Sill Life – by Roy Colbert

Sunday Star Times 25/4/06

The stories surrounding American singer-songwriter Judee Sill are the stuff of more than just legend. Auckland singer-songwriter Simon Comber has heard all those stories.
Comber is reverential about Judee Sill. He says he’s not averse to pushing his favourite music down friends’ ears, but Sill – two albums, Judee Sill and Heart Food – is in her own special catergory.
“This is my private obession and everyone else can just sod off!” he laughs. “I read all about her and thought if the music is even half as good as the stories it must be amazing. But it was even better”.
It sure was. All her early 70’s contemporaries – Jackson Browne et al – thought Judee Sill was the one, the best of them all. But those stories had the final say. An armed robber at 15, reform school, marriage to a recidivist criminal who died hurtling over a waterfall on acid, unrelenting heroin unchic, living in a 1955 Cadillac with five vagrants, prostitution, cocaine, Christianity, trailer park poverty, and then death from a drug overdose in 1979. Phew.
I trust anyone who likes the music of Judee Sill, and if you think thats a weird way to evaluate people, consider that when Comber was hawking his songs around every record label in the land, Mike Chunn was the one who stepped up. Comber trusted Chunn because Chunn really liked Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira.
Comber had admirers up and down the country, but nothing was happening. Enter the old boy network, the Sacred Heart College old boy network – Chunn, Finn, Dobbo – and suddenly Comber was on stage at a stellar two night school fundraiser singing to 600 people. Chunn made some calls, and next he was in Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studio recording his debut album Pre-Pill Love with the extremely talented Ed Cake.
Comber recorded eight songs up there and then came back down to Dunedin, where all the album’s songs had been written. He had moved there in 2001, entranced by the music that was coming out of the city. Living in squalor, like, well yes, Judee Sill, he came under the influence of the Verlaines’ Graeme Downes when taking composition papers in Dr Downes’ Otago Univesrity graduate music diploma course.
Downes was impressed. He said at the time Comber was the most talented writer who’d gone through the course, and recently, when asked to name his favourite 10 New Zealand albums of all time, he included Pre-Pill Love.
Comber wrote a couple of new songs when he came back from Auckland, and with Downes co-producing, completed the album. After more silent responses from potential distribuors, he found Marley McGreevy at Elite, and the album, on Carpathian Records, is now out. Comber named the label and drew the logo, though he reserves the right to ditch it for Sony.
Comber doesn’t sound much like Judee Sill, but her weapons – a unique voice, intelligent writing, and some wonderful lyrics – are his, in burgeoning form, as well. Musically, he’s more like a young Don McGlashan – McGlashan’s magnificent “While You Sleep” is the top shelf Comber is reaching for in many of his relationship songs.
And Pre-Pill Love does have it’s fair share of relationship songs. Leaving, being left, hoping she won’t leave, Comber on the lyric page seems an angst-ridden fellow. But on stage he’s quite the opposite. The engaging voice and his obvious joy of being up there skillfully disguises
the often darker and deeper subject matter.
“Finding a companion is a bit like graduating from university,” he says. “You look forward to the day but when you achieve it, there’s this empty feeling as if the struggle is over, and part of you wants to walk away.”
Comber is forever battling, whether trying to beat down the iron doors of the music industry, or simply getting through a set without breaking a string (I’m the most ham-fisted re-stringer in the west”). But his on-stage transformation from shy and nervous, fumbling with his equipment, to that of confident passionate performer even as early as the first song, is pure Clark Kent, leaping super-suited and all-conquering from a phone box.
“I realise now adrenalin is not the same as fear, and out of all the worrying I do, I suddenly get these moments of clarity when I think, godammit, I am so glad I am doing this and not something else.”