The Road to 'Grace': How Jeff Buckley's Debut Album Remains Timeless 20 Years Later
Drawing from 20 years worth of reviews and books, in addition to new interviews with those involved in Jeff Buckley's music, David Chiu looks back on Grace, which two decades later remains just as impactful.
“Grace is what matters in anything—especially life, especially growth, tragedy, pain, love, death. That's a quality that I admire very greatly. It keeps you from reaching out for the gun too quickly. It keeps you from destroying things too foolishly. It sort of keeps you alive.”
Those words by the late Jeff Buckley, taken from archival interview footage featured in the 2004 documentary Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley, perhaps sums up the essence Grace, the singer's only full-length studio album released during his lifetime. Today, the record is regarded as a classic and frequently appears on many 'best-of' music critics' polls—Rolling Stone selected Grace as one its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” To date, it has sold at least 500,000 copies and its stature continues to grow; earlier this year, Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from the album was chosen for the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.
“Grace is an example of a record made under conditions that will never exist ever again,” says Matt Johnson, Buckley's former drummer who performed on the album. “But that simply makes it exactly like every other record ever made. The point here is to consider how someone like Jeff could seize on whatever conditions were applying, and make something exciting that people love.” (Read the full PopMatters interview with Johnson here).
Yet despite the favorable press reviews that came following its release on August 23, 1994, Grace wasn't a huge commercial success. As Bill Flanagan wrote in the liner notes to the 2004 reissue of the album: “...when it was not [Nirvana’s] Nevermind—there was a slight sense among the self-anointed hip that Grace was a let-down.” But like many other records that weren’t immediate hits—including the Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground and Nico, and the first three Big Star albums—Grace took a while to reach out to the public. Whether Buckley could have made an album to surpass Grace will never be truly known after his death on May 29, 1997 at age 30 in a drowning accident.
“I was struck by the fact that how different the pop world is in a way,” says David Browne, the author of the 2001 book Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley, “to imagine that a major label [Columbia Records] would release an album like that in 2014—this album that spans so many genres... but is very much in some ways a formative record with Jeff showing a lot of his different influences and certainly not willing to hold back vocally.”
An astonishing work of such depth and beauty that is also otherworldly, Grace addresses the complexities of the human condition—from a gifted young artist with a spine-tingling vocal range that harkens such influences as Robert Plant and Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Daphne Brooks, who wrote a 2005 book about Grace, recalls hearing Buckley for the first time through the song “Eternal Life” about 20 years ago. “There was something about the high drama that his voice captured, a kind of open-hearted, very deeply affective reaching that reminded me of something from the past,” she says. “And that was so distinct from that moment.”
How a work like Grace could have been released at a time when the musical landscape was vast yet confining is somewhat remarkable in hindsight. With the arrival of grunge music to the mainstream three year earlier, the term 'alternative' was often used to describe almost every musical act in 1994 that was slightly left of the mainstream, from the heavier bands like Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Offspring; through the more accessible groups such as Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band, and the Gin Blossoms; to the emerging Britpop sound of Oasis and Blur. Grace, however, truly deserves the 'alternative' description simply because of its stylistic range of rock, jazz, pop, blues, soul, choral and world music influences. And rather than featuring covers of well-known contemporary material, this record features unlikely renditions of obscure songs by Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone and Benjamin Britten. “People ask me what kind of music was it,” Buckley’s former bassist Mick Grondahl said on Amazing Grace, “and I just say, 'Well, it’s somewhere between Billie Holiday and Led Zeppelin.'”
“It always seemed that he knew what he was doing even when he was clearly searching,” says Johnson. “He dove into performance, naked and unafraid, drawing power from the vulnerability of being exposed and seen, no matter what the outcome.”
Currently, 122 St. Mark's Place is home of a bar in New York City's East Village, a neighborhood populated by tourists, trendy cafes and boutiques. But long before the area's gentrification, that address was once the home of a small cafe/music venue called Sin-é, founded by Irish expatriates Shane Doyle and Karl Geary in 1989. In its heyday, the place not only attracted an Irish contingent but also famous musicians such as Bono, the Pogues’ Shane McGowan, and Sinead O'Connor. “Sin-é was kind of an informal Irish cultural center,” says Susan McKeown, a New York-based Irish musician and friend of Buckley who had performed there. “A lot of people are drawn to Irish culture and arts. So it drew a lot of people.”
Sin-é also attracted a young man in his mid-20s named Jeff Buckley, who had earlier relocated to New York City from California. In 1991, Jeff had performed at a tribute concert for his estranged father, the late folk troubadour Tim Buckley, at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Church. That appearance led to Jeff's short-lived collaboration with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas as part of the band Gods and Monsters. But it was at Sin-é where Jeff really came into his own, when he began a solo residency in 1992 that not only showcased his eclectic tastes in cover songs but also unveiled some of the material that would later appear on Grace. (A document of that period could be found on the 1993 EP and its 2003 reissue Live at Sin-é).
“From the start it had a whole aura about it,” says Browne, who saw Buckley perform Sin-é. “And then when you saw him play, there was something so deeply untrendy and unpolished about it all—to see this guy just with an electric guitar singing anything from the few originals that he had to some obscure Elton John song or Bad Brains song or Edith Piaf song. He seemed both a work in progress and at the same time with that voice and skills completely together.”
Inevitably, Buckley's mesmerizing performances at Sin-é caught the interest of several record labels. Steve Berkowitz of Columbia Records' A&R department caught one of Buckley’s performances and in the end his company prevailed in signing him. For the singer, the deal with Columbia was an opportunity to join a legendary record label “When you walk in,” he said, as quoted in Amazing Grace, “the first thing you see is Bob Dylan on the wall, looking beautiful as always. A foot away is Miles [Davis], a foot away is [Thelonious] Monk, a foot away is Johnny Mathis, a foot away is Duke Ellington... there’s no escaping the roots of that company.”
When it came to finding a band to play live with and record on his debut album, Buckley employed newcomers rather than seasoned pros: bassist Mick Grondahl and drummer Matt Johnson, who had only just started playing with Buckley before they entered Bearsville Studios in upstate New York during the fall of 1993. As Berkowitz said in The Making of Grace, a DVD documentary from the 2004 reissue of the album, the room was arranged in a way that allowed the band to continuously play without interruption. “There was kind of a loud electric setup,” he recalled, “there was a more acoustic electric setup, and then there was almost like a little small one person folk club stage where whenever he wanted to go over and play solo, he could. And everything was always miked.”
In terms of recording, producer Andy Wallace recalled Buckley as someone who was constantly thinking about the next idea, and that he kept revising lyrics and melodies—a testament to the artist’s perfectionism. “[Jeff] was always, ‘I want to do something new,’” Wallace said on the Grace DVD documentary, “’I want to do something different.’ He didn't want to be locked into something. Of course, when you make a recording and say 'This is the recording that's going out and this is gonna represent you,' it's locked in. So he had a lot of difficulty with that.”
Since Grace was going to be a permanent statement of his first major label recording, Buckley made sure to remove one particular track, “Forget Her,” due to personal reasons (the song is reportedly about his girlfriend Rebecca Moore) and because he thought it was too commercial. Columbia Records were keen on that soulful, radio-friendly song as a potential single off the album, but they acquiesced to his wishes. That incident is an example of, to a certain extent, the amount of clout Buckley had with Columbia, whether it was over Merri Cyr’s album cover photo of him wearing the sparkly jacket, or the label’s marketing strategy for the album.
“I think that was part of the kid gloves treatment,” Browne says. “This was a label that had Dylan and Springsteen, Billie Holiday, Willie Nelson and all these kinds of legends, and I think in their minds a lot of people he worked with thought he could be one of those guys. And I had the same feeling when I saw him at Sin-é. I thought, 'This is a guy who has so much talent, such a range of influences and passion for music, and who knows where this is gonna go.'”