The story of Judee Sill, a relatively obscure figure of the early 1970s folk rock scene, begins as another well-known fable of showbiz tragedy.
After a chaotic childhood of abuse, addiction and petty crime — including robberies of gas stations and liquor stores all over California — Sill ended up in prison, first in reform school and eventually in jail. It was there that Sill became determined to pursue what she believed to be her musical calling, and upon her release, began playing jazz bass and flute in the dark basements of the Los Angeles club circuit. She was the first artist to sign with David Geffen’s Asylum Records in 1971, landing a Rolling Stone cover and drawing the attention of music industry players such as Graham Nash, who approached her as a producer enchanted by her “sense of melody and structure, that was really exceptional”.
However, Sill was never quite able to thrive. The two records she made on the label—her eponymous debut in 1971 and Heart Food in 1974—were critically acclaimed but commercially flopped, leading to a whirlwind of rejection, despondency, domestic violence and a series of physical injuries that left her sucked back into her grasp. the addiction that finally killed her, in late 1979 in her Hollywood apartment, aged 35.
It’s the kind of rock’n’roll disaster that has littered history, a fate to which many other rulers have lost without fanfare. But decades after her death, Sill’s out-of-print studio albums are beginning to attract a modest but devoted fan base among a new generation eager to evangelize an artist whose work shimmers beyond the boundaries of time.
Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom, obvious fans who were themselves indoctrinated during the Judee revival in the early 2000s, sought to look beyond the “Wikipedia version” of Sill’s life with their documentary Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill, which premiered this month on Doc NYC and will stream online November 27. Nine years in the making, it is the first work to combine all available biographical information on Sill, including newly unearthed interviews and personal diaries.
The film features an assortment of talking heads, from contemporary musicians and family to ex-lovers and associates, and Asylum Records cohorts, including Geffen himself. Sill’s label mate Linda Ronstadt acknowledges her music as “something special… it wasn’t in a category, it wasn’t in a niche. It was original.”
Indeed, the creepiness of the genre-defying, Pentecostal-inspired celestial folk-swing, categorized by Sill herself as “occult-sacred-western-baroque-gospel,” was a double-edged sword: it’s what prevented her sound from being absorbed by the audiences of her time, but also what undoubtedly brought her music into the public consciousness nearly half a century after her death.
Inseparable from the pandemonium of her personal life, her work reflects an internal battle between darkness and light, and according to Sill herself, it was literally decreed by a higher power: “It comes to me from God, and then I look back and say hey , that is mathematically perfect,” she says in the documentary. “It always works out well.”
Jim Pons of the Turtles, who propelled Sill’s late ’60s rising star when they covered her song Lady-O, relates this to her fastidiousness about the composition and production of her music (which she usually does). on her own, down conducting the orchestra for her second album): “She believed it was downloaded from a higher source and it had to be accurate. She was here on a mission to wake up the masses.”
Sill was a prodigious multi-instrumentalist with perfect pitch, something she considers an adjunct to her songwriting talents, but which gives her music more depth than that of her pop contemporaries. Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker articulates some of this intoxication with Sill’s music in the film, reflecting on the appeal of Sill’s song The Kiss beyond just how it sounds: “I [needed] to learn that song… It felt like something I could listen to all my life and discover more and more meaning. It just seemed like a bottomless pit… a life-giving song. Like medicine.”
With the sincere enthusiasm of a fanzine, the directors sketched an empathetic portrait of an artist who was not fit for consumption during her lifetime and not fit for oblivion afterwards. Intimate scans of Sill’s private diaries, magnified on screen, reveal an astonishing bittersweetness. Using her personal material – chord progressions scribbled frenetically with Pythagorean formulas and prayers interspersed with cartoons of moody waifs and desperate notes to herself about how much she wanted to “get off drugs” – recontextualizes Sill to the point of a strange resurrection. It presents the treasure of what Sill left behind: a body of work so vast that it survived not only her death, but a decades-long cultural burial by an audience that simply did not understand. We love getting to know her, even as we mourn what never would be.
If the real sadness of the Judee Sill story is that she never rose to fame, the driving force behind her resurgence is that this forgotten music is simply has being heard. A solution is reached by witnessing: we know now and listen.