Here’s a clip of L.A-based orchestral pop meets the hymn book singer-songwriter Judee Sill. It’s “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” a deep-cut featured on her 1971 self-titled record Judee Sill. It would be only one of two records that would be released during her lifetime.
Like many of her songs, this one just bursts with spiritual longing carried by a melody that flows like honey, while also falling between the cracks of standard musical pigeonholes. Luckily for Sill, a boom in contemplative singer-songwriters was happening around the time she was writing songs. So she was the first to be signed to David Geffen’s now-famous Asylum label, home to many now associated with the era of classic confessional songwriting centered around Los Angeles.
Of course, Judee Sill took a less than conventional path to being signed to a successful record label. She pursued her career after a teenaged period of getting into trouble, landing herself in reform schools, and using hard drugs. Songwriting was her way out.
And with that in mind, it’s a wonder that her music doesn’t sound more jaded. In fact, it sounds completely the opposite. As evidenced by “Lopin’ Along Through The Cosmos”, this is the voice of an idealist, a dreamer who perhaps doesn’t expect the best, but hopes for it anyway. And Judee Sill certainly had reason to doubt it.
As mentioned, it was released during a prime period for confessional songwriting, particularly with sensitive, waif-like women at the center of it. Despite the cosmetic match to this aesthetic, Sill remained to be a writer of great depth, championed on this first record by Graham Nash, who produced her single “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”, which would be celebrated repeatedly in cover version form many years later. By that time, Sill was gone, having succumbed to a persistent drug habit that pulled her in the opposite direction from that of her hopeful, idealistic songs.
She would support Nash in turn by serving as an opening act when he and David Crosby took to the road as a duo. But, much like a similar artist across the pond at the time, Nick Drake, Judee Sill wasn’t much for touring, or being an entertainer. In Sill’s case, this was true particularly in the case of touring with rock groups that she felt were antithetic to her own approach to musical presentation and style.
Perhaps too, she was all too aware that the hopefulness in her music and the forces that drove her to darker places was the key tension to be found in her life. The idea of presenting it as entertainment in her songs was arguably distasteful to her. This is another kind of tension that all songwriters have to face in one form or another; the demands of commerce versus the impulse to pure expression.
What we’re left with now though is a body of work that has been belatedly celebrated, a lot of the time by other songwriters who share equal admiration at being very open about spiritual struggles, and the honest expression of themselves in their own work. This tune is one of my favourites, a microcosm of all that was beautiful and inspiring about Judee Sill’s songs as a whole; spiritually infused lyrics, lush strings, soaring melody, and ultimate hopefulness.
She managed to connect with listeners, sometimes across decades, and between life and her own death too.
Judee Sill released two records in her lifetime, plus a number of demos that resulted in a third album Dreams Come True, released officially in 2005.
To learn more about Judee Sill, read this article by respected music writer Barney Hoskins.