On Feb. 3, 1993, a soft-spoken Jeff Buckley walked into Shelter Island Sound studios in New York’s Flatiron district. Recently signed to Columbia Records, the singer-songwriter and son of folk musician Tim Buckley was woodshopping material for his forthcoming debut album. Studio owner and engineer Steve Addabbo knew of Buckley from his weekly residency at Sin-é in the East Village, but it wasn’t until the then-26-year-old began to sing that he fully comprehended the man’s gift.
“His voice was an incredible instrument,” recalls Addabbo. “He would go from a whisper to a howl so effortlessly and completely under control.” During three days in the studio, Buckley — who drowned in 1997 at the age of 30 — recorded recontextualized covers, chilling originals and sketched out what would become his celebrated 1994 debut, Grace. With the 10-track You and I, due March 11 on Legacy Recordings, some of those songs will finally see the light of day.
Released with the consent of Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert, the album represents the start of a concerted effort by Legacy to bring Buckley’s music to an audience beyond the one that knows him only for his soaring cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” “There’s no question that there are now two generations of music fans for whom Jeff Buckley may only be a footnote,” says Legacy president Adam Block.
In addition to offering rare Buckley material, You and I provides a glimpse at the singer’s raw, pre-Grace talent. Whether putting a spin on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” giving Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” a tender touch or conversing through still-gestating material, the recordings capture Buckley “at the precise start of his career,” says Addabbo. “He’s being innocent about it.”
Another highlight is an early version of “Grace,” a song Buckley first wrote in 1991 with musician, collaborator and bandmate in Gods and Monsters Gary Lucas. The guitarist recalls first hearing Buckley take what was previously a bluesy instrumental and making into something ethereal. “Right then I was like, ‘Wow! He’s got it. This is top shelf!’” Lucas says.
Behind his casual confidence, however, Buckley was beginning to feel the pressure of feverish press reports about his talent. “It made him uncomfortable,” says Columbia’s then-head of A&R David Kahne. “Jeff didn’t have the outward desire for attention. His skin was always about to crawl.”
Addabbo says he has an additional 400 minutes of material from the sessions, although Block admits the album’s sales will determine whether Legacy releases more of it. And while Kahne believes Buckley “would have never released this stuff on his own” due to its rawness, he says drawing any attention to the singer’s talent makes the release worthy. Lucas agrees. “He should be better known,” says Lucas. “You don’t run into a Jeff Buckley every day.”
A version of this article was originally published in the March 12 issue of Billboard.