Hauntingly captivating with a voice that could soothe the troubled and mend the weary, Judee Sill was equipped to be a songwriting savior. Her short, turbulent life forever existed somewhere between rapture and despair, redemption and condemnation.
Before she briefly rubbed elbows with some of the era’s finest musicians, Sill fueled her habits by forging checks, engaging in sex work, and robbing liquor stores and gas stations. Her songs, unfairly forgotten and obscure to this day, were powerful devotionals atoning for her past, and hopeful for the future.
Armed with an effervescent voice, an unapologetic way of writing, and with nothing and everything to lose, Sill became one of the most spellbinding songwriters of the 1970s. Her life ended in 1979, at the age of 35, but her arresting lyrics and enrapturing voice whisper still.
Here are 10 tunes from Judee Sill, the songwriter’s songwriter.
I’ve been tryin’ hard to keep / From needing you but from the start / My heart just rolled and flowed / I’ve seen where it goes / Still somehow my love for you grows, Lady-O
Delicate acoustics paired with Sill’s bubbling lilt, “Lady-O” seems to float up and up with every syllable. The song was sold to the Turtles who made it famous by not changing a thing. Sill’s artistry can be heard echoing throughout their rendition.
9. “The Pearl”
I’ve been lookin for someone / Who sells truth by the pound / Then I saw the dealer and his friend arrive / But their gifts looked grim / Now I’m tired of hanging on / Waitin’ for a showdown / Don’t you see I gotta ride ’em out / ‘Cause the pearls’ just ’round the bend.
Punctuated by lyrics that seem both nonsensical and perfectly clear, “The Pearl” soars with hopeful strings and rolling banjo.
8. “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown”
Tho’ the beast within me’s a liar / He made me glow with a strange desire / And I rode on the fire, with a blue sacred opal / To bless the battleground / But I turned to see its reflection / And the lamb ran away with the crown
Sporadic, throaty horns anchor Sill’s airy voice to “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown.” Playing like a jester’s tale told only in absurdities and inflections, the song is the perfect example of Sill’s songwriting power—another nonsense tune that couldn’t be any more coherent.
7. “Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos”
A silver chariot soars / Through mercury ripples of sky / I’m lookin’ so hard for a place to land / I almost forgot how to fly / So keep on movin’ / Or stay by my side, either way / I’ll tell you a secret / I’ve never revealed / However we are, is okay
The bright strings match visions of silver chariots in Sill’s “Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos,” a delicate dance between her soft lilt and brilliant arrangements.
6. “There’s A Rugged Road”
Roll on, roll on, roll on, night birds are flyin’ / Come on, the light is gone, hope’s slowly dyin’ / Tell me how you come ridin’ through / Still surveyin’ the miles yet to run / On the long and lonely road to kingdom come
“There’s A Rugged Road” is anything but a rugged tune. Soulful, soothing, swaying, Sill’s voice settles comfortably alongside dreamy strings.
5. “Down Where The Valleys Are Low”
Down where the valleys are low / There’s a refuge so high / And down where the coldest winds blow / There the warmest winds hide / And deep in the forest of woe / Sweet deliverance is nigh / And deep in the heart there’s a rose / That a glimmer keeps guidin’
“Down Where The Valleys Are Low” is a doo-wop sidestep from Sill’s trademark acoustic style, but the song still captivates all the same. Her voice shines against sparse organs and sporadic strings.
4. “My Man on Love”
One star remains in the false darkness / Have you met my man on love? / One truth survives death’s silent starkness / Have you met my man on love?
A dreamy lullaby, “My Man on Love” speaks to Sill’s complexity as an artist. The song twinkles brightly and holds hope on high, but still holds a kind of sorrow.
3. “Crayon Angels”
Crayon Angel songs are slightly out of tune / But I’m sure I’m not to blame / Nothing’s happened, but I think it will soon / So I sit here waiting for God and a train / To the Astral plane
Crayon angels, magic rings, and phony prophets mingle in a complex slurry of words and melodies in which Sill herself asks, I wonder what it means.
2. “The Kiss”
Once a crystal choir / Appeared while I was sleeping / And called my name / And when they came down nearer / Saying, dying is done / Then a new song was sung / Until somewhere we breathed as one / And still I hear their whisper
In “The Kiss,” Sill sings another sorrowful tune, one of profound longing for something seemingly just out of reach. Even the piano seems to ache against her vocals.
1. “Jesus Was a Cross Maker”
Blinding me, his song remains, reminding me / He’s a bandit and a heart breaker / Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker
Reeling from an affair with fellow songwriter J. D. Souther, Sill wrote “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” to cope. “I was so excited when I was writin’ that song,” Sill told Rolling Stone in a 1972 interview. “It was not only the best thing I’d ever written, and I knew it, but it took the weight off my heart and turned it into somethin’ else, and I was able to forgive the guy for the horrible romantic bummer he’d put me on. And I gained a new kind of strength from it, from that combination of forgiveness and creation.”
Having seen renditions from Cass Elliot, The Hollies, Warren Zevon, and Linda Ronstadt, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” is one of Sill’s best-known works.
Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns