Dream girl

Decades after her demise, Judee Sill — whether thief, whore, or saint — still steals hearts


"I used to joke sometimes that I'm Judee's last boyfriend," concedes Patrick Roques, producer of Dreams Come True, Water's two-disc 2005 compendium of Judee Sill's unreleased 1974 third album and demos. "I don't mean to sound egotistic or anything, but I loved this woman like I'd love a girlfriend or wife."

Sill has that effect on listeners. Over the past few years, the onetime hooker, junkie, armed robber, bisexual reform-school girl, and all-around archetypal bad apple has realized the revelation visited on her while incarcerated in the Sybil Brand women's prison: her music has been etched into the consciousnesses of passionate followers around the world who know her as a singer-songwriter of uncommon musical and metaphysical power. Even 27 years after her death from a cocaine overdose, it seems like Sill still hasn't quite passed. Water has done its part to keep her musical reveries alive with the landmark Dreams Come True, mixed by Jim O'Rourke and including Roques's obsessively researched, invaluable 68-page booklet and a 12-minute QuickTime movie of rare performance footage; reissues of her two Asylum studio albums, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973); and the newly released Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972–1973, an impeccably recorded document of Sill performing solo on acoustic guitar and piano, chatting with the audience and an interviewer, and in the process revealing snatches of a nervy yet nervous urban cowgirl in her blue-collar SoCal drawl.

For too long, before her rediscovery in recent years by a generation falling back in love with the folk songs of their parents' youth, Sill was simply the lost girl from an age of singer-songwriters, a victim of her lack of stateside commercial success — though she's been covered by artists ranging from the Turtles to the Hollies, Warren Zevon to Bonnie "Prince" Billy — and her will to transcend the bounds of the earth and everyday troubles, growing up in her father's rough Oakland bar and later sexually abused by her stepfather. Clues to map out her art — or potential escape routes, which included a brief stay in Mill Valley's Strawberry Canyon — were found in the sacred texts and music of Rosicrucianism and other forms of Christian mysticism, her studies of Pythagoras's music of the spheres and occult modes like numerology, or simply the moment's drug of choice, whether it be a daily tab of acid or the $150-a-day heroin habit that led her into prostitution and eventually check forgery.

Her decision in prison to devote her creative efforts to songwriting led her to truly reach for the sublime, in the form of songs that still touch listeners' cores. Always-immaculate intonation, a deft sense of harmony, and elegantly composed songs informed by AM radio, folk, R&B, blues, gospel, and classical music were framed by Sill's own arrangements, leading competition like Joni Mitchell to stop by and check out the Heart Food sessions. "I defy anyone who's a high school dropout ex-junkie reform-school person to do that," Roques declares. "This woman was brilliant and plugged in — she had the energy, and it flowed through her." If you want to know and love Sill, she is, remarkably, still available — her spirit can be found all over her music.

So why didn't Sill become a household name like Asylum labelmate Jackson Browne? "Judee didn't get along with [Asylum head] David Geffen, and David Geffen isn't someone you give shit to," Roques says. After recording two moderately successful LPs, "she was in debt to him, and Jackson Browne came along, and he was just easier to deal with, I think, from a corporate perspective. Browne hung out in the close inner circle and had hits. She didn't hang out with the Asylum record crowd too much.

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