ACCORDING to Judee Sill: "Out of the mud grows a lotus". In other words something beautiful comes from something unpleasant. The phrase applies well to her own life.
Judee, you see, has been through some rough times. Born in Oakland, California, she was brought up in her father's bar where the customers gambled illegally and she hid under the tables to avoid the fighting.
After her father died, her mother died of alcoholism a few years later, and Judee took to drugs - principally heroin, which led to a life of petty crime and prison.
Yet, remarkably, she pulled herself out. She became the lotus. After kicking drugs and discovering certain spiritual feelings within herself, she now writes songs of rare beauty, full of imagery and symbolism tied in with her religious beliefs.
"I was always singing when I was a kid," she told me in an express train torrent of words. "I always wanted to harmonise with somebody but I couldn't find anyone, so I learned to play the piano so I could harmonise with that. It was the same with the guitar.
"I didn't know whether I was going to be a songwriter or anything like that, but I always liked writing songs and it slowly started evolving. It was the only thing I was any good at".
"When I decided to quit being a heroin addict I realised that I had to make some kind of rash move that would give me the same kind of thrill but at the same time be of a positive nature. I realised writing songs was the thing I did best, so I decided to pull my full energy into it."
"Musically, probably the turning point was when I became interested in alchemy and spiritual things like that. It influenced my music a lot. Although it wasn't a sudden thing. I didn't wake up one morning and say "Oh, I see," I began to want to entice the listener to open his heart"
"Generally, spiritual things are the main inspiration for my songs. I try to get inspiration in other ways, but I usually find this so inadequate. I just wait for my inner voice to tell me 'this is a subject to write on'."
"Always though, I've had this leaning towards a professional life in the music business. It's just that I had such a hunger with this drug addiciton that I thought maybe I could use this hunger to push me forward."
"So I just started working as hard as I could, and figured that when the time was right things would happen."
"One day I was sitting at home thinking, 'Gee, it's about time something happened, and David Geffen rang to say he'd fixed me up with everything; recording, publishing, the lot."
Apart from looking after Miss Sill, Geffen in the past has handled people of the calibre of C.S.N. and Y., Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. These connections led Judee to her first major tour with Crosby and Nash. Did she find it hard to go on stage at the beginning?
"Yes, but I knew it would be all right eventually. At the start it was hell. As I walked on stage I used to think, "Oh God I'd rather die than do this. I 'd rather stick a knife in my heart than go out and say, "Nice to be here!"
"Gradually, though, my nervousness turned to excitement. I started out on the road about a year and four months ago, and it's just built up steadily. Often it's been with good people like Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot or Tom Paxton."
"Unfortunately, sometimes I've played with rock groups which is - urrrrrgh - terrible, ridiculous in fact. If somebody is ready to hear rock and roll they're ready to have a certain part of their mind or body stimulated. It's asking too much of anybody to suddenly switch round and have another part of them stimulated by something else."
"But I like playing in Britain anyway. People over here are much nicer. I think maybe their taste is more culturally mature. Sometimes everything in America seems tuned to a much grosser level."
Judee is at present in Britain making a few appearances and promoting her album. Also she's working on some songs, but says she's not a very prolific writer.
"All my songs have been written over a long period. I wish I could write faster. I've tried, but I just can't. They don't all come up to my standards. They sound crummy so I reject them."
"Sometimes it fiils as if something outside me is writing the songs. It's so thrilling when it comes through me."
"But when I get my own personal ideas I try to reject them. I think there's enough people writing on that level. I want to write songs when the inner voice in my heart tells me there is something two write about. There are plenty of people writing songs about 'you and me, baby'. So let them. Good. Probably I'm most influenced by Pythagoras, Bach and Ray Charles in that order."
Is there not a conflict between the subject matter of her songs and the fact that she has to sell them on a commercial leve in the form of albums?
"Well, I'm just concerned with doing one thing, which is writing songs. But obviously to get your songs heard you must be successful. Being successful is more or less a sideline. I f success was my goal, of course, my songs would be shit - they'd be worthless. Songs usually are when that is their inspiration. That's what I find, at least."
"But I would like to ask people to buy my album. If they can afford it I'd like them to ask those who can afford it to buy it. Then I won't have to open for rock groups when I get back. My destiny is in your hands."
©James Johnson, New Musical Express April 8th 1972