Q: Who was the first artist to release an LP on David Geffen’s Asylum label?
A: It wasn’t Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, or The Eagles – though all three all released albums in the label’s first year of 1972. It was Judee Sill.
Who is Judee Sill? In her all too short lifetime, the artist released just two albums, both of which revealed an unusual yet mesmerizing voice as a singer and a songwriter. Both of those LPs, Judee Sill (1972) and Heart Food (1973), have been newly reissued on 180-gram heavyweight vinyl by Intervention Records in stunning double-vinyl sets pressed at 45 RPM for optimal sound quality that exceeds even that of the original records. Sill’s idiosyncratic songs – marked by both spirituality and earthy lust – are far from instantly accessible, but still cast a spell today with their twisty melodies as rendered in her pretty, vibrato-less, warm tone.
By the time Sill signed with David Geffen, she had already faced various family tragedies, drug addiction, reform school, admitted to armed robbery and prostitution, and served time in jail. Having turned to music to keep her demons at bay, she had provided The Turtles with the ballad “Lady-O” in 1969. Geffen had recently lost his star client and onetime close friend, Laura Nyro, whom he hoped would inaugurate Asylum. Was the California-born Sill intended as a “replacement” for the New York artist to whom she would later be often compared? It’s hard to say, but while strains of Nyro can be heard in Sill’s songwriting (just listen to the cascading, multi-tracked vocals of “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown,” and try not to hear a bit of Nyro’s “Lu”), Sill’s work was far less melodic than Nyro’s earliest, and most famous, songs.
Prior to the release of Judee Sill in September 1971, the artist made her Asylum debut with the single “Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” produced by her friend Graham Nash. In the rendition by Nash’s old bandmates in The Hollies, Sill’s ironic musing about a “bandit and a heartbreaker” whom she nonetheless desires would become arguably her most famous song. Her own interpretation, with uncluttered and occasionally baroque accompaniment, is striking in its simplicity, and she’s aided by Rita Coolidge, Vanetta Fields, and Clydie King on background vocals.
“Jesus” was reprised on the LP, which was otherwise produced by Henry Lewy, The Turtles’ Jim Pons, and John Beck. There’s a winsomely pretty quality, and yes, even an innocence to Sill’s voice as introduced on “Crayon Angels,” its first track. The song not only also introduces her vividly impressionistic lyrical style which often suggests poetry, but also features her first of many references to God or a higher power.
Genres blend fearlessly on Judee Sill, with classical strings contrasting with the country-rock flavor of “The Phantom Cowboy.” (Sill’s ex-husband Bob Harris and Don Bagley provided the offbeat but tasteful and never overwhelming arrangements.) Country-and-western phrasing, not to mention a weeping pedal steel, informs “The Archetypal Man,” and the lyric again might invite a comparison to Laura Nyro, describing a rogue-ish gentleman. Like “The Phantom Cowboy,” “The Ridge Rider” introduces a specific country-style character; a clip-clop of hoofbeats even figures into the arrangement.
“My Man on Love” was said by Sill to be about Jesus, though it could well be about a lover, and the climactic “most high, most high, my man on love” could certainly be held to have a double meaning about drugs. But Sill’s exploration of faith as crossed with earthly desire permeates the LP; the very next track to follow “My Man on Love,” “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos,” has her “hopin’ so hard for a kiss from God.” Revisiting “Lady-O” for the album, Sill even imbued The Turtles’ pop song with the solemnity and grace of a devotional.
Primarily having accompanied herself on guitar, Sill switched to piano for the blues chords of her spacey journey in “Enchanted Sky Machines,” before the album concludes with the sweeping finale, “Abracadabra” – quite fitting for an album as mystical and ethereal as this one. Judee Sill has been joined on vinyl by its 1973 follow-up (and sadly, Sill’s final album), Heart Food. In many ways, it’s an even more personal statement than its predecessor, as Sill took the arrangement reins herself. Photos seen in the beautifully-recreated gatefold even shows her conducting the orchestra. Famous friends joined her in the studio, too, including Doug Dillard, Chris Ethridge, Jim Gordon, Bobbye Hall, Gloria Jones, Spooner Oldham, Emil Richards, Louie Shelton, and Carolyn Willis, all of whom helped lend the album a more polished, expansive feel.
The clip-clop of “The Ridge Rider” recurs on the opening track of Heart Food. “There’s a Rugged Road’ follows a stranger “on the long and lonely road to Kingdom Come.” Sill could be providing a soundtrack to an old west epic with “There’s a Rugged Road,” or the first-person account of “The Vigilante.” Her employ of religious themes was also even more pronounced on Heart Food. The piano-driven, orchestrated ballad “The Kiss” likens the title act to a “sweet communion…holy breath touchin’ me.” She searches in song to get closer to her God. Gospel piano chords similarly enhance her tale of “When the Bridegroom Comes.”
“Down Where the Valleys are Low,” like “There’s a Rugged Road,” juxtaposes descriptions of the earth and land with religious imagery. It’s a chilling, seemingly personal plea from the troubled artist to “push me on from the danger that’s pullin’ me and holds me so strong” and “feed the flame, till the weakness possessin’ me is baptized with fire, and the beast is slain.” It’s drenched in gorgeous harmonies and a bucolic, country-lite vibration, however, making Sill’s battles all the more poignant. The Devil reappears on “The Phoenix,” another track awash in a beguiling, strange beauty.
Sill addresses her own demons again on “The Pearl,” a pretty midtempo ballad. Swirling strings underscore the conflicts that may have been raging in her head: “Then I saw the dealer and his friend arrive, but their gifts looked grim/Now I’m tired of hangin’ on, waiting for a showdown/Don’t y’see I gotta ride ’em out/’Cuz the pearl’s just around the bend?” The bright, effusive rocker “Soldier of the Heart” is the most overtly commercial track on the LP. Its infectious spirit, propelled by a full band and background performances, would have made for an ideal single, but Asylum declined to release it on 45. The album’s eeriest moment is its closing track, “The Donor,” with its repeated invocation of “Kyrie Eleison,” the prayer of “Lord have mercy.”
It’s clear that Judee Sill never quite fit into David Geffen’s Laurel Canyon crowd, but in just two albums she established herself as a gifted artist with a singular, searching voice. Intervention’s splendid vinyl reissues do stunning justice to her memory. Both are packaged in glossy Stoughton tip-on gatefold jackets replicating the original Asylum releases with enormous care and attention to detail, and both contain lyrics. The lyrics to Judee Sill are printed in the gatefold, while Heart Food has additional pages adhered within.
Judee Sill and Heart Food were both remastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio from the original master tapes. The analog warmth of the sound is inviting and profoundly engaging, drawing the listener into the intimacy of the former and more lavish soundscapes of the latter. These sonically compelling reissues speak well for the original recording engineers, as well. Sill’s vocals and the varied instrumentation sound fresh and new, with detail, precision, vibrancy and a well-defined presence.
Having left the music business and disappeared into her often-tragic life, the artist died in 1979, aged just 35, the victim of a drug overdose. Yet Judee Sill shouldn’t be remembered for the sadness, but rather for the joy her music has since brought to so many who have discovered these “cult classics.” Those seeking more Sill are urged to explore Rhino’s Abracadabra: The Asylum Years, which appended a host of bonus tracks to these two albums, as well as Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973 and Dreams Come True on the Water label. The latter collected demos and home recordings and work potentially made for a third Asylum album. Intervention’s 45 RPM LP reissues make the best possible case for Sill’s small body of work as an important and resonant one, still capable of turning heads today to this eternally-young talent.