Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Judee Sill plays the guitar in February, 1971. The musician died of a heroin overdose in 1979 with two critically hailed albums to her name.Supplied

The mostly forgotten seventies troubadour Judee Sill is the subject of a new documentary, Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill. Her former lover and fellow singer-songwriter JD Souther knew her before she got lost.

“At the time, I remember thinking she’s the best of all of us,” says Souther, co-writer on some of the Eagles’ biggest hits, speaking from Los Angeles. “She was far ahead of me, Glenn Frey and even Jackson Browne.”

Directed by Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom, Lost Angel opens in theatres and is available on Amazon and Apple TV+ starting April 12. It elegantly covers the short, troubled life of a singular talent who failed to break through commercially. Signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records in Los Angeles, she never achieved the success of labelmates Browne, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt.

Her story is far out. An armed robber in her youth – “I learned a lot of good music when I was in the joint,” she says in the film – Sill was fond of Bach and bisexuality, and died of a heroin overdose in 1979 with two critically hailed albums to her name.

The film’s core is not her cinematic back story, but the mystery of music industry success. “There are so many musicians way more talented than I’ll ever be,” Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) says in Lost Angel. “And I often wonder, why not them and why me?”

And why not Sill? At first glance, she was the archetypal Laurel Canyon lady, all long sunlit hair, willowy balladry and strummed acoustic guitar. Her lyrics were atypical, however, often reflecting a deep sense of spirituality. “Music comes from God,” she once told an interviewer. “It’s mathematically perfect.”

Souther first came across her in the early 1970s at a small club on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Geffen, who had just signed her to Asylum, urged Souther to check her out. “She’s like nobody else,” Geffen said.

Souther had a dramatic affair with Sill. But, in love with Ronstadt, he broke her heart. In response, Sill wrote Jesus Was a Cross Maker for him and about him.

One time, I trusted a stranger

‘Cause I heard his sweet song

And it was gently enticin’ me

Tho’ there was somethin’ wrong

But, when I turned, he was gone

In the song, which was released on her eponymous 1971 debut album, Sill directs her angst at a “bandit and a heartbreaker.” That would be Souther, who heard the song before anyone else. “She came to my house and played it for me,” he says. “It was like, ‘In your face, buddy.’”

(Souther says the two later reconciled. “We became tight again, somehow.”)

Despite a warm reception from critics, Sill’s self-titled album did not produce a radio hit. Tim Page, who won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism in The Washington Post, called Sill’s song The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown a perfect recording: “Why this is not a huge hit single will always amaze me.”

Much of the film’s conversations linger over Sill’s failure to achieve stardom. Over the years, the common theory was that Geffen and Asylum didn’t promote her, either because they were more devoted to Browne or others on the label, or because of a riff between Geffen and Sill. The rumour was that Sill had insulted Geffen onstage, and that Geffen turned his back on her because of it.

There was also the story about Sill camping out on Geffen’s lawn and begging forgiveness, something Geffen denied in the film: “Absolutely not. This is made-up stuff. She was dropped from the label long after I was gone.”


“I didn’t even have a lawn.”

In 1973, Sill released her second album, Heart Food, which didn’t sell. It was an expensive record long in the making. “I’m not going to rush God,” she explained about the laborious process.

Later that same year, there was a car accident. According to Sill, she was hit by funnyman Danny Kaye and John Wayne drove her to the hospital. The collision left her in a torso cast. Back operations followed; she went back on the drugs she had kicked years earlier.

Her posthumous third album wasn’t released until 2005. It was titled Dreams Come True, but, for Sill, her dreams of fame didn’t quite materialize.

“There wasn’t anybody out to get her,” Ronstadt says. “She just didn’t deliver the goods that would have resonated in the culture at that time.”

Sill’s ornately arranged songs were often beautiful, but not quite radio friendly. Still, a ballad such as The Pearl seems to be just has hummable as anything James Taylor was writing back then. It is possible that Sill just wasn’t pretty enough.

“Being that singular and different but not looking beautiful in the seventies was probably really hard,” says singer-songwriter Weyes Blood, one of a number of young fans of Sill in the film.

Souther says Sill stood out, perhaps too far. “She was really on a turf that nobody else was. She was hard to sell. The public just didn’t get the memo on her.”

Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill

The word “genius” gets tossed around too freely, perhaps. A new documentary about a cult-favourite singer-songwriter from the 1970s is called Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill. Was she that, a genius?

Sill contemporaries such as Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and JD Souther, along with younger artists including Weyes Blood and Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, attempt to explain why someone with such high talent wasn’t able to sell many records.

Sill died of a drug overdose at age 35, in 1979. She robbed liquor stores, loved God, lived hedonistically and believed in the sanctity of music. The sordid details are presented respectfully by directors Andy Brown and Brian Lindstrom.

Elegantly using the limited amount of original material available to them, the filmmakers have created an immersive biographical documentary that tells the overlooked troubadour’s story as if told by Sill herself. In a word, their technique is genius.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe