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1993 was a pivotal year in Jeff Buckley’s music career. He released his Columbia Records debut, the Live At Sin-é EP, which documented four songs performed at the titular East Village coffeehouse he frequented. At the end of the year, Buckley also recorded the bulk of his first full-length, Grace, at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York. Before all of this, however, Buckley spent several under-the-radar February 1993 days tracking his then-repertoire, along with other spontaneous covers and interludes, at producer Steve Addabbo’s New York City studio, Shelter Island Sound. (A small portion of these sessions comprise the bulk of a new album, You And I, recently released on March 11.)
Buckley had signed to Columbia Records at the end of the previous year, after his New York City live gigs started drawing massive industry attention. His A&R man, Steve Berkowitz, who co-produced the You And I sessions and executive produced Grace, recalls being “blown away” the first time he saw Buckley performing solo at Sin-é in early 1992, accompanied only by a Telecaster. “I was really taken aback at his voice, obviously, and his musicality, and specifically guitar inversions that he’s using, which kind of explain entire orchestra-type arrangements,” Berkowitz tells The A.V. Club. “I was pretty floored right away.” He wasn’t the only one immediately enthralled: An old-fashioned label bidding war broke out, as Buckley “created his own buzz” with these live performances, Berkowitz recalls. “Pretty soon, there’s limos lined up and down St. Mark’s Place coming to hear Jeff Buckley, which pretty much flips him out, by the way.”
Thankfully, Columbia Records was both protective and respectful of his raw talent. The sessions with Addabbo were a fact-finding mission of sorts, to let Buckley figure out what direction he wanted to take now that he had a record deal. “This was an idea that we had: ‘Let’s go to the studio. Let’s record everything you know for one day, or two days, or three days,’” Berkowitz says. “’And then at the end of it, let’s listen down to the whole thing, and maybe there’s one or two or three things here that you like enough to think that maybe that’s the beginning of an idea for your first album.’”
The recordings that ended up on You And I are intimate, immediate demos that illustrate Buckley’s gift for transformative interpretations. “He ingested them and they came out Buckleyized,” Berkowitz says. “Yeah—‘Put on the Buckley filter.’ Unfortunately, there was only one of them.” He laughs. “There was a limited supply. You can’t go out and get the Buckley filter, or the Buckley panel. Doesn’t exist.” But sonically, the seeds of Grace were also there on You And I. There’s an early recording of the title track that possesses the undulating, intricate structure and searing vocals of the final version. And two of the songs on You And I—a piercing take on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” where Buckley’s singing acrobatics are evident, and a lovely solo acoustic version of The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over”—actually stem from the Grace Bearsville sessions.
“The reality is he was clearly in possession of what we hoped would become great, and he had tremendous music ability, but he really didn’t know what he wanted to do yet,” Berkowitz says about Buckley pre-Grace. “He didn’t just get good; he came with the goods. It’s not like I discovered him. It was there to be seen and heard. He needed to decide what he was going to do, though, and there were so many different Jeff Buckleys he could become, because of his ability to sing like Judy Garland or Bad Brains, or to play guitar like Rush, or to do a Robert Johnson-ish kind of thing, and to play James Brown and Count Basie.”
In some artists, a diverse approach indicates capriciousness or indecisiveness. In Buckley’s case, his versatility pointed at immense gifts for composition and performance, and a hunger for musical knowledge. He was very prepared for these early sessions, producer Steve Addabbo tells The A.V. Club, a musician “intense” and “dedicated” to his craft: “He had done his homework. He was a great guitar player; he had studied a lot of different guitar styles.” But perhaps what stood out most to the producer was Buckley’s voice. “The range of styles he could sing with his voice—whether a deep, old blues kind of song, or an Edith Piaf-type of French tune or almost opera or Led Zeppelin screaming—it was a lot,” Addabbo says. “I don’t want to say all over the map, but it was just so diverse. That was the most striking thing: He could pretty much go from a whisper to a shrieking scream in almost a heartbeat. He had that much dynamics in his singing, and control.”
The fact Buckley could go in so many different directions certainly made it clear that album number one might be a challenge to wrangle. “That was a big question I had: I said, ‘Man, how do you make a record with him?’” Addabbo says. “Because, at that point, it was just the beginning, and he was doing a lot of covers. He hadn’t written that much stuff, so it wasn’t like he had this whole body of work that was his that would define who he was. He could do a Leonard Cohen tune; he could do a Led Zeppelin tune; he could do an Edith Piaf tune. That’s the good news, and that’s the bad news. How do you make a record in the world of pop music, where everyone has to be pigeonholed as one or the other? He was very eclectic, all over the place. That was one thing I specifically remember from those sessions, like, ‘Wow. Where do you begin?’”
That was still the big question on everyone’s mind when Buckley, producer Andy Wallace, and several musicians—including bassist Mick Grondahl and drummer/percussionist Matt Johnson—hit Bearsville in fall 1993 to finally start work on Grace, after some light pre-production in the New York City studio Context. As with You And I, everyone just dove in and start recording—first covers and then originals, according to an exhaustive Rolling Stone Australia profile. It helped that Wallace, who had mixed Nirvana’s Nevermind, was the man in charge, as both his temperament and working style meshed well with Buckley’s. “Jeff clearly had such incredible controls, dynamics, and the juxtaposition of big and small and loud and soft, and how he used them, and Andy was good at that,” Berkowitz says. “Andy could also work tirelessly and endlessly, like a Marine, and all of it quietly, and behind the scenes, and the tape was always rolling. I thought, ‘This will be a good atmosphere for Jeff, where someone captures everything, everything sounds really great.’”
As it turns out, Wallace was also instrumental in helping hammer Grace into its final form. The eclecticism built into Buckley’s work was still very much evident, between gospel-tinged soul (“Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”), choirboy folk (“Corpus Christi Carol”), and orchestral-rock swoons (“Last Goodbye”). But his penchant for improvisation and jamming, a staple of his live show, still lingered: Half the songs on the album are over five minutes long, and only one clocks in at under three minutes. According to Berkowitz, Wallace was instrumental in helping rein in Grace‘s wandering tendencies. “What I didn’t account for was what a good compositional editor Andy was with Jeff, to complete the songs. In some ways, the way that Grace was made was not uncommon to like a Miles Davis recording in the ’60s and ’70s. The musicians would come in, they would play, and then [there was] post-production with the engineer and producer, who would get it cut, mixed, and edited into the composition that we now know. It wasn’t necessarily played like that.”
Even today, Grace feels beamed in from some alternative universe, with very few signifiers identifying it as a 1994 record. The gnarly funk rocker “Eternal Life” would’ve fit seamlessly on modern radio at the time, although its orchestral flourishes elevate it beyond grunge level. “Mojo Pin” is a jazz- and blues-rock-influenced song structured like a classical piece, what with its multiple movements and recurring musical motifs. Strings and needling riffs swoop in on the waltzing title track—which, like “Mojo Pin,” was co-written with Gary Lucas, Buckley’s one-time bandmate in the band Gods And Monsters—while a stunning take on “Lilac Wine” cemented Buckley’s chanteuse reputation. And the mysterious “Dream Brother” ends the record on an uneasy note, where anguished post-rock guitar, well-placed percussion, and psychedelic shimmers convey mystery.
Perhaps most notably, Grace’s lyrics are inseparable from (and intertwined with) its music and arrangements, used as poignant shading and thematic nuance to enhance the album’s overarching emotional thrust. The record takes the perspective that ill-fated trysts (and the subsequent heartbreak) are deeply romantic, almost more intoxicating and exhilarating than the actual love affair itself. As a result, Grace‘s originals are more like ornate poems than linear narratives, with images of beautiful (but formless) women, brilliant nighttime scenes, ephemeral physicality, and even death used to convey drama and anguish.
All of this, of course, dovetailed perfectly with Buckley’s agile voice. “When he would sing the really high notes that would go on and on, I always call it the Flying Buckleys,” Berkowitz says. “‘Here come the Flying Buckleys.’” On the title track, he leaps between sounding like a conspiratorial folk singer, a swaggering rock frontman, and a grizzled bluesman, while on “So Real”—which Buckley finished later after leaving Bearsville with guitarist Michael Tighe—there’s grit and gravity in both his upper and lower register, in a nod to the song’s stormy dynamics. His keening falsetto is even more prominent on the solemn, hymn-like “Corpus Christi Carol.” Even if (and especially when) Grace‘s songs meandered, Buckley had the ability to command attention and focus.
“He internalized the feeling in the song, maybe like his great idol, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and delivered it in a musical, spiritual kind of a way,” Berkowitz says. “He had such great musical ability. Of course, he was savvy about arrangement and a master of dynamics. He was just a very dynamic singer who felt it deeply, and then the song would emit out of him. He didn’t do performances. You know, ‘Hey, everybody in the balcony! Hey, everybody down there!’ That was not what Jeff did. He made music an art, and I think it was pretty spiritual to him.” Adds Addabbo: “There was no veil. He wasn’t trying to do anything; he was just doing it. There was no artifice. None at all. This is what he did.”
Berkowitz says the biggest challenge with Grace was actually finishing it: Buckley was in the habit of doing take after take to try to nail the right one, even if what he had already done was perfectly acceptable, and it took outside nudging to get him to move on. This wasn’t the case of an artist being a diva, however—it was more a byproduct of perfectionist tendencies, self-directed pressure, and a desire to release great music. “He didn’t necessarily want to let his first child go out there,” Berkowitz says. “And he had spent his whole life getting ready to make his first album. You only make a first album once, and he understood that. And he wanted it to be, in his own terms, ‘badass,’ and good, and be proud of it.”
Buckley toured heavily behind Grace, a schedule that included a mix of headlining shows and opening slots, and played alongside artists such as Juliana Hatfield and Soul Coughing. His sterling live reputation didn’t translate to immediate U.S. sales, however: Grace peaked at No. 149 on the Billboard album charts, and didn’t go gold until 2002. Only “Last Goodbye” made inroads at alternative radio and MTV. (The album was critically acclaimed in the U.K., however.) Still, Buckley’s cult of personality grew, and he was in the midst of recording an anticipated second album in 1997, when he died due to an accidental drowning in Memphis’ Wolf River at the age of 30.
In the nearly two decades since his passing, Grace has taken on a mythic sheen, in part because it was the only full-length Buckley completed himself, and in part because of his premature death. But the slow-burning popularity of his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has also buoyed the record. Initially, the version wasn’t for everybody—a Chicago Tribune review said it was “ a masterpiece that Buckley wholly inhabits,” although Rolling Stone felt “he doesn’t sound battered or desperate enough to carry off” the song. Yet “Hallelujah” kept stubbornly cropping up in movies and TV shows, and began resonating with entirely new audiences. For example, after Jason Castro performed the song on a March 2008 episode of American Idol, the song rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Digital Singles chart—selling 178,000 downloads that week as a result—and Grace landed at No. 10 on the Top Pop Catalog chart. Buckley’s “Hallelujah” went platinum a few weeks later. In 2014, the song was inducted into the exclusive Library Of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a collection featuring less than 500 items.
It’s tempting to establish a direct correlation between his death and the song’s rise in popularity. And while that no doubt is a contributing factor—there’s an otherworldly, twilight vibe to the song that’s still haunting today—it does the performance a disservice, and undermines Grace‘s beauty and appeal. The album is a wholly original, gorgeous statement, separate and apart from both Buckley’s mythology and the period in which it was created.
“No one knew that was the record that was going to get made,” Berkowitz says. “However, all that stuff was in Jeff, and he summoned it and brought it. And over the course of 1993, he went from a guy thinking about a record to bringing out some of the musicality, and the ideas in composition and arrangement that was in him, and made that beautiful record. In Jeff’s case, he just needed space and time. He needed his musicians. He needed what Steve Addabbo brought to these sessions, and what we recorded at Sin-é and he needed his band and Andy Wallace when we got to Woodstock to do Grace.”
Adds Addabbo: “I’d been lucky, and I’d worked with Suzanne Vega before she got signed, and I knew Shawn Colvin before she got signed. You see the before and the after. And having Jeff in the studio was just an incredible talent. That feeling hasn’t changed over the years because of what happened to him. I distinctly remember being in the studio, sitting behind my console and he’s in the recording room on the other side of the glass. I don’t want to say [I was] mesmerized, because I had to pay attention to what I was doing, but it was just like, ‘Wow.’
“You know when something real walks through your door. So many people try to do this, so many people wanted to do this. But the real artist that comes through your door, there’s no knob on my console that can duplicate that.”