For every great record, there is almost always another great one behind it. Sometimes, there’s even an entire body of work that helped to inspire it. Shannon, Graeme, and I aren’t the only ones who have albums that hold deep meanings!
This idea is absolutely true of XTC’s Apple Venus, Volume 1, a record that we discussed in episode 5 of our podcast, which you should totally listen to right here if you haven’t yet.
Some of the more obvious influences on the album consist of the usual suspects for XTC, those being The Beatles and The Kinks, with a dash of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. Yet one of the greatest influences on Apple Venus, Volume 1 was the work of an artist of which not every music fan has heard; Judee Sill.
Sill was a singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles who put out only two albums in her lifetime, those being 1971’s Judee Sill, and her 1973 follow-up, Heart Food. Those records are marked with intense joy and melancholy held in delicate balance, full of acoustic intimacy and orchestral grandeur in equal measure. Compared to Apple Venus, Volume 1, the parallels are undeniable.
Judee Sill: a huge influence
Chief XTC songwriter Andy Partridge discovered her music through a girlfriend and before XTC formed in the early seventies. Being more into the brash and outrageous New York Dolls than a soft-spoken songwriter who matched American western folk and devotional music to J.S Bach melodic complexity, his initial foray into her work was tentative. But he would later acknowledge that …
She is a huge influence on me, and I think it went in so deep that many years later I would find myself writing songs or trying to sing like her and wonder if that’s the way Judee Sill would have done it … [read more]
When you listen to Apple Venus, Volume 1 tracks “Knights In Shining Karma” and “The Last Balloon” in particular, you have to wonder if Judee Sill didn’t at least collaborate on them somehow.
A troubled soul, an unearthly talent
Judee Sill was a troubled soul, with violence, protracted drug abuse, poverty, petty crime, and personal loss marking her path. She died in 1979 penniless and largely unknown. This was despite being championed by Graham Nash and being one of the earliest signees to David Geffen’s Asylum Records less than a decade before.
Her capacity for heartbreaking beauty and lyrical profundity full of spiritual longing in her music is a direct contrast to all of the self-destructiveness and tragedy that otherwise seemed to hold sway over her. Knowing about her background isn’t necessary to appreciating and indeed being completely swept away by her music, which is almost unearthly in its sumptuousness and emotional depth. Yet when you consider her life, it seems like her music was the only thing that kept her from being swallowed by darkness entirely. It’s no wonder that it’s so affecting.
What to listen to next
Judee Sill’s catalogue is small, but potent. Her two studio albums released during her lifetime mentioned above are both more than worth your time.
For many years, there were rumours of an unreleased third album, the existence of which achieving an almost mythic status among fans during a period of rediscovery and appreciation for her work. Eventually, unreleased tracks compiled from sessions in 1974 came out in 2005 under the (very appropriate!) title Dreams Come True.
As for individual tracks so that you can dip your toe in, my recommendations are:
“The Kiss” from Heart Food. (listen here)
“Lopin’ Along Through The Cosmos” from Judee Sill. (listen here)
“That’s the Spirit” from Dreams Come True. (listen here)
Very happy listening!
To learn more about the life and work of Judee Sill, read this 1972 article from Rolling Stone Magazine that has Judee telling her story in her own words.
Warning: the story is pretty in-your-face when it comes to the drugs, crime, and prostitution aspect of things. But it will also give you a glimpse into her background, and lend first-hand insight on her creative process, motivations, and what she calls, meaningfully, her “hungry monsters”.
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