The Many Lives of Judee Sill
O ne night in 1971, J.D. Souther stopped by a small club on Melrose Avenue at the urging of David Geffen. “I was just complaining about how stupid most pop artists are and how most songwriting doesn’t really get much beneath the surface,” Souther, who co-wrote several of the Eagles’ biggest hits, recalls with a laugh. “And he said, ‘Go see this girl I just signed, Judee Sill.’”
Souther found a seat in the crowd, and placed his eyes on a 27-year-old musician with long honey-blond hair and round wire-rim eyeglasses holding an acoustic guitar. Someone in the audience yelled out a request for Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now.” “First of all, Judy Collins didn’t write the song, get that straight,” she curtly replied. “Second of all, if you want to hear her sing it, what are you doing here?” Souther was blown away: “I thought, ‘Wow, I must know this woman.’”
For a brief moment in the early Seventies, Judee Sill was one of L.A.’s most promising artists. She was one of the first musicians signed to Asylum Records, a label David Geffen started with Elliot Roberts that became famous for its roster of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and others. Sill was produced by Graham Nash, and her songs were covered by the Turtles, the Hollies, and Cass Elliot. But unlike her labelmates, she never found fame and success. When the decade of the singer-songwriter ended, she ended with it, dying on November 23rd, 1979, of a drug overdose.
Sill remained obscure for years, a cult favorite for those who discovered her rare, out-of-print records or bought Japanese CDs on the internet. But that all changed at the turn of this century, when a posthumous release and a few reissues made her music accessible again. She’s had ripples of recognition over the years — Lin-Manuel Miranda has gone on record as being a Sill fan, while Greta Gerwig sang Sill’s “There’s a Rugged Road” in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg — but a full resurgence could be on its way thanks to Soldier of the Heart: The Judee Sill Story, an upcoming documentary that’s been eight years in the making.
Whether it’s the religious imagery in her lyrics or her ornate, Bach-influenced orchestral arrangements, there’s a mystical force that draws listeners to Sill; rarely are her fans casual. It’s easy to fall down an online rabbit hole while reading about her fascinating and tumultuous life. She robbed liquor stores and gas stations as a drug-addled teenager. She learned to play the organ in reform school, and even spent time in prison, where she fantasized about becoming a songwriter. She was openly bisexual at a time when even Freddie Mercury was firmly in the closet. She was injured in car accidents, one purportedly involving White Christmas actor Danny Kaye. She died alone in her apartment, one day after Thanksgiving. All of this was a stark contrast to her delicate, enchanting music — or maybe the songs were her refuge from the chaos of her life.
Souther waited for Sill after her set that night, and she drove to his home, following him on his Triumph motorcycle. “It was like watching two dogs meet in the park and just go, ‘OK, we’ll go for a walk together,’” he remembers. “A perfect beginning to what turned into a really electric and very strange relationship.”
Judith Lynne Sill was born on October 7th, 1944, in Studio City, Los Angeles. Her father, Milford, was a sound technician for Paramount Pictures. When Sill was a child, he relocated the family to Oakland, where he owned a bar. Sill spent her early years at Bud’s, where she learned to play the piano and sing. “It was so seedy in the bar,” she told Rolling Stone’s Grover Lewis in 1972, in what turned out to be her definitive interview. “People were always fightin’ and pukin’, there was illegal gamblin’, and my parents drank a lot, too.”
Still, these were happy times for the family — photographs show Sill and her brother, Dennis, smiling, having birthday parties, and riding bicycles. But all that changed with the first of many family tragedies, when Milford died of heart failure in 1952. Her mother, Oneta, moved the family back to Los Angeles, where she worked on the Betty Boop cartoon series.
Oneta got remarried to Ken Muse, an animator for Tom and Jerry. The couple were heavy drinkers who frequented Hollywood parties, and they became violent toward Sill — abusing her verbally and physically. By that point, Dennis had joined the Army, gotten married, and moved out of the house. Sill was left to fend for herself. “I always had scars on my knuckles,” she said. “We had such violent fights at our house that the police and newspapermen would come.”
Donna Disparti, Dennis’ daughter, has fond memories of Muse as a child — but she says that she’d been instructed by her mother to never to sit on his lap or be left alone with him. Sill eventually told Disparti that Muse had molested her. “She was like an older sister to me,” Disparti says. “I didn’t really ask a lot of questions.” Disparti also recalls visiting Muse following an orthodontist appointment when she was 13 years old. “My Grandpa Ken had remarried this lady,” she says. “She was missing the end of a couple of fingers. I asked her what happened, and she said that my Grandpa Ken was drunk and he cut them off. It gave me a different opinion of him — as I got older, I figured it all out.”
Living under Oneta and Muse’s roof, Sill became rebellious. She was kicked out of Birmingham High School and sent to a private school, which she described to Lewis as a school for rejects. Sill would balance herself between beatniks and outcasts. “I always found myself being the opposite of what every situation called for,” she said. “If I was around lowriders, I’d come on intellectual. If I was around intellectuals, I’d be a lowrider.”
After graduating high school, Sill spontaneously ran off with a man from Sherman Oaks and got married. When they returned home, their parents bought them an annulment. “That boy was a Scorpio, very daring,” she said. “He later got killed goin’ down the Kern River rapids in a rubber raft on LSD.”
After a brief stint at Los Angeles Valley College, Sill fell into armed robberies, carrying a .38-caliber. She’d practice holding up liquor stores and gas stations in the mirror — a routine she’d casually tell friends about in later years. Russ Giguere, one of Sill’s closest friends and a former member of Sixties band the Association, remembers this vividly: “One time she said, ‘You know that old joke where someone’s doing an armed robbery and they say, “OK, mothersticker, this is a fuck-up?” That was actually me.’”
Sill was eventually caught and arrested in 1963, when she was 18 years old. A Los Angeles Times article with the headline “Young Housewife Faces Robbery, Dope Charges” reads, “She was one of the people arrested for what police described as a series of robberies ‘just for kicks.’” “I was very numb,” she told Rolling Stone nine years later, looking back on the crimes. “I didn’t care one way or the other. That’s why I was doing those robberies, I guess — because my heart was reachin’ out, tryin’ to get me to care about somethin’.”
Sill spent nine months in a reform school in Ventura, where she became the church organist, studied gospel lyrics, and assisted the music and art teachers. Shortly after she got out in 1964, her mother died of alcoholism. Muse began locking Sill out of the house — ambushing her when she tried to sneak in through a window. She moved in with a friend and began experimenting with acid, taking doses daily for a year and a half.
In 1965, Sill met and married piano player Bob Harris. She became a heroin addict, shooting up to 20 bags a day, with money she got from forging checks and prostituting. Sill and Harris even traded a car for heroin down in Mexico. “It had some impurity in it that gave me a rash all over my body, made my legs swell up like balloons,” she told Lewis. “But we had to keep shootin’ it because it was part heroin, and I smuggled it across the border in my cunt, and it was rainin’, and I was crying, and I could barely walk.”
After a near-fatal overdose, Sill was arrested again in February 1968, this time for forgery and narcotics offenses. While in women’s prison at Sybil Brand Institute — where Susan Atkins would brag about participating in the murder of Sharon Tate to her cellmate the following year, tipping off the cops — Sill experienced brutal withdrawal. When she tried to call Dennis, she found out that her brother had died that same month. According to Disparti — who was only nine when her father died — he was being treated for the Hong Kong flu and came down with hepatitis C and pancreatitis. Still in jail, Sill was unable to attend her brother’s funeral. “They were very close,” Disparti says. “Judee just thought he was a saint.”
While in prison and grieving for her brother, Sill had an epiphany: She wanted to be a musician. When she got out on probation, she began crafting songs, drawing inspiration from books she voraciously read — usually about spirituality and the occult. She painted a large, soaring bird on a lover’s wall and told him it was magical. “Later, when there was nobody around, I rubbed the beak and wished that I could be the greatest livin’ songwriter in the world,” she later recalled. “I know it’s a big world, but that’s what I wanted.”
Sill began gigging in clubs around Los Angeles, playing bass in a trio that included Harris on piano. She was living in a 1955 Cadillac, sleeping in shifts with three other people. One evening while playing at Sherry’s on the Sunset Strip, Tommy Peltier walked in and asked to sit in on cornet. Peltier, a young jazz musician from New Orleans, felt an instant connection with Sill. “The first thing I saw was this really attractive, hard-driving bass player,” Peltier remembers. “We could feel something very strong between us — like soulmates meeting.”
During intermission, Sill and Peltier made out in the Cadillac, promising to meet again. They formed a lifelong friendship and a romance that, according to Peltier, never really ended. “It was, like, the greatest relationship I’ve ever had,” he says, choking up. “Like friends with benefits, I guess you might say.” On their second hang-out, Sill and Peltier went to the Griffith Observatory during a rainstorm. “Nobody was around,” he recalls. “We took off our clothes and made love, and the wind and everything was around us — something I would never do normally. But she had a way of instigating things I wouldn’t dream of.”
At this point, Sill had several songs under her belt, including the meditative “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” and “Lady-O,” rumored to be about Oneta. She received a call from Jim Pons of the Turtles, whom she’d met when she and Harris had dropped off weed at musician John Beck’s house. Pons hired her to write songs for Blimp Productions, paying her $65 a week. Soon after, the Turtles covered “Lady-O,” which peaked at Number 78 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in December 1969. Sitting in the Cadillac she called her temporary home, Sill heard her song on the radio for the first time. “Her songs were a very likable combination of futuristic imagery and spiritual longing,” Pons says. “She saw it as proof that she was headed for stardom.”
In a way, she was. Giguere had recently met Sill in his Silver Lake apartment, when she was dating his roommate and Association bandmate, Jules Alexander. They ran into each other in the kitchen one morning while they were both naked, getting juice out of the fridge. Later, Giguere heard her perform at Barnsdall Art Park. He alerted David Geffen, an agent at William Morris who was on the verge of starting Asylum. Giguere took Geffen to the Troubadour, where Sill was performing at the Monday Hoot Night. “He was thrilled,” Giguere remembers. “He said, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this.’ I said, ‘I told you.’”
Geffen signed Sill to Asylum and urged Souther to meet her. After that night on Melrose Avenue, the two had fallen in love. “We walked a narrow little ridge that hardly anybody was on,” Souther says of their relationship. “But when we were walking it together, we were very confident and very comfortable.” He fondly remembers how fascinating Sill could be — like the time she spontaneously woke him up and rushed him to Hollywood Boulevard, where a man was taking photographs and turning them into posters in his truck. Sill posed with a lollipop in her mouth — her favorite way to be photographed.
Another afternoon, they were laying on the deck in Sill’s backyard, right below an enormous beehive. Souther was nervous about getting stung, and Sill said, “Oh, for God’s sake,” handing him two Percodans. She welcomed the bees to land on her. “She’d talk to them and call them ‘little poo-poo face,’” Souther remembers. “The whole time she lived in that house, she’s the only one who never got bit.”
While their relationship was fleeting, it had a deep impact on Sill that lasted for the rest of her short life. When it ended, Souther got back together with Linda Ronstadt, whom he’d dated before Sill. “[Sill] didn’t take that very well,” he says. Heartbroken, Sill wrote “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” in which she used imagery from Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ — a book Souther and Sill had read numerous times — to convey her devastation. “He’s a bandit and a heartbreaker,” she sings on the chorus. “Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker.” Sill would cite it as one of the best songs she’d ever written, and she proudly played it for Souther when it was finished. “She came over just to stick it to me,” he recalls.
Graham Nash, who had recently become a massive star in his supergroup CSNY, heard “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” and agreed to produce the single. “I thought it could be a hit record,” Nash recalls. “Because of my involvement, I think it brought her song to a wider audience. I knew exactly how to get it where she wanted.”
The rest of Sill’s self-titled debut album was produced by Henry Lewy, known for his work with Joni Mitchell. “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” is the centerpiece, but the record is packed with gems that showcase Sill’s religious lyricism, sugarcoated with Brian Wilsonesque melodies and steeped in cowboy imagery. “Magic rings I made have turned my finger green/And my mystic roses died,” she sings on the opening track, “Crayon Angels,” her Southern drawl carrying across acoustic flourishes. “Guess reality is not as it seems/So I sit here hoping for truth, and a ride/To the other side.” “I just think it’s utterly remarkable,” Souther says of the LP. “Quite possibly the best first album I’ve ever heard of anyone’s.”
Henry Diltz photographed Sill for the cover. They met at art designer Gary Burden’s home in Topanga Canyon, a cozy wooden house that Neil Young had previously lived in. The trio drank coffee and got high while Sill sat on a patterned couch beside the kitchen, strumming her acoustic guitar with a beagle beside her. They went outside to shoot the photographs, depicting Sill in a deep-blue dress that resembled a monk’s robe, with a giant gold cross around her neck. That night, Diltz recorded the events in his journal. “Took pictures today of Judee Sill in Topanga Canyon,” he wrote. “Lots of great talk about divine intervention.”
Judee Sill arrived in September 1971. Despite its lack of commercial success, it received positive reviews, with Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau hailing it as one of the “prettiest” records that year, and Chris Van Ness of The Los Angeles Free Press citing Sill as “the most important and exciting new female singer-composer since Laura Nyro.”
To promote the album, Sill went on tour that fall opening for Nash and David Crosby. Nash marveled at Sill’s performances, watching her from the side of the stage each night. “We flew to places and would drive if the next gig was only 100 miles or so,” Nash recalls. “And she would be constantly staring out of the window and not particularly talking. You could tell that she was taking everything in. If she saw an old man on a street corner flashing by, you knew that it might end up as a line in one of her songs. Because she didn’t say much, you didn’t really know how bright she was.”
Onstage, Sill would often preface each song with a backstory or drily ask the crowd to buy her albums so she wouldn’t have to open for “snotty” rock bands — which didn’t sit well with some critics. “I’ve seen her about six times, wondering how she gets away with it all,” wrote Lynn Van Matre of the Chicago Tribune. “Between those hymn-y little songs about Jesus and deliverance, the commentary comes, delivered with all the vivacity of a terminal mono patient heavily into downers.”
Still, Geffen had high hopes for Sill, and was determined to build her an audience. He took her to a radio convention at Wayne State University in Detroit, where they had dinner with another performer: a young Billy Joel. When Joel’s publicist Sandee Gibson suggested that Sill and Joel tour together, Geffen turned her down. “David said to me, ‘Who will come?’” Gibson remembers.
At first, Sill was enamored by Geffen, even writing on the Judee Sill album sleeve, “David Geffen, I love you.” “I thought he was some kind of knight in shinin’ armor,” she told Lewis. “But I didn’t understand the other things that made him such a ruthless businessman. He’s not always easy to deal with, especially for someone as crazy as I am.”
Geffen invited Sill to perform at the Warner Bros. Christmas party, held at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Sill went with Peltier, who handed the keys to his overheated, smoking Rambler to the valet, among a line of Rolls-Royces. Before Sill performed, she and Peltier hit a joint behind a set of drapes. “Our feet were sticking out from the bottom and we were giggling like little kids,” he says. “That was Judee, always challenging authority.”
For her next record, 1973’s Heart Food, Sill brought back Lewy to produce. “Henry was the kind that would let the magic happen,” says Wrecking Crew great Louie Shelton, who played guitar on the record. “He would just let the artist set the tone for everything. She knew more than anyone else in the room how to set the mood of the song. We would just follow her lead.”
Sill cranked up the orchestration on Heart Food, incorporating strings, horns, and pedal steel guitar. “Down Where the Valleys Are Low” is a gospel track that features session legend Spooner Oldham on keyboards, while “The Donor” searches for higher meaning with chants of “Kyrie eleison.” “The Kiss,” an angelic hymn that sweeps the soul, is often regarded as her masterpiece. “Unfortunately, I can’t listen to ‘The Kiss’ anymore because it just presses the ‘sob your heart out’ button,” says XTC’s Andy Partridge, a fan of Sill since the release of her debut. “I’m just destroyed for the next hour. I actually think it’s the most beautiful song ever written by anybody.”
In February 1973, Sill performed “The Kiss” and “The Pearl” on The Old Grey Whistle Test in London — one of the few known videos of her performing live. Wearing a gray blouse with a bow at the collar, she sat at the piano for “The Kiss,” with the audience hanging on every word. It was during this tour in England that Sill reportedly fell back into opiates, drinking cough syrup she purchased at pharmacies.
Heart Food came out a month later, but like its predecessor, it failed to chart. Sill became increasingly frustrated with her lack of success, and in an event that several sources deem either exaggerated or entirely fabricated, Sill reportedly bad-mouthed Geffen onstage in England — calling him a homophobic slur. There are no witnesses to the incident, and Sill’s former Asylum labelmate Jackson Browne is doubtful it even occurred. “There were always people saying shit about Geffen that was either hearsay or got really amplified or changed around,” he says.
Regardless of whether Sill made the comment or not, she returned to the States and told her friends she had. “What she said about David Geffen was just silly and careless,” Souther says. “It should have pissed him off. He’d already put a lot of money into her career and nothing was coming back. To him, it sounded ungrateful — certainly an unnecessary slam.” Adds Ronstadt: “Judee overreacted. David was trying to help her, and I think she’d been treated so badly in her past that she couldn’t accept that people weren’t mistreating her.”
Giguere attributes Sill’s supposed outburst to David Omer Bearden, her boyfriend at the time, whom she was on tour with (Sill also dedicated Heart Food to him). “He was such a negative influence,” Giguere recalls, noting that Bearden was jealous of Giguere’s friendship with Sill. Bearden also didn’t allow Sill to see Souther. “He didn’t want her anywhere around me,” Souther says.
In late 1973, Sill was T-boned in a Volkswagen she had borrowed from Souther while he was on tour, leaving her in a full-body cast. According to Sill, she was hit by actor Danny Kaye, and John Wayne drove her to the hospital, but no police records of this have been found. A year later, she was injured again — this time allegedly pushed down the stairs by Bearden — and had several back operations.
After the second accident, Disparti came to visit Sill in the hospital. It had been years since they’d seen each other. After Sill took a young Disparti and her brother to a party and smoked in front of them (“This guy goes, ‘We’re smoking a peace pipe, man,'” Disparti recalls), their mother prohibited Sill from contacting her children until they turned 18. Disparti arrived to find her aunt smoking a clove cigarette in her hospital bed. “She was just this cool hippie,” says Disparti. “I said, ‘Aunt Judee, can you do that in here?’ And she goes, ‘I can do whatever I want.’” Giguere also remembers Sill writing letters to the hospital kitchen. “She would complain about the food,” he says with a laugh, “and tell them what they could do better.”
In severe pain from the injuries, Sill fell back into drugs. In a secret journal she kept around this time, she wrote about taking speedballs, codeine, and other narcotics. “I kicked in Seattle, but then got strung out again,” she wrote in 1975. “All is lost. Beyond help. Maybe Saint Judy can help me? Been fixing in my arms as well. Back into junky-dom heavily.”
The entries show Sill reflecting on her breakup with Bearden, discovering new crushes, and navigating her bisexuality. She also writes about Souther, years after their breakup, claiming that she still loved him. “[I can] talk to him without worry of grossing him out,” she writes. “He is a good person in spite of being a bandit and a heartbreaker.”
A majority of the journal’s pages show Sill working through the lyrics to her next album, which she planned to title Dreams Come True. She went into the studio with bass player Bill Plummer, who literally had to carry her into the sessions because her injuries made it difficult to walk. After she had cut eight demos for Dreams Come True, the album was shelved. Asylum had terminated her contract, and although Sill told many of her friends she was dropped because of her onstage remark to Geffen, by this time he had transitioned to the film industry. Sill wouldn’t live to see Dreams Come True released.
In 1977, Disparti got married in Los Angeles. Sill arrived in sheer white pants and a knit shawl, gifted Disparti a vegetarian cookbook, and played a melody on guitar as her 18-year-old niece walked down the aisle. Disparti and Sill kept in touch via phone over the next two years, with Sill often asking to borrow money. Sill lived off of royalty checks from a 600-acre oil field her family owned in West Texas, but they only arrived every quarter. She always paid her niece back, sending a check post-dated for when it would go through.
Disparti spoke to her aunt one last time, when she called in October 1979 to let her know she had a baby. “I think she was a little bit high,” Disparti says. “I said, ‘I just wanted to call and tell you that you’re a great-aunt.’ And she goes, ‘Thank you, honey.’ I said, ‘You’re a really great aunt, but you’re a great-aunt because I just had a baby!’”
Souther had completely lost contact with Sill as her addiction worsened. In September of that year, he had two hits in the Top 10 — “You’re Only Lonely” and “Heartache Tonight,” an Eagles single he co-wrote with Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Bob Seger. “I was busy all the time, completely oblivious,” he says. Still, he insistently asked Giguere how Sill was doing. “You don’t want to see her and she doesn’t want you to see her,” he told him. “It’s not good there.”
Tommy Peltier, who had remained close with Sill, was on his way to meditate when he received a startling phone call from Sill’s roommate Judy Taylor in November 1979. “She was very worried about Judee,” he recalls. “She thought she might OD and was wondering what she should do. I said, ‘Well, just keep an eye on her. If it gets worse, you’re gonna have to call the authorities.’” The next morning, Sill called Peltier herself. She told him that the night before, she was heading toward a white light — but Peltier was right behind her, calling her back.
On Tuesday, November 20th, Peltier and Sill met up and ate at her favorite sushi restaurant in Little Tokyo. They strolled the singles bars of Manhattan Beach, trying to see who could pick up the most amount of phone numbers. “I ended up with one or two,” he says. “She had a whole dozen. But on our way home, we had a great time giggling about all that. It was like a goodbye party.”
On November 23rd, the day after Thanksgiving, Sill was found dead in her North Hollywood apartment. She was 35. Her death certificate cites the cause of death as a suicide, but many of her friends refuse to believe that Sill would intentionally take her own life. “She loved living too much,” Peltier says. “She liked to experiment, and this time she just went a little bit too far.”
At 21 years old, Disparti became the executor of Sill’s estate. She went to her aunt’s apartment to collect her belongings — just a guitar, clothes, a few pieces of jewelry, photographs, and writings — and put them into Sill’s beat-up car, which had cigarette burns in the seats and floor. Sill’s cousin Pam urged Disparti to wait outside the apartment. “I don’t know why she didn’t want me to go in,” Disparti says. “I think because maybe it would make me too sad to go into the bedroom knowing that she died in there.” Later, Disparti and her husband sifted through Sill’s clothing and found a blouse with blood stains in the sleeves — the same one she wore on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Fifty people attended Sill’s memorial at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Los Angeles, where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes are encased and where George Harrison’s funeral was later held. A tree was planted in her name, and her ashes were scattered on the Pacific Ocean.
After the ceremony, Giguere and some friends met up at the Mexican restaurant El Coyote. They ate green-corn tamales, a favorite of Sill’s, and toasted to her. “We used to go to El Coyote all the time,” Giguere remembers. “One time we had a birthday party there and took over the whole patio. Someone broke out a tin full of cocaine and it went down the table. Everybody stuck a spoon in, took some cocaine, and passed it down. It was the old days.”
Many of Sill’s peers vividly remember the last time they saw or spoke to her. For Linda Ronstadt, it was while she was in the studio recording 1978’s Living in the USA, and Sill stopped by to help her cut a cover of “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” It was a full-circle moment, with the two women recording a song about their mutual ex-boyfriend. “I changed the name to ‘Bandit and a Heartbreaker’ because I could do without the religious overtones,” Ronstadt said. However, Ronstadt gave up after several hours when Sill appeared too drugged out to play. “She was stoned on some kind of pills and kept nodding in her chair,” she says. “She was in bad shape.” Ronstadt wouldn’t finish the cover until years later; it appeared on 1999’s Box Set.
Louie Shelton hadn’t spoken to Sill since the sessions for Heart Food, but shortly before her death he received a call from her, complimenting his production work with Seals and Crofts. “Of all the people I ever recorded with, she was the only one that a few years later rang me up just to say hi and how much she had enjoyed working with me,” he says. Nash regrets not reaching out to Sill after the 1971 tour. “I always wanted to call and see how she was doing, but I never did,” he says. “And now it’s too late. It’s a hard lesson to learn.”
Those who knew Sill describe her as being incredibly generous. She gifted Leslie Morris, Elliot Roberts’ assistant at the time, with a turquoise rock that she still has to this day. Giguere, who often thought he’d grow old with Sill, has one of her drawings, which she gave him in December 1974, framed in his Los Angeles home. Renee Pappas, who worked at the Geffen-Roberts management company, recalls a time when Sill came to the office and asked her if she had read the works of Kazantzakis. When Pappas, who was Greek, told her she hadn’t, Sill showed up a week later with a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ.
Many musicians who were in Sill’s circle still wonder why her career never took off. “I thought the stuff was really commercial,” Ronstadt says. “‘Lady-O’ certainly was. The [songs] were about obscure topics like ‘He comes from under the cryptosphere/Where the great sadness begins.’ What does that mean? I don’t know. It’s not exactly, ‘Ooh baby, ooh baby, you’ve got a great ass,’ or whatever it is people were singing about in those days.” Adds Souther: “I think it really pissed her off that people didn’t appreciate her as a songwriter. Because first of all, no one in radio is going to play a song about the mystical Christ. And I think her voice was a little foreign to some people.”
Sill’s ill-fated career is often compared to David Blue, another Asylum singer-songwriter who never found fame and success. “To be on Asylum Records was an automatic hit,” Morris says. “They were about the only two who didn’t.” It’s hard to know what would have happened if Sill had lived and kept releasing albums. “Music was a refuge for her,” Jackson Browne says. “Even if she was on Asylum for two records and went to another place after, as [Warren] Zevon did, I think she would have found success. But it’s easier said than done to just continue in the face of [not] selling records.”
In looking back at female singer-songwriters from the early Seventies, many suspect a large factor in Sill’s lack of success was that she wasn’t hypersexualized. “She’s kind of clunky and gawky looking,” says XTC’s Andy Partridge. “Women were seen as window dressing then, and I don’t think she took shit from people.” Natalie Mering, a Los Angeles singer-songwriter who performs as Weyes Blood, also hears this defiance in Sill’s music. “She’s not putting on the femme, because she’s not using that as part of her tool kit,” she says. “She sings like a teacher, you know?”
It’s been more than 40 years since Sill’s death, but her following keeps expanding. Fleet Foxes have covered “Crayon Angels” live several times, while the song “Sunblind,” from their latest album, Shore, recites Sill’s name alongside Elliott Smith and John Prine. Indie singer-songwriter Bartees Strange recently covered “The Pearl” for a Sill tribute compilation, while Paramore’s Hayley Williams sang “Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos” last summer in quarantine.
Producer Pat Thomas, who first heard Sill in 1999, has played a crucial role in sustaining her legacy. He discovered the unfinished Dreams Come True and tracked down Sill’s family to work with them on a posthumous release, which came out in 2005. He’s also worked on reissues for Judee Sill and Heart Food, as well as the 2007 compilation Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973. “She’s like Nick Drake,” Thomas says. “Every three or four years, a whole new generation of people discover her. It’s like Judee’s Secret-Handshake Club, except that it has a lot of members.”
Thomas is also the music supervisor on the upcoming documentary Soldier of the Heart: The Judee Sill Story, co-directed by Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom. The duo have spent years working on the film, piecing Sill’s life together and interviewing those who knew her. “Judee’s life and her lyrics are very intertwined,” Brown says. “You can’t separate them, and that’s what makes it so timeless and powerful. I think people learning more about her will see that struggle and connect it to her music.”
“Maybe in death she’ll have the attention that she so deserved in life,” adds Lindstrom. “What strikes me watching ‘The Kiss’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test is that moment where the song has just ended, and what’s coming up for her is the return to normal life. And of course, the video cuts out before we see that. But in many ways, I think our film is showing that moment. What do you do after those transcendent moments, where the muse is with you and you’ve reached those heights? What follows that? What is it like to live a day-to-day life, with challenges and integrity and all the other things that we’re faced with, when the music isn’t with you?”
The documentary is on track to be completed this year, and it will help establish Sill’s legacy once and for all. “It’s gonna explode,” Mering suspects of Sill’s music. “I think it makes sense that she’d have this modern appeal. It’s immaculately esoteric, melodic, and slightly strange.”
Disparti is ready for her aunt’s music to find a wider audience. “I believe her spirit is with me a lot,” she says. “I just wish she could be here right now to see how people are gravitating towards her music. She struggled so hard.”