Sill, who struggled with drug addiction and crime, had an impressive music career
The details of the late songwriter Judee Sill’s life read like pure tragedy, from a broken home and juvenile delinquency to drug addiction and death at the early age of 35.
But in the midst of all that turmoil, she was able to write the Turtles’ hit Lady-O, record two mind-blowingly beautiful albums as the first signing to David Geffen’s Asylum Records, and influence a generation of songwriters who shared her work among themselves like some best-kept secret.
The 40th anniversary of her death will be marked in Halifax with a special all-star tribute assembled by Windsor singer-songwriter Terra Spencer on Saturday, 8 p.m. at Art Bar + Projects on Granville Mall.
The show also marks one of the rare occasions that Spencer the artist draws on her daily life as a funeral director. Normally, her workday career and her musical passion run on parallel tracks but for this event that she’s been looking forward to for so long, she has an opportunity to use the skill and care so crucial in her community to honour an artist whose work led her to take songwriting seriously.
“It seemed that this is the greatest culmination of what I do in my day job and this songwriting path that I’ve been on,” says Spencer, fresh from showcasing her album Other People’s Lives at Nova Scotia Music Week in Truro. “Because it takes someone I admire so deeply — who was really never recognized for her songwriting in her lifetime — and whose life was so tragic, and serves not just as a tribute show, but as a memorial to Judee.
“I deliberately chose this date, 40 years to the day that she passed away, for the show, and have had it bookmarked for years. When we have funeral services, we print up a bulletin that’s handed out which has the obituary and a picture, and if you’ve gone to a funeral, you’ve seen that kind of thing.”
A note from Ron Sexsmith
For her show’s booklet, Spencer reached out to friend and mega-Sill fan Ron Sexsmith to pen a note, as a eulogy of sorts for one of his favourite unsung songwriters. “I asked Ron if he could write a little bit about his feelings for Judee, and he did, so that will be included in the show,” says the singer, whose Chasin' the Sun: A Tribute to Judee Sill also features special guests Kim Barlow, the Heavy Blinkers’ Melanie Stone, Cassie Josephine and the Lewinskies’ Kristen Hatt Lewis, plus a stellar backing band.
The show will also be an opportunity for Spencer to share the details of Sill’s life; how a series of gas station and liquor store holdups sent her to reform school, where she learned gospel music and became a church organist, and how she turned to songwriting after a stretch in prison for drug-related offences.
Joining the Laurel Canyon scene, Sills befriended David Crosby and Graham Nash, who produced her best-known song Jesus Was a Cross Maker when she was signed to Asylum, before being dropped for poor sales and personal animosity with label owner Geffen, who was finding greater success with Jackson Browne and the Eagles.
“Everything was uphill for her, she was just one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever come across,” says Spencer. “And there was something to the fact that I started writing songs
when I was the same age she was when she died, and she died the year that I was born.
“There are these little torch-passing moments that made me feel this strange kinship with her, even though the actual circumstances of her life are fortunately quite different from mine.”
Spencer discovered Sill’s music around the same time she started writing her own songs and posting them online just for fun, more than five years ago. When she posted a song about how badly her family home’s roof was leaking, Jason MacIsaac from the Heavy Blinkers dropped her a line to tell her how much he liked the song and how its melody and her warm, inviting voice reminded him of Sill’s calm, comforting sound.
“I had never heard of her, but I trust Jason in all things musical any day, so I looked her up,” says Spencer, who then went down a Judee Sill online rabbit hole. “I think The Kiss was the first song that I heard and it just derailed my entire day. I listened to more and more songs, and then found a radio documentary about her, and every piece of the puzzle about her just exploded and this character came to life.”
Spencer says Sill’s “complicated orchestral songs with trippy cosmic Christian lyrics” sung with a plaintive midwestern twang may not be for everyone, but they completely changed her concept of songwriting and where you could go in a lyric.
“I would say from that point is when I started seriously considered writing songs that weren’t just novelty songs for a Facebook laugh.
“Because she was so bold in how she wrote, and didn’t seem to really care about how anybody received it. It was like she was driven or possessed.”
If you’d like to hear Spencer’s own drive for making original music, you can find her singing her latest songs in a show with Sarah McInnis at Bishop Hall in Greenwich (outside Wolfville) on Friday, Nov. 29, and at a Music for Mental Health house concert with country/folk group Shadows of Innocence in Halifax’s west end on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. (visit www.terraspencer.ca/shows for more info). She also joins Tyler Messick for a Friday, Dec. 6 performance at Horton Ridge Malt & Grain Co. in Wolfville at 8 p.m.