Pete Yorn, Oozing Wound, and Jason Hawk Harris unpack the late songwriter’s debut
By Tyler Clark
Jeff Buckley had convened in Memphis to record sessions for his second record (tentatively titled My Sweetheart, the Drunk) when he passed out of this world and into music mythology.
Buckley’s tragic, accidental drowning at the age of 30 devastated his family, friends, and fans. It also transformed his debut album, Grace, from the breathtaking first statement of a singular artist into a bittersweet memorial for what was yet to come.
Twenty-five years after its release, Grace remains a stunning achievement of romantic intuition, technical prowess, and otherworldly talent. For many artists working in or adjacent to Buckley’s long shadow, it also remains influential. In honor of the anniversary, we caught up with a few of them for a look at the record’s impact, both then and now.
Pete Yorn: I remember when Grace came out, he wasn’t on my radar at all. I was in college at Syracuse, and this kid I knew was making a student film, and he wanted me to be like, a silent actor in it. Like, throwing a tennis ball against a car window while sitting in it. He basically had me sitting in the back of this Nissan Pathfinder at a gas station for like three hours while he shot this from all these different angles. So, I’m in there with nothing to do, and I had just gotten Grace.
You get those stories about like, Brian Wilson, where he would play “Be My Baby” over and over and over again. I’ve only had that with a few songs. I was so obsessed with “Last Goodbye” that I played it over and over for just like three hours straight in the car. It would end, and I would just go back: play it again, play it again, play it again. Eventually, I got into the rest of the album, but I remember that I definitely had a fixation on that song.
Jason Hawk Harris: Jeff Buckley was just a little bit before my time, like before I was someone who listens to music besides what their parents listen to. I actually got exposure to Jeff Buckley by way of the band Ours. I remember listening to their singer, Jimmy Gnecco, and thinking, “This guy has a fucking unreal voice!” I just couldn’t believe it. I got really into this record of theirs called Crushes, and I tried to show it to my friend who’s about six years older. He was like, “Oh dude, if you like this, you should check out Jeff Buckley.” I think he let me borrow the CD. There are very few moments in my life where I can say I was literally in awe, but “Mojo Pin” was one of them.
Zack Weil (Oozing Wound): If I remember correctly, I think I found [Grace] when I was in high school, so that would’ve been somewhere around 2001 or 2002. Honestly, I don’t even remember how I found it, because it would have been pretty far outside of my wheelhouse. I was listening to grunge and that kind of stuff. I think it probably coincided with when I was rapidly trying to expand my musical horizons.
Basically, I just related to it. I was drawn to the song “Grace” because it was really heavy and dark, and his vocals didn’t quite sound like anybody else at the time. I mean, even now, nobody really sounds like that. I wanted to write music like that for a long time, and it never worked for me, especially since I don’t even have close to the kind of voice that he does. But he was kind of a gateway to other stuff, especially working backwards to his dad and to Captain Beefheart, because he worked with Gary Lucas a bunch. It led me to a big folk period when I was in my early twenties, too.
Jason Hawk Harris: He does this thing in the middle of [“Mojo Pin”] that’s almost like an eastern sort of scalar run where it’s really exposed and it’s just him and he’s slipping in and out of full voice and falsetto, and I’m just like, “How does this guy do this?” It’s just unreal, how much control he had over his own voice. I think there are other folks in music today that have that kind of control over their voice — there are very few of them — but I don’t think any of the people in that category have the kind of songwriting chops and compositional chops and guitar chops that he did. I just think he was kind of a once-in-a-generation talent on par with like … I might get in trouble for saying this, but I’d put him up there with Freddie Mercury.
Zack Weil (Oozing Wound): I’ve never really quite found anything else that’s like it. Especially something that transcends … like, you know, he’s a Rolling Stone golden child. I don’t really identify with most of the things that they revere.
I really liked “So Real”. That was the big one when I was 16. I was always jamming on that song. I was like, “That’s the song. That’s the one I’ve got to do.” Then I would try to sing it and sound like an idiot. [“So Real”] is also the simplest song on the whole record. There’s no real, crazy intricate stuff happening on it. I appreciated the simplicity of it. I don’t know; I wish there were more of those.
Jason Hawk Harris: His arrangements are so cool. Every song on the record is like five minutes long, some of them reach almost seven, but when I listen to the record, none of it feels long. I think that’s the mark of a good arrangement, when you can hit the five-minute mark and people don’t realize they’ve been listening to a song for five minutes.
Jason Hawk Harris: One reason why the record is so interesting and so captivating to so many folks is that it just rarely ever follows the traditional song pattern. Even in “Hallelujah”, which is just verse-chorus-verse, he varies each one just a little bit to keep it interesting, and he does it in ways that are still respectful of the original. When I hear anybody else do it, I’m kinda like, “Eh.” They’re not really pushing the song forward. It’s a difficult song. I mean, it’s seven minutes of just a guitar and your voice or a piano and your voice, and that’s hard. I don’t care who you are.
Zack Weil (Oozing Wound): Who had it on the Shrek 2 soundtrack? That is the wrong way to be schmaltzy. I don’t even particularly like the original Leonard Cohen one. It’s not from his best era, and the production is terrible. I don’t know why it works when Jeff Buckley does it. I know his version is based off of John Cale’s version from I Am Your Fan, but none of them have the voice like Buckley. It’s all down to that. I think that that’s the magic in it, and the fact that he had a really good vision as an interpreter.
I also know that, of all the songs, that’s the one I never need to hear ever again. It was kind of slammed into my face.
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Pete Yorn: Obviously “Hallelujah” is so beautiful. That reverb-drenched guitar just has such a beautiful tonality to it.
This is funny. So, in college at that time, one of my best friends was this kid, Adam Cohen, who coincidentally is Leonard Cohen’s son. I grew up in Jersey and was into hair metal bands (and then The Smiths and The Cure), but I had never heard of Leonard Cohen. I remember our friends being like, “His dad’s the Bob Dylan of Canada!”
Looking back, it was this weird triangulation. Buckley brought “Hallelujah” into super mainstream ” — maybe not at that moment; I feel like it took some years for that to really to bubble up, but it obviously has staying power — and then, there was Adam. I remember he played me some of his dad’s stuff at that time, and it was later-era stuff, and I just didn’t get it. Years later, I was like, “Wait! You idiot!” Like are you kidding me? It just took a minute for it to click, like some other great stuff that I ended up loving.
[Buckley] is more of the reason I got into Leonard Cohen than my friend Adam. I think I matured a little bit. You know, it’s like a fine wine. I get that. I think Adam played me the wrong stuff. If he would’ve come out and played me “Suzanne” out of the gate? I would’ve heard that. But he played me, like, “First We Take Manhattan”. As a kid, I just wasn’t ready to digest that.
Zack Weil (Oozing Wound): The co-writer for “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” is Gary Lucas, who was Captain Beefheart’s guitar player in the ’80s for Ice Cream for Crow and Doc at the Radar Station. That is maybe the widest breadth of a guitar player I’ve ever heard of. They are polar opposites, but it shows the fact that you can do both, and you shouldn’t feel like you’re stuck making harsh music or nice music or whatever. Like, of all the bands on Thrill Jockey, I’m probably the least likely to have been commenting on Jeff Buckley. You can like all kinds of stuff. I feel like [Grace] is a testament to that.
Pete Yorn: You can tell he’s into rock and roll, for sure, but he was also into a lot of these old crooners and jazz singers and stuff like that, and that was something that I feel like I had never been exposed to. He was tapping into some cool stuff a little ahead of his time. He also had Andy Wallace, who was a great producer partner for him. They brought some muscle to the production — the record rocks out — but there’s also this tenderness to it.
BUCKLEY’S GRACEFUL LEGACY
Pete Yorn: The day [Buckley] died, I was either living in California or had just spent the summer out there. Songs usually just come to me out of nowhere, but when I heard he died, I picked up my guitar and wrote a song called “Bandstand in the Sky”. It’s kind of a fantasy, like, “You can take my life, but I’ll never die.” It’s like he’ll live on. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song for anybody like that before.
Jason Hawk Harris: I think there is a sort of mythic quality to Jeff Buckley. I wonder what kind of personality notes we would have seen had he still been making music today, because, especially in this day and age, it seems like everybody wants a piece. Everybody wants more, and it seems like you have to have a massive amount of name recognition or fame in order to say no to something these days.
I’m sort of a classical guy, so Johannes Brahms comes to mind when I think of Jeff Buckley. Brahms wrote his first symphony, and Franz Schubert wrote in a music magazine and he was like, “This guy’s the next Beethoven,” and it paralyzed Brahms. He took something like 20 years to write his next symphony, and I think he only wrote four at a time when people were writing a lot. So I just wonder if [Buckley] would’ve been a guy that like would have been concerned about following the momentum of the first record. Or if he would have been like, you know, “This next one’s gotta be good,” and it would have been eight years before we saw another record or something.
Pete Yorn: I ended up on Columbia about two years after Jeff died. I remember going in there in the early days and seeing the Live at Sin-é and Grace posters in one of the publicists’ offices. It was still pretty fresh. By all accounts, he was a pretty awesome guy when he would float into the offices there; everyone would kind of be like, ‘Holy shit.” Right away, it sounded like he had this kind of mysterious aura around him; he had this star quality. Even with just the one record out, everyone was kind of in awe of Jeff Buckley.
Jason Hawk Harris: It’s a timeless record; if you took out the really high-pitched super reverby snare drum, I would not be able to tell what era this was written in. But, at the same time, it’s very much a record that was far and away a different one from what else was coming out in popular music. I think that it stuck with me because there’s this weight to every single decision he makes on this record. It’s weighty. It feels heavy. Nothing feels like filler. It’s all just packed, and the pacing is incredible.
[Jeff Buckley] met this moment that very few meet, where you have the energy of your youth and the wisdom of being an adult. Sometimes, the planets align, and every now and then it happens. I’m 31 now. I think the most energy I’ve ever had is behind me. Like, when I was like 23, 24, I was just working my ass off. I was practicing guitar six hours a day and singing as much as I possibly could and writing as much as I possibly could. That energy has gone – not that I’m not working on that stuff still, but I don’t have that anymore. For Buckley, his youth and energy matched up with his coming into some wisdom as an adult. If you had to come out with one album and then be gone, it seems to me like you couldn’t have done better than Grace.
First published at The Consequence of Sound – Thursday 22 August 2019.