Thursday, June 30, 2011

Judee Sill - Judee Sill

I'm sure you've read the articles about favourite musicians where they declare things like "I don't like to classify my music" when asked what style or category their music can be fitted into. I don't know about you readers out there, but that's not an answer I feel comfortable with.

Musicians don't like to be put into a box or want to feel constricted that what they do today is what they'll be doing next year. Fair enough, but if you're playing pop, what's wrong with saying so? Instead they feel they have to say that they're creating a concoction influenced by many styles. This is something I've discussed before with reference to Pentangle. Being influenced by the music of Duke Ellington doesn't mean you're a jazz musician.

So where would I put the music of Judee Sill? A difficult question to be sure. Allgedly, she called her music "country-cult-baroque" - an interesting moniker. Singing songs about Jesus as a cowboy (more on that later) with a little steel guitar in the background doesn't make this sound much like anything Loretta Lynn came up with, I tell ya. Baroque? Well, some of the songs DO have refrains that sound like she's been listening to Bach, I guess. Given the lyrical content, she could also be classified as Christian pop -and yet this is NOTHING like the lyrical or music content coming off an Amy Grant record, for reasons we'll go into soon. She was around at the time of other female songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Tapestry-era Carole King. While the music does have melodic elements of that so-called West Coast sound, she's attempting different things with orchestration, and certainly with the lyrics. So where does she fit in?

Judee grew up with a very hard existence. Broken home, drunk parents, abusive stepfather, reform school, drugs, holding up liquor stores (according to the liner notes of the re-released albums, she was afraid of saying "this is a fuck-up, mothersticker") and turning tricks. So superficially, this would not appear to be the life one leads that is heading towards the creation of an exquisitely beautiful form of art - but that's exactly what Judee Sill's music is.

I only came across her music about 5 or 6 years ago when it was being played over the system in a CD store in Melbourne. The two albums that had been released in her lifetime, "Judee Sill" and "Heartfood" had been packaged as a 2CD set with a swag of demos and live tracks as extras. When I heard the song "Jesus Was A Cross Maker", I was sold. Not being Christian and having no knowledge of Christian theology, might have made this a strange choice of song for me to be drawn to - yet, my impression is that this is not the sort of song you'll be hearing in church any time soon. The fact that she drew inspiration for writing this after reading The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis (which caused much controversy for imagining Christ as mortal) comes as no surprise. "Crayon Angels", the album's opener sounds like Judee wants to believe in something. The truth of this world isn't satisfying, but she's not sure that religion has all the answers - but she'll keep an open mind ("Guess reality is not as it seems....Holy visions disappeared from my view,
But the angels come back and laugh in my dreams......So I sit here hopin' for truth and a ride,
To the other side").

Her second album "Heartfood", is more highly regarded by fans, although I prefer the simplicity of the first. However, it contains two absolutely exquisite songs in "The Kiss" and "The Donor". To Judee, locked lips joining in "communion of a kiss" is the most beautiful pure thing that can be done. With her achingly beautiful piano and vibrato-free sweet voice, you really believe her words. The Donor musically combines piano, tympani, bells, and a chorus of voices. The lyrics are dream-like and speak of unsettling sleep. The chorus, such that it is has Judee singing "Kyrie eleison" - Lord Have Mercy. Judee explained that she wrote that song at a low time and was asking for God to give her a break.

So how do I classify this music? Is "uplifting" a genre? She turned her own difficult life and turned it into something wonderful for her art. You don't have to be Christian or believe in any deity to appreciate what's going on here. You just have to prepared to believe in beauty - whatever you want to call it.

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