Lost Angel: the Genius of Judee Sill

Hey Karen, Who Was Judee Sill?

This past Thursday night, I took a seat in a full auditorium at Cinema 21 to watch Lost Angel, the Judee Sill documentary. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Sill was the first artist David Geffen signed to Asylum Records. She released two records, Judee Sill and Heart Food, neither of which sold very well. She died of a heroin overdose when she was just 35.

It is nearly impossible to describe her music because Judee Sill was singular. Her influences were classical, jazz, and sacred, which made her hard to market as an indie-folk singer/songwriter. Geffen had tremendous belief in her and her talent, but she didn’t catch on a the big way, or at all, even. She had fans like me, people who heard her in the seventies and never forgot her.

Who was Judee Sill to me?

Judee Sill felt like my own special secret. I didn’t own either of her records, but her songs were imbedded somewhere in my brain stem. Brother Steve brought her first record to me from his art school days in Minneapolis. He cranked up her eponymous debut and her overwhelming harmonies gave me the shivers. Orchestral and eerie, unsettling and beautiful.

I was not a religious kid by any means, but I experienced these songs as sacred. Soaring, swooping, then weirdly cowboy, with steel guitar and horse-hoof-clopping. Was it Western? Was it gospel? What exactly was this? Who cared, when the harmonies were so lush, the lyrics so compelling. Whether or not I believed in Heaven, I believed in music, and I knew this music was spectacular.

Part of it was her voice: beautiful tonally, but strange because it was a great big head voice forced out through a tiny opening, nasal with all the final syllables shut down tight. This live clip, where she’s singing with just the guitar, is a great way to hear what I’m talking about.

And I know she didn’t look like a star; that owlish demeanor and waif’s body, and that strange voice and unique songs. What a combination.

Who was I when I first heard her?

I was a lonely and miserable young adolescent, isolated on a ranger station and completely baffled by the idea of finding a place in the world. I talk about that here: A Hard Time. With my brother’s help, I was turning away from the teenybopper music of my childhood in search of something deeper. My favorite non-Cat-Stevens records were Ladies of the Canyon, and Something/Anything. Judee Sill fit right in.

Like Mitchell, Sill wrote intelligent, poetic lyrics, but Sill’s wandered into a mystical territory I’d never encountered before. Like Rundgren, she seemingly could write or play anything. ANYTHING. And like Todd, she was funny. The irony of her song, Jesus was a Crossmaker, delighted me at age 13. For decades, those four words echoed in my mind as the most ironic phrase I’d ever encountered.

She had a story so dark a person would be forgiven for wondering if it was made up. Brother Steve subscribed to Rolling Stone, and I read and reread the interview in which she gave the unsparing facts of her life. Teen runaway, knocking over liquor stores and shooting up in motels, reform school, conversion, then walking the streets to earn money for heroin. Another stint in jail got her clean. She came out determined to be a musician. 

A broader tale of her life would include a wealthy stepfather, time in college studying art, playing in the school orchestra, and an eventual inheritance.

Hearing her speak, reading her words

The movie showed pages of her notations, how she broke her “pop” songs into orchestral movements. The woman was writing symphonies, and, for Heart Food, conducting them. The producers who worked with her said there was little arrangement needed because she came in with all of it worked out.  

I was able to hear her speak for the first time. About half the voiceover is drawn from a long taped interview. She spoke so fast and tight, I almost missed some of what she was saying. The rest of the voiceover was a voice actor reading at a more measured pace from her journal; her dreams, her loves, her addiction and inspiration. Good God, her world was painful, but like most artists, she knew that heartbreak fueled her creativity.

The filmmaker, Brian Lindstrom, took enormous pains to corroborate the facts of her early life by showing records, press clippings, and the like. Judee Sill was exactly who she said she was. She might have expressed her goal to save humanity and be the most famous musical star there ever was, but as to her past, there was no self-mythologizing.

He spent years interviewing the many peers and friends who agreed to speak about her, her life, her music. I’m not sure the younger audience members knew who these people were, but I did. When he spoke after the film, Lindstrom shared that Linda Ronstadt spent an hour and a half on the phone with him.

He was invited to David Geffen’s home, I think in part because Geffen wanted to set the record straight. The Wikipedia page says, “Sill and Geffen’s personal relationship also deteriorated during this period, with Judee allegedly camping out on Geffen’s front lawn to protest his lack of support for her album Heart Food”. To which Geffen stated, “I don’t have a lawn.”

Sharing Judee

It was a thrill to sit in that packed theater and experience Judee Sill’s life and work with all these other people who actually knew who she was. I think you could compare it to going to church (yes, I freely blaspheme). She’d been my own for so long, It was wonderful to share her. In the fifty years since I first heard her, I’ve tried and failed to find other people who knew her work. All I had was Brother Steve.

Shawn Colvin spoke of her as an influence, which reminded me that on Cover Girl, she covered a Judee Sill song. That was back in the nineties, and when I read her name in the liner names it triggered a rush of longing in me. I called my brother and asked if he still had her album. He told me he’d sold his vinyl back when he was in college. Her music was gone. Out of print. Vanished.

Then, I think in about 2005, my brother found her music online and made me some copies. I was thrilled to have her first record, but I hadn’t heard Heart Food. I put it on, cranked it up, and thought, “Holy Christ, what has she done.” I was confused, gobsmacked, enchanted. It is stunningly beautiful and commercially unclassifiable. Her music is like nothing else. And the danger with that is, it’s not easily accessible. I understand that it is definitely not for everyone.

One of my daughters came with me on Thursday. She found the documentary fascinating and the music really strange. It is strange. It’s EERIE. The only thing I’ve ever found to compare her to is the Beach Boys, in that they were driven by one songwriter’s exacting, specific artistic vision, and have strange and swooping harmonies that sound like nothing else.

I have a friend who can’t stand the Beach Boys. They creep her out. Accordingly, I don’t expect everyone to love Judee Sill. She wore her faith on her sleeve, and crosses around her neck on the covers of both her records. I came home and asked my husband, “What if Brian Wilson had wanted to sing about God instead of surfing? What kind of career would he have had?”

What is her legacy?

During the Q&A after the film, someone said words to the effect that many artists live long enough to have a hand in crafting their legacies—she mentioned Joni Mitchell. She asked Lindstrom what she thought Judee Sill’s legacy was. The woman who asked this question didn’t seem to remember that before her health crisis and recovery, Joni Mitchell had secluded herself in the hills of LA county, embittered because she considered herself forgotten.

I told my husband about this question, and this led to a long discussion about whether or not an artist has any say at all in crafting his or her legacy. Some actively dismantle it by hanging on too long when they need to evolve with age (I brought up Madonna, in contrast to Rod Stewart, who stopped asking us if we thought he was sexy, took off the leopard Spandex and put on a suit, and moved on to standards).

Others have managed to endure with their original style long enough to survive the punchline phase of their supposed obsolescence (he brought up Cher). We wondered about artists whose legacy is so compromised by their personal behavior (Woody Allen, Michael Jackson). Their unquestionably brilliant bodies of work are tainted, as is the audience enjoyment of them.

So does the artist really have a conscious hand in crafting his legacy beyond the work left behind? Or will it be determined by the audience, not the artist?

I saw Mozart’s Requiem at the Oregon Symphony last weekend. When the choir sang out “Kyrie Eleison,” I didn’t think of the ancient mass. I thought of Judee Sill’s strange, haunting The Donor.

That’s a legacy, isn’t it? When Mozart reminds you of someone newer, instead of the other way around?

I heard The Donor in the mid 2000s, forty years after it was released. That’s about the time a friend played a song on YouTube for Brian Lindstrom, and he was hooked. Fifty years after her first album, he has released a labor of love that celebrates her. I hope this film will solidify her legacy and grow her fan base.

I can’t help but wonder which Judee Sill song Lindstrom heard first. Thursday night he said, “I can never fast forward through The Kiss.” Maybe it was that one. It’s a wonder.

More reading if you’re curious

A friend describes her life, and answers the mystery of how she supported herself when the music career failed: https://www.kneeling.co.uk/pages/jsill/rememberingjudee.php

Features on the documentary:



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