“Hey remember that riff you played me at your parents’ place when we were playing guitar on your bed?”
It was April 1994 and singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley’s classic debut album, Grace — which turns 25 today (Aug. 23), and is being celebrated with a major reissue via Columbia/Legacy Recordings — was essentially done, set to come out in just a few months. Buckley, then 27, had recently enlisted his friend Michael Tighe, just 19 at the time, to play guitar in his live band as he was gearing up for what would become a grueling, almost two-year world tour.
He convened the rest of his band, made up of bassist Mick Grøndahl and drummer Matt Johnson, to record some B-sides at Sony Studios in Midtown, Manhattan. It was Tighe’s first rehearsal and it began with Buckley asking him to play a guitar riff he showed him at his parents’ place in the West Village about a year and a half prior.
The song quickly became “So Real,” a track that would eventually be situated at the heart of Grace, a stunning alt-rock track that would break up the hushed fingerpicked guitars of “Lilac Wine” and “Hallelujah” — the latter of which has remained in the public memory long after his death, and still serves as the introduction to his back catalogue to many.
“I played it, and he got behind the drums and started singing the melody to the chorus, and we kind of knew it was something special,” Tighe remembers. “We did the instrumental and that night, he just took a long walk around Hell’s Kitchen and came back and had the lyrics and the melody for the verses and he laid it all down in like two takes. Afterwards, he was like, ‘I want this song to go on the album.’”
“When Jeff took what he did and put his vocals on it and his lyrics, I couldn’t believe it,” Johnson adds. “I thought it was unbelievable. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this guy is amazing!’ I loved what he did, and I was so impressed with the way his melody was so unimaginable, given the instrumental track. In a million years I never would have thought about that.”
But there was one issue: Buckley wanted to add “So Real” to the tracklist in the place of “Forget Her,” a sorrowful and dark, yet direct song that higher ups at the label, including producer Andy Wallace, wanted as the lead single. Buckley now wanted it to remain unreleased entirely.
“It’s the one thing with the album that I wasn’t happy with, that “Forget Her” was left off — because it was absolutely intended to be part of the album,” Wallace explains, noting that the song was 100% done at the time. “I remember we took him out to dinner, Don [Ienner, Chairman of Sony Music Label Group], Steve [Berkowitz, A&R executive at Columbia who signed Buckley], and me. If I recall correctly, the main point of that dinner was, ‘Reconsider Jeff, blah blah blah.’ He was adamant, and God bless him, he stuck to his guts.”
For as great as the ultra-personal “Forget Her” was — the song was eventually given a legitimate release years after Buckley’s tragic 1997 death on the Grace (Legacy Edition) compilation in 2004 — it wasn’t necessary to launch the New York-based singer from legendary local live act to a worldwide cult phenomenon. Though the album was dogged by slow sales Stateside, eventually peaking at No. 149 on the Billboard 200 albums chart almost a year after its release (he was initially much more successful in Europe and especially in Australia), it was eventually certified Platinum by the RIAA in 2016, 22 years after it hit record stores.
Now, 25 years after its release, the album is being reissued by Columbia/Legacy Recordings, complete with the release of four full live sets: Live at Wetlands, New York, NY 8/16/94; Live From Seattle, WA, May 7, 1995; Cabaret Metro, Chicago, IL, May 13, 1995; and Live at Columbia Records Radio Hour.
But what became Grace was almost a radically different sounding album. Signed on the strength of his renowned residency at the now-closed East Village venue Sin-é, which saw Buckley perform a wide array of covers and original material each Monday night beginning in April 1992, Columbia initially mulled the idea of a debut release that would have reflected the sparse, solo-electric spirit of the shows, which were marked by his sense of humor and incredible crowdwork (check out his mini cover of Pakistani legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, sung over the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff). Though some songs in that vein would make the eventual album — his covers of “Hallelujah” and “Lilac Wine,” originally by Leonard Cohen and James Shelton (and made popular by Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt), respectively, were the most prominent examples — Buckley, as well as Wallace and Berkowitz, decided to go in a different direction.
“He wanted to do a band album; he didn’t want to do a solo thing,” Wallace says, who has since worked with Coldplay, Paul McCartney, and The Strokes, amongst dozens of other high profile bands. “There was some talk about that, whether it was best to do something that reflected what he was doing at Sin-é, because he was so good at it. It’s hard to do a full album of just the solo thing, especially because so much of his magic had to do with his persona and his live interaction with the audience. That’s virtually impossible to capture on a record, at least with the same impact.”
The label agreed on the condition that they would put out an EP recording of one of the Sin-é gigs, which was later stretched out into a full LP in 2003. Released in late 1993, it included two originals, as well as stunning renditions of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do” and his take on an old French song, “Je n’en connais pas la fin.” This served as a way to introduce Buckley to an audience outside of Lower Manhattan, hint that more music was on the way, and allow him to pursue forming a real band.
“He just always wanted to be in a band, that was his dream,” Tighe says, who has since written songs alongside Andrew Wyatt for Liam Gallagher, and worked with Adele. “He idolized Led Zeppelin and the chemistry that bands have — to a degree, the family unit that a band has. I think he really wanted that for a long time.”
Though he now had a trio, made up of Grøndahl, Johnson, and himself, to record with — Tighe wasn’t added until the recording sessions were largely completed — Wallace still wanted Buckley to record a bevy of paired-down solo versions of all of the songs. Most nights while recording in Bearsville, New York, a small town in the Catskills, Wallace would have him go out to the live room after dinner — maybe with a glass of wine — and perform his Sin-é gig without stopping.
It was in this setting that Buckley was most relaxed (“He definitely seemed like he was most comfortable when he was playing live in general,” Tighe believes), and it allowed him to unwind a bit, while still recording. This is one of the main reasons why so much solo material has been released since his death on various legacy albums and compilations: There’s a still-unreleased version of “Hallelujah” with an extended minor key intro floating around somewhere, Wallace says.
While a lot of the song arrangements were hammered out in pre-production rehearsals, this was an incredibly new band, very much still feeling each other out. Some of these songs were born in the recording studio, including “Dream Brother” — which, like “So Real,” was marked by the instrumental track being recorded before Buckley had even written the lyrics or melody.
“My musicianship I wouldn’t say was great at the time, but I did feel like I was resonant with Jeff emotionally — and just in terms of the raw quality of listening to music as music,” Johnson remembers, now the drummer for St. Vincent since 2011. “The depth of his listening showed me how to play music in many ways. The sensitivity to his voice… It was kind of scary sometimes. I felt like a bull in a china shop. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be in his band. It was formative, and it made me who I am.”
Song after song was then cranked out in that big, ambient room in Upstate New York. From the wild quiet-loud dynamics of “Mojo Pin” to the magical Kerl Berger-arranged strings on “Last Goodbye,” it was obvious that they were working on something extraordinary.
“There’s never a turning point where a light goes on, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is an incredible album!’” Wallace says. “But I can remember the first time that I really went, ‘Wow, this is not just a young guy with a great voice and a great ability to entertain an audience. It was probably the first time I went to see him at Sin-é and he played ‘Grace,’ which I had never heard before… I remember very specifically, looking over at [Buckley’s manager] George [Stein], ‘Where did that song come from? I’ve never heard that!’ And he said, ‘Oh that’s one of Jeff’s originals.’ That was the first time I felt, ‘Wow, there’s something really special going on.’”
The album would take Buckley and his band around the world multiple times over, even returning to play the same metro areas multiple times in the same year to develop his fanbase, with a heavy investment by Columbia. Always the consummate live performer, Buckley would sometimes leave his own bandmates stunned.
“There would be some nights where he would do some things with his voice where it would completely blow me away,” Tighe remembers. “The thing about performing with him is that he managed to cast a spell over the audience and because of that voice he had, he did the same with the band members. It was like we were in a bit of a trance most of the time. He really had that kind of power to his voice.”
If anything, those around him remember Buckley most for his passion and his sense of humor. Whether it was seeing him light up when meeting his hero, Jimmy Page, after a show at a beautiful theatre in Melbourne or just joking around in the tour van, he had a sensitive and magnetic personality that lives on in everyone that knew him personally.
“There’s a line in one of his songs on [the posthumous release, Sketches for] My Sweetheart the Drunk, ‘I miss my beautiful friend,’” Wallace says, tearing up over the phone as he recites the lyric from “Morning Theft.” “Every time I think of that, I miss my beautiful friend. And I’ve never stopped missing him.”