This article was originally published in 2016. We’re republishing it today in remembrance of Jeff Buckley, who passed away 20 years ago this upcoming week.
Jeff Buckley’s voice is the kind that freezes you at once, shakes your emotional foundations, and robs you of your heart. When the singer-songwriter released his first and only studio album, Grace, in 1994, his earnest, unabashedly romantic songs cut through the fuzz and caught a grunge-crazed decade off its guard.
There is no replacement for the kind of singing Buckley does on Grace. It has an uncanny ability to summon memories of loss, a quality that’s almost intrinsic to its sound. But it’s also an instrument of blunt force, every high note finding the frequency of heartbreak, articulating how love feels at its most devastating.
Yet for all the power contained within his voice, Buckley’s presence as a songwriter is the real reason why Grace endures. There was an almost magical innocence to Buckley; in interviews, he answered questions with soft, dreamlike speeches, and he was known for carrying around a sketchbook brimming with doodles and poems (many of which would later evolve into songs). He cared about music — both listening to and making it — with a fierce conviction utterly at odds with the slackerdom of his generation. This rare blend of innocence and intensity characterizes every scrap of music Buckley produced in his short career, from his grandest compositions to his barest demos.
We know this because, in the more than two decades since Grace was released, countless covers and demos have been dug out of the corners of Buckley’s career. In all of these posthumous releases — including the recent You and I — he can be heard finding his way as an artist, searching for his own sound through the music of his heroes. As enjoyable as these collections are, none can quite recreate the synergy that happened on Grace. It’s an album that Buckley crafted with passion, and it encapsulates everything that made his musical style so special. Some of the musicians and artists who worked alongside him in the studio still grapple with how Grace came to fruition.
Guitarist Gary Lucas was one of Buckley’s earliest collaborators, and the two met at the beginning of the latter’s musical career. Buckley approached Lucas after a performance in St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, and they struck up a fast working friendship. “I was pretty knocked out by his enthusiasm, and I invited him over to work on one of his father’s songs, which was called ‘The King’s Chain’,” Lucas recalls [Buckley’s father was renowned guitarist Tim Buckley]. “He came around the next day to my apartment here in the West Village and we got right down to it. I handed him a mic, and then I heard him sing and my jaw dropped. When he was done, I said, ‘Jeff … you are a star.’”
After that initial session, Lucas tried to convince Buckley to relocate from Los Angeles to New York City, where his own band, Gods and Monsters, was in need of a lead singer. During this time, Lucas composed two instrumental tracks for Buckley to sing over, “Rise Up to Be” and “And He Will”. When he finally did make the move to New York, Buckley had lyrics written for both tracks and was hoping to record some new material. Lucas obliged, and his demos became drafts for two of Buckley’s most celebrated tracks. “I left [that session] with a rough mix of ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’,” Lucas recounts, “And I felt like I had the atomic bomb in my pocket.”
When Buckley left Gods and Monsters to pursue his solo career, the two musicians briefly lost touch. Then, in the fall of 1993, Buckley signed a contract with Sony and headed to Bearsville Studios to record his full-length debut. The studio was located in a rustic, rural part of upstate New York — the perfect place for Buckley, who was flighty by nature, to truly focus. The band he assembled to help him bring the record to life included bassist Mick Grondahl, drummer Matt Johnson, and occasional guitarist Michael Tighe.
Once the studio was set up, Buckley reconnected with Lucas, asking him to head up to Bearsville to help bring “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” into their final forms. “It was easy,” Lucas says of the time they spent recording. “They were fun to be with.” Lucas also managed to put his own defining touch on Grace. “Jeff left me alone on the last day to just do overdubs on ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’,” he explains. “A lot of what you may think are synthesizers or space noise is my guitar.”
Grace actually featured plenty of experimental instrumentation. The album had Buckley darting between ideas, using everything available to him to capture a certain feeling. Much to his delight, this included a full orchestra to add deliberate touches to songs like “Last Goodbye” and “Eternal Life”. The record company enlisted composer Karl Berger, whose background in jazz was a fitting choice for the sprawling, almost improvisational nature of some of the record (listen for the jazzy moments that occur in bursts on “Lilac Wine” and “Corpus Christi Carol”).
Berger’s recording process lasted a few weeks, during which time the composer settled in and felt out the vibe of Buckley’s music. “It was very relaxed for me,” he says. “The band was literally rehearsing and experimenting in the studio, so I could get a lot of impressions of their sound and Jeff’s approach to weaving his lines, which was quite unique.”
Moments like the cello sweeps in “Last Goodbye” — moments that feel sentimental but not too sticky — point to another of Buckley’s great talents: knowing when and how to draw on his influences. From Led Zeppelin to Gustav Mahler, Buckley sponged up music of all sorts and reflected it back in his work. Berger took a special liking to this approach. “Jeff knew just to create your own music, get into improvisation, and [compose] on your own terms,” Berger says. “Of course, we have no choice but to operate in stylistic environments. But take your cues from everywhere, not just from the stylistic frameworks that you choose to operate in. Jeff did.”
The freedom to be eclectic was definitely important to the young Buckley. Though Grace never commits to a certain sound, his assured vocals and songwriting lend a real sense of cohesion to the album. Buckley even chose his covers wisely, paying homage to Nina Simone’s classic version of “Lilac Wine” and reinvigorating Leonard Cohen by taking on “Hallelujah”. These covers are so natural that they feel less like interpretations and more like extensions of the originals, perfectly at home alongside Buckley’s own material.
Photographer Merri Cyr became close to Buckley during the Grace period of his career, shooting a great portion of his tour and staging the famous portrait on the album’s cover. Buckley’s well-known desire for authenticity extended to how he would be represented in these images, and he granted Cyr full artistic autonomy. “Since he didn’t censor me, I shot him when he was in every sort of mood, which I think is unusual,” she says. “People usually only want you to see their presentable side, but I think Jeff trusted me.”
The image on the album’s cover was captured during a shoot Cyr staged in Brooklyn’s Arcadia Studios in December 1993. There was a small cabaret stage decorated with vintage pieces and loose artwork, and Cyr took advantage of the space, even bringing in a smoke machine to cloud the room. “When Jeff saw the cover image on the contact sheet, he fell in love with it,” she remembers. “He said he could tell that he was listening to the music by the expression on his face.”
Photo by Merri Cyr
When Grace was finally released in 1994, naive eyes overlooked it. Yet those who picked up the album found themselves entranced, compelled to listen hundreds of times to fully comprehend it. “When the record came out, and it did what it did, it had a big impact,” says Lucas, pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts. “Maybe it was slow-selling in the day, but Jeff got out there and worked incredibly hard, touring as much as possible. Now the album is regarded as a classic.” Not only that, but it’s a classic that transcends genre, influencing countless artists of diverse backgrounds and styles.
Given his democratic taste in music, this kind of success would likely have delighted Buckley. In the wake of his tragic death in 1997, artists continue to reach out in hopes of achieving the same kind of depth, the same wholehearted performance he achieved on Grace. “I feel happy and privileged to have been able to collaborate with him, see him perform so often, and do his work,” says Cyr. “I see Jeff as someone who was able to channel a divine energy so that we could all benefit.”