely Sill had dropped out by this time. She never managed a second return from the abyss and Judee Sill, age 35, died of a drug overdose in November of 1979.
Judee Sill (born Judith Lynn Sill, October 7, 1944 – November 23, 1979) was an American singer and songwriter. The first artist signed to David Geffen's Asylum label, she released two albums, then worked briefly as a cartoonist before dying of drug abuse in 1979. Her eponymous debut album was released in late 1971 and was followed around eighteen months later by Heart Food. She also recorded demos for a third album in 1974, which were released with other rarities on the 2005 two-disc collection Dreams Come True.
Sill was heavily influenced by Bach's metric forms and suites, while lyrically her work drew substantially on Christian themes of rapture and redemption.
Sill's father, an importer of exotic animals for use in films, and older brother both died in separate incidents when she was young. Her mother subsequently married Tom and Jerry animator Kenneth Muse in 1952.
Sill returned to the West Coast where she encountered Graham Nash and David Crosby and toured with them for a time as their opening act. After some initial interest from Atlantic Records David Geffen offered her a contract with his new Asylum label. She sold her song "Lady-O" to The Turtles. She was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.
During this period Sill was involved with and eventually married keyboardist Bob Harris, who worked on her first album and was also involved with The Turtles.
Graham Nash produced the first single for her first album, "Jesus was a Cross Maker", which was released to radio on October 1, 1971. The album Judee Sill soon followed in October 1971. The album featured Sill's voice in multiple overdubs, often in a four-part chorale or fugue. She worked with engineer Henry Lewy.
Sill recorded her second and last album, Heart Food. Sill took over orchestrating and arranging Heart Food which included "The Donor".
Following a series of car accidents and failed surgery to rectify a painful back injury, Sill struggled with drug addiction and dropped out of the music scene, finally dying of a drug overdose, or "acute cocaine and codeine intoxication," on November 23, 1979, at her apartment on Morrison Street in North Hollywood. Sill's ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean following a ceremony organised by a few close friends at the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades.
Jim O'Rourke mixed the posthumous collection of unreleased material, Dreams Come True. Her two original albums have been reissued as a double CD with a number of live recordings and demos as bonus tracks.
Cass Elliot from The Mamas & the Papas recorded "Jesus was a Cross Maker" for her debut self-titled solo album for RCA in 1971. The arrangement by Benny Golson remains faithful to the original Graham Nash arrangement while adding a decidedly jazz-after-midnight feel to the folk-rock original. Elliot herself proves more than capable of handling the various elements to the arrangements.
The song was recorded in 1973 by Graham Nash's former band The Hollies, although Nash had no part in their recording. The Hollies' version appears in the opening sequence of Cameron Crowe's film Elizabethtown. Another version, by American singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata, is featured in the film's soundtrack.
Seattle-based folk group Fleet Foxes perform "Crayon Angels" at their concerts. American singer-songwriter Warren Zevon recorded "Jesus was a Cross Maker" for his 1995 album, Mutineer.
Gospel rocker Larry Norman covered the song but retitled it as "Sweet Silver Angels". The song was released on the Essential 2: Agitator CD.
Scottish Celtic-Soul singer Jackie Leven's 2006 album Oh What a Blow That Phantom Dealt Me! contains a song entitled "The Silver In Her Crucifix (Homage To Judee Sill)", which includes the lines: "and Judee Sill just stood there/with a gold key in her heart/and the silver in her crucifix/kept warring worlds apart/that's why I love Judee Sill.../and I know I always will."
In 1991, English singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke released an album on Columbia called Left Hand Talking, which included a cover version of "Jesus was a Cross Maker".
In 1994, singer-songwriter singer Shawn Colvin recorded "There's a Rugged Road" on her Cover Girl album.
Linda Ronstadt covered "Jesus was a Cross Maker" but re-titled it "Bandit & a Heartbreaker"; it was released on her Elektra box set in 1999.
In 2005, Tara Jane O'Neil covered "The Phoenix" on her EP "A Raveling".
A book called New Rock Record by Terry Hounsome, published in 1981, lists a third album Tulips From Amsterdam.
In 2009, the independent label American Dust announced the release of Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill, featuring covers of Sill's songs done by Beth Orton, Bill Callahan, Ron Sexsmith, Daniel Rossen, Final Fantasy, Marissa Nadler, Frida Hyvönen and Meg Baird, among others.
Singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram says that "Jesus was a Cross-Maker" is a song with which she is obsessed.
In the 2010 film Greenberg, the lead female character Florence, played by Greta Gerwig, sings Sill's song "There's a Rugged Road." Gerwig sang this herself. The song did not appear on the "Greenberg" soundtrack CD.
Sill was bisexual.