“I want to write beautiful songs that touch people deeply,” says Judee Sill, a lady whose debut album for Asylum Records has been heralded as the coming of a new, masterful talent.
“I’ve always written, but when I was young, I wrote about mundane things. Now I try to reach much further in my music; I think it’s real important to get as far as you can as fast as you can so you don’t have to do it all over again next time.”
Judee Sill’s music reached Asylum Records when friends and fellow musician Russ introduced the novice composer to David Geffen. Geffen, along with his partner Elliot Roberts, is the hand that has guided Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Joni Mitchell through the maze of the music industry.
Immediately taken with Judee’s music, he signed her on a personal contract, and held off releasing her first album, until the Asylum label was formed. “I didn’t wait to be just one more girl singer in a monthly release of 12 albums,” said Judee. “I would have been completely lost in the shuffle.”
Judee’s songs are highly personal and extremely complicated. Often the absolute meanings are hidden behind obtuse lyrics and intricate symbolism. Judee herself delights in the concept of magic; and at the mention of words like alchemy, magic and secrecy, the lady lights up.
“I’ve always been very interested in psychic experiences. A few years ago I became interested in the alchemy of music and the value of subtlety. I started understanding that to make a bush grow you prune it. To teach somebody something, drape it in a veil of secrecy and tantalize them into learning. Entice them.”
Judee’s desire to entice people has been successful. On a recent David Crosby/Graham Nash tour, Judee was able to capture the imagination of her audiences, garnering excellent reviews and exceptional ovations. Next week. Judee will be making her second appearance at the Troubadour with Gordon Lightfoot headlining.
She is still nervous about singing in public, and anyone familiar with she singularity of her songs will readily understand.
“I think of performing as food now. It used to be so scary I couldn’t sing properly because my voice would shake. But all that’s done now, thank God. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that an audience is understanding and communicating with me. To hear the appreciation that comes across, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had. It makes up for all the crummy things I’ve gone through.”
Part of what Judee’s gone through was a difficult childhood in Oakland, where the early death of her father and a slow alcoholic death of her mother left its toll. Today, Judee is willing to talk about the harshness, but she refuses to dwell on its consequences. “At least I have a sense of humour about what happened and can laugh about it now.”
One of the sustaining factors in her childhood was music. Judee remembers singing at her stepfather’s bar when she was still too small to reach the piano peddles. When she reached maturity Judee began to seriously study music, spending three years learning the fundamentals of harmony, musicianship and composition. The trained ear is evident in her complicated arrangements.
“I didn’t do the producing on the album because I don’t understand the workings of a studio. But the arrangements are all mine. I used an orchestrator and sang for him all the parts. You see, I’m not sure where an oboe ends and an English horn begins, but this guy would write it down as fast as I could sing it, so it saved time.
“My music is really magnified four-part choral style. I feel that it’s the most fulfilling style of music. And it gets to people’s emotional centers quickly. That’s why all church music is in four-part choral style.
“Human voices and strings, that’s what touches people.”
Judee spent the better part of a year producing this first album not using her time in the studio (the record was cut in less than a month); instead it was the slowness of her writing that held up production.
“I only write about three or four songs a year. I can’t force my songs,” she says, “they seem to have a life of their own. So far I've never really changed the words to any of my songs, I do some polishing, but that’s all.
“I’m not upset when people understand my songs on different levels, I figure that’s got to happen. Basically I do think people get the same idea. For instance, with ‘Lamb Ran Away with the Crown,’ I think people understand that it means good will win out.
“The song most people have misinterpreted is ‘My Man on Love.’ They don’t realize it’s about Jesus because I don’t ever say his name in the song.”
The song lifted off the album for radio air-play has been “Jesus Was a Cross-Maker” which Judee believes has been ignored in the rush of Jesus songs. “There’s such a flood on the market, and what people don’t realize is that my song isn’t really about Jesus at all, it’s about the bandit and the heartbreaker. Jesus as the cross-maker serves as a sideline ramification.”
Judee has no immediate plans to cut another album, indeed with her slow pacing she jokes that Asylum won’t see her in the studio until November. “They’re good people through,” she says smiling. “They re not about to pressure me and say I have to have so many songs finished by such and such a date. Right now I’m trying to get these three songs out. They’re all related to each other and I know one day they’ll all write themselves at once.
“Another problem for me is that I need time to understand my songs. To learn them, I wrote a song called ‘The Villilante’ a long time ago and I’ve just now been able to sing it. I need the time to be able to handle it in front of an audience — to be able to get the idea across without being at anyone’s mercy.”
By FRANK H. LIEBERMAN Herald-Examiner Staff Writer