The Strange and Tragic Tale of Judee Sill, the ‘Female Brian Wilson’

Once upon a time, a teenage girl ran away to join a band of bandits, got caught holding up liquor stores, was sent to reform school, became hooked on drugs, turned to prostitution, had a revelation in jail to become a singer-songwriter, released two extraordinary albums before losing it all, and died alone at just 35 of a drug overdose in relative obscurity.

It sounds like the unbelievable plot to some cult movie, but in reality, it’s the tragic, real-life tale of the amazing Judee Sill, whose beautiful, graceful music belies the crazy and dark ordeals that begat it.

Listening to Sill now, it seems incredible that she never enjoyed the success of her Laurel Canyon peers: her music is certainly as sophisticated as Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, and she has even been called “the female Brian Wilson” by some critics and artists like XTC’s Andy Partridge.

Perhaps she wasn’t beautiful enough (sadly something particularly important for female singer-songwriters of the time), or her music wasn’t pop enough or had too many spiritual and religious overtones to be considered radio friendly. It’s hard to say, but even more than 30 years after her death, people are still discovering her genius and falling in love with her unique and brilliant music.

Born in southern California — just a few miles from where she died — in 1944, her father was once a Hollywood cameraman, then a bar owner, and finally earned his living importing exotic animals before he died of pneumonia when Still was just eight years old.

Sill’s life wasn’t made any easier when her mother moved her and her brother to Los Angeles where she met and married Tom & Jerry animator Kenneth Muse, a stepfather who she hated from the get-go. She described Muse to Rolling Stone as “an alcoholic…mean, dumb, narrow-minded. He used to beat dogs and stuff like that.”

Her unhappiness with Muse and her life at home led her to experiment with drugs, and she soon fell in with a bad crowd, taking off to marry a much older man and was soon accompanying him, Bonnie and Clyde-style, robbing liquor stores and gas stations at gun point. She ended up in reform school, turning to music when she learned how to play the church organ and discovered a love of Baptist hymns (a sound later heard in her own music).

Out of reform, tragedy struck the young Sill again when her mother suddenly passed away. Not long after, she met and married pianist Bob Harris in 1966 (her first husband, she said, “was killed going over the Kern River rapids on LSD”), and the pair soon developed a serious heroin addiction.

“I had been pretty bad, up to $150 a day,” she told Disc and Music Echo in 1972. “I overdosed once and was technically dead for three minutes. My heart stopped beating. I remember waking up, but I had amnesia, and I couldn’t remember even the words for ceiling, wall.”

In order to fund her habit, she went back to her old criminal ways: stealing, scamming people, and even turning to prostitution. She told Rolling Stone, “As a hooker, I wasn’t ever — well, ah, my heart wasn’t in it because I didn’t care that much about gettin’ hot at that time. Oh, you know, I feigned excitement and thought up clever schemes to make it go real quick, but all I really cared about was gettin’ that needle in my vein, squeezin’ off.”

Caught forging checks, she found herself in prison and made a desperate call to her older brother and instead discovered he, too, had passed away of a liver infection. Alone in jail and left to kick heroin all by herself, it was a turning point for Sill, and she decided to finally try to change her life for the better and make it as a songwriter. “It was about then I decided I’d better channel myself toward one goal and put it right at the top so I’d have to reach very hard for it,” she told Record Mirror.

Sill in the studio during the making of Heart Food
Sill in the studio during the making of Heart Food

Her new resolve soon paid off. LA group the Leaves recorded a song she had written while awaiting trial, “Dead Time Bummer Blues,” and pop sensations the Turtles released the Sill-penned “Lady-O” as a single. Soon, David Geffen came knocking offering her a contract, and Graham Nash was called in to produce her debut single, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” a song inspired, not by religion, but by losing boyfriend J.D. Souther to Linda Ronstadt.

Her self-titled album became new label Asylum’s first official release in 1971 but suffered, as it was overshadowed by the debut releases by the Eagles and Jackson Browne, which quickly followed it. Even today, the record sounds as good as the very best the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene had to offer, yet strangely unique and out of time, full of religious imagery, poetic lyrics, and lush orchestrations. Sill dubbed her sound as “country-cult-baroque,” and her stunning debut album is a beautiful mix of folk, country, gospel, pop, and classical.

With Asylum and Geffen steadily losing interest in Sill and her underwhelming sales, she returned to the studio to record her second and final album, Heart Food, this time orchestrating and arranging the record herself with Joni Mitchell producer Henry Lewy at the helm.

It’s certainly a more ambitious album (and some would say her masterpiece), particularly on the final track, “The Donor” which features incredibly complex choral chants. In contrast, the simplicity of the piano-driven ballad “The Kiss” is easily her most moving song.

Released in 1973, Heart Food got fantastic reviews but again sold poorly. The final nail in her career’s coffin came when, frustrated by the failure of both her albums and that Asylum appeared to be uninterested in promoting her (along with her hatred of being forced to go on the road to open for what she called “snotty rock bands”), she went into a bitter rant onstage in England about David Geffen and effectively outed him long before he told the world he was gay. Word got back to Geffen, who was reportedly furious, and her contract with Asylum was over.

heart foodCut off by one of the most powerful men in the music industry, Sill, not surprisingly, seemed to disappear from the music scene, but in reality, she attempted to make a third album, recording a number of songs at Mike Nesmith’s studios with producer Bill Plummer in 1974. The album was never finished until the songs were finally re-discovered 25 years later, mixed by Jim O’Rourke (of Sonic Youth fame), and released as Dreams Come True in 2006.

Although friends have said that Sill never gave up on music, continuing to write and sing until her death a few years later, her final years are just as tragic as her early ones. Sill was said to be a terrible driver and, after a series of car accidents, she was left in terrible pain from her injuries. Because of her past as a heroin addict and her criminal records, doctors refused to prescribe her strong medication, and she once again turned to drugs.

In November 1979, Sill was discovered, two days after she died, alone in her apartment with a needle still in her arm having overdosed on cocaine and codeine. Her death was ruled a suicide, but those close to her still think it was just a tragic accident.

Whatever the truth is, Sill’s music remains and, over 40 years later, still sounds magnificent, full of Sill’s struggles and search for meaning in her life, relationships, and spirituality. Sill may have suffered in her life, but her music is full of light, hope, and grace — both musically ambitious and strangely intimate. Judee Sill’s short but brilliant musical career may be something of a lost treasure, but it’s ripe for rediscovery.

About Sharon Lacey 32 Articles
Sharon Lacey has spent most of her career as a home entertainment journalist, but has always loved writing about music ever since her first pop review was published in a UK mag at age 15. She lives in London and still loves going to see live bands, old and new, which she writes about on her blog The Boho Dance.