There is something about the Winter and music of Judee Sill that always resonates for me. Perhaps, it’s because this is the season in which I initially discovered her breathtaking output. Her first two albums (Judee Sill and Heart Food) combine delicate orchestral arrangements along with her meticulously stacked layers of overdubbed vocals to great effect. The music coupled with her cryptic lyrics that utilize mystical and at times apocalyptic Christian imagery create a unique musical space all of her own. In truth, it’s probably a little of all of the above that make her music so appropriate for the long cold nights.
For those not familiar, Judee Sill was once a folk singer with a lot of promise. One of the first artists signed to David Geffen’s Aslylum imprint in the early 1970s. With a minor hit single produced by Graham Nash and with songs such as Lady-O penned for such acts as The Turtles under her belt, the sky seemed the limit. But things never panned out, despite two gorgeous LPs. Back injuries, bad luck and problems with drug addiction sealed her fate. Even though Judee shuffled off of this mortal coil late in the same decade that had begun for her with such promise; the seeds had been planted. Her music was slowly re-discovered and celebrated.
This all culminated in the early to mid aughts with the re-release of her two Asylum LPs and the discovery of lost demos comprising a 3rd album called Dreams Come True. The aforementioned demos were mixed by Jim O’Rourke and released by Water Records in 2005.
A few years later, American Dust Records brought us Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill. A tribute album featuring some wonderful interpretations of Judee’s songs. One of the songs that always fascinated us the most was Bill Callahan’s contribution, a Judee composition titled, For a Rainbow. The track was an unreleased song she had written but never committed to tape. Since we were in a Judee state of mind and with Bill’s latest album, Dream River, still in heavy rotation here at home; we thought we would reach out to the folks at American Dust and see if they could shed a little light about the song was discovered and how the whole thing came together. Michael Saltzman who helped organize Crayon Angel was kind enough to let us know.
"So as you are probably aware, in 2005 Water Records released the Dreams Come True set, which included Judee’s never before released third album, along with various demos and unreleased tracks. In preparing that comp, Patrick Roques (the comp’s producer) went through some of Judee’s papers. I believe he got access by reaching out to some surviving family members. His search produced the previously unpublished photographs that appear in the Dreams Come True booklet. The search also uncovered sheet music, which in itself wasn’t especially surprising, as Judee was known to write out sheet music for all of her compositions. The surprise was that Roques found sheet music for two songs Judee never recorded, Reach For the Sky and For a Rainbow.
Reach for the Sky, which Beth Orton recorded for the tribute album, was written solely by Judee (this according to Judee’s hand-written credit at the top of the sheet music). For a Rainbow, however, noted that it was written by Judee and Lal Baum. This is interesting for a few reasons. First, Judee hardly ever had co-writers. The one other example is the song When the Bridegroom Comes, off Heart Food. That one was co-written with David Omer Bearden. Second, Baum, like Bearden before him, was reportedly a romantic partner of Judee’s. It appears that the only time Judee ever wrote music with somebody was when she was romantically involved with that person. This might suggest the passion that Judee brought to her songwriting — composition was something she apparently shared only with those with whom she was intimate. Third, Baum is reportedly descended from L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, For a Rainbow is an oblique reference to Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
When the guys at Water found the unrecorded songs, they conceived of a tribute album that would feature these songs as its cornerstones. Then the project sat around for a while, untended. A couple years on, Water (friends of ours) handed the project over to American Dust, the label I was running with my friend Joseph Finlaw. Before reaching out to a wider array of artists to record various songs off Judee’s three albums, we focused on finding good fits for the two unrecorded songs. Bill Callahan came early to mind. He is a wonderful and unique artist, and he also proved incredibly easy to work with. He expressed interest immediately. We sent him the sheet music for both tracks. He indicated he would be interested in recording either of the two songs, and we suggested For a Rainbow. As for the recording, he arranged and executed that himself in Austin, working with Brian Beattie at the Wonder Chamber, recording live onto 2-track tape. Bill sang and played acoustic guitar, Jaime Zuverza played electric guitar, Oliver Valdez played bass, Luis Martinez played drums, and Jonathan Meiburg played piano. They recorded the track on February 2, 2008, just before Bill headed out on tour. It was, I think, the second finished track we received for the comp (after Nicolai Dunger’s lovely version of Soldier of the Heart).
I was very impressed with Bill’s recording, and it seems to have emerged as many people’s favorite track on the comp. (I think it hasn’t hurt the track’s popularity that the tribute album is on Spotify, while most of Bill’s recorded output is not. Sometimes, perhaps, people look for Bill’s music on Spotify and end up discovering For a Rainbow.) When I first started work on the compilation, I taught myself to play both Reach for the Sky and For a Rainbow on guitar from the sheet music, so I would have some sense of the songs before I sent them out to Beth and to Bill. I quickly grasped the quality of Reach for the Sky. It is an optimistic song with a light and lilting touch, and Beth brought it beautifully to life. For a Rainbow I had a harder time with. When I played it for myself, it felt unfinished, like half a song. I played it faster than Bill ended up recording it, and it seemed to be over before it had hardly begun. But Bill, characteristically for him, slowed it way down and found the space and the silences in the song. He made something that could have been slight epic and substantial instead. It works both as a terrific Bill Callahan recording and as the resurrection of a lost Judee Sill classic.”