Archive for the ‘Judee Sill’ Category
Last night we saw the new Noah Baumbach movie Greenberg, and there’s a scene where the young actress Greta Gerwig sings a very tentative version of Judee Sill’s “There’s a Rugged Road.” I first heard about Judee Sill some six or seven years ago when Rhino Records released her two studio albums, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973), as part of their pricier, limited-edition “Handmade” series. A friend of mine burned copies for me of copies that a friend had burned for him, and I thought they were pretty great. There were times when Judee’s songwriting got lost in mysticism—she was a follower of Rosicrucianism—and then I got lost too. But great nonetheless. “The Kiss,” the song she performs in this clip from The Old Grey Whistle Test, is the fifth most played song on my iPod. I’ve played it 28 times, though not, apparently, since 11:20 on the evening of July 7th, 2007.
Reading accounts of Judee Sill’s life is heartbreaking. Music and addiction were tied together from the very beginning. She was the daughter of a herpetologist-slash-barkeep, and alcoholism was a family problem. She began playing the piano at age three. All the while that she was studying music and writing songs she was falling in with a rough crowd. She learned the ukelele, held up some liquor stores, went to reform school, got out, learned the bass, won a songwriting contest at college, became a heroin addict, kept writing music, nearly died of an overdose, went to jail, kicked the habit. A friend hired her to write material for other bands, and her song “Lady-O” was recorded by the Hollies, which led to her meeting David Geffen. Her debut album was the first release on his Asylum Records.
Judee’s voice is homey—she has a casual, unforced delivery that prefigures the artless style of indie rock singers of the past twenty years. (Liz Phair is a fan, and the two even look a little alike.) Her music is country-folkish, but there are classical and gospel music influences as well. “The Donor,” her masterpiece, breaks into a medieval round and a chant of “Kyrie Eleison.” She told NME that her influences were “Bach, Pythagoras, and Ray Charles.” She was profiled in Rolling Stone and photographed by Annie Liebowitz, but her two albums didn’t do well, and once Geffen dropped her she vanished from the music world. From there she spiraled downward. Two car accidents left her in chronic pain. She became addicted to painkillers and died of a cocaine overdose in 1979, possibly a suicide. It’s an unbelievably tragic biography—and yet the music is calm, assured, and hopeful.
Other musicians came to know her records and covered her songs, including Shawn Colvin and Jane Siberry. In interviews, Andy Partridge cited her as a major influence on his band XTC. (He rightly compared her voice to Karen Carpenter’s.) After the Rhino reissues it seemed as if a lot of forgotten female singer-songwriters from the 1960s and ’70s were being rediscovered. Karen Dalton, Sybille Baier, Kath Bloom, all came out of Judee Sill’s overcoat. In the movie last night, Greta sings the Judee Sill song on the stage of a neighborhood bar, and then Ben Stiller’s character makes her a mix of other music that she might like, including Karen Dalton. In an earlier scene in Greta’s car, Ben pulls some CDs out of the glove compartment: John Mayer, Sarah McLaughlin. (She admits that they’re “cheesy.”) So if Greta already knows about Judee Sill, that should bode well for the singer’s reputation, right?