Wild Mercury Sound

Judee Sill Live In London

John Mulvey

It's just occurred to me that, for the past week or so, a lot of the stuff I've been writing about has been by either female singer/songwriters (PJ Harvey, Linda Thompson) or splattery noise/drone bands from the States (Cloudland Canyon, White Rainbow, Magik Markers).

No change today, and torn between the new Sunburned Hand Of The Man/Four Tet album and "Judee Sill Live In London", I've opted for the latter. As I write, I'm skipping between the tracks to play the three versions of "The Kiss" on here. "Live In London" compiles three radio sessions for the BBC from '72 and '73. The first version of "The Kiss" dates from March 1972, and in her preamble, Sill notes that she had only written it eight days previously. "I can't decide whether this is a romantic song or a holy song," she continues.

That dilemma, of course, was one of the fascinating things about Judee Sill; the way her music conflated the carnal and the divine. I say conflate, but Sill's spiel suggest it was less a calculated plan, more a confusion. "The Kiss" remains my favourite Sill song, and its hymnal tranquility is even more apparent in these solo piano versions, without the rich arrangement it would attain on "Heart Food".

A year later, in February 1973, the song has been recorded formally for "Heart Food", but it doesn't appear to have changed materially. Sill, though, appears to have become reconciled to the song's dichotomy. "It's about the union of opposites that are in us all," she says.

She also says, "Here's a song that will put you to sleep," giving us a glimpse of the insecurities that plagued Sill. As you probably know, Sill was the great lost Asylum artist, her life a tangle of scholarship and passion, religion, hard drugs, even prostitution. Besides the lovely music collected here, it's fascinating to hear Sill talk, to hear this mythologised and elusive woman revealed to be a serious, nervous but compelling character beyond the intensities and complexities of her songs.

"The Donor" is on now, and it occurs to me that when I compared PJ Harvey's "White Chalk" to Sill's contemporary Laura Nyro in my blog the other day, you can divine a Sill influence in Harvey's new piano songs, too. "Live In London" makes that comparison easier, without the chamber arrangements of the two studio Sill albums. It's a different kind of austere emotional directness, perhaps. . . maybe I'll play "White Chalk" later this afternoon and think again.


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