Let’s cast our minds back to the early 90s. A time where a guitar without distortion was rather a harp, an amp’s lowest volume level was 11 and a chorus that wasn’t belted out was a wasted opportunity. How’d this come to be? The Seattle grunge movement was spreading fast across America and already hitting pockets throughout Europe. In 1991 alone we saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger. It’s safe to say the trend of the 90s had been set, and was only further cemented with the arrival of Alice in Chains, Bush and Stone Temple Pilots. So how was it that during this time of post-punk mayhem, a singer-songwriter with a voice higher than most female opera leads was able to break the mould?
Growing up in Southern California, Jeff ‘Scottie’ Buckley caught the music bug early. His mother was a talented piano and cello player, while his stepfather would only let the likes of Pink Floyd, The Who and Led Zeppelin ‘grace’ his record player. Combine this with the fact he was given his first guitar at five and you would understand if he took a direct road to rock, but Buckley thrived on the influence of other genres. Joining his high school jazz band and later studying music in Hollywood, it was evident that his love for music was fast becoming a lifestyle rather than a passion. At 23, like many before him, he headed to New York with a guitar on his back and a loose plan to get signed.
This is where it all begun.
As the old saying goes, ‘if you can’t beat them – join them’. But Buckley wasn’t necessarily a modest folk-blues sailor competing with a grunge tidal wave – he was well a part of the culture. In 1991 (his first year in New York) he joined psychedelic rock group Gods and Monsters. Their sound was heavy, and despite still being able to explore a bit of his trademark range, Buckley’s vocals were raspy to match the band. So much so that his voice in this clip resembles Soundgarden’s frontman Chris Cornell.
Perhaps this rockier sound doesn’t stem too far from the route we know he would eventually take, but this next track does…
Recorded in 1990, ‘Radio’ is a prime example of the atmosphere Buckley was making music in. Unlike his later years, here he was sharing a stage with two or three guitarists, a fuzzy bassist, and a frantic drummer. His guitar would be distorted, his amp would be turned up past 11 and the band’s tracks would be belted out with the aid of a wild mosh.
It wasn’t until he joined a café circuit as a solo act that he was able to hone in on the sound we now know him for. It was this intimate setting, this isolation and this opportunity that enabled a punk polluted Buckley to be reborn. The crowd would sit in silence, there was no ruthless headbanging and crowd interaction would be limited to a swaying lighter for atmosphere. It was the Sin-é café where he ultimately took permanent residency and got to explore lighter genres like folk, jazz and blues, covering the softer sounds of rock such as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and recognisably Leonard Cohen.
When Gods and Monsters wanted to turn their commitment levels up a notch in March 1992, Buckley left the band. Needless to say the decision would turn out to be the right one as his weekly residency at Sin-é attracted the attention of Columbia Records. As early as next year he would release the Live at Sin-é EP and the following year put out his debut album, Grace.
Read our Q&A with Steve Berkowitz, the producer of Grace and employee at Columbia Records who discovered Buckle at the Sin-e Cafe.
With the grunge movement continuing to grow, Grace initially wasn’t well received. But as we now know, the transition Buckley made and the timing in which he made it, proved to be pivotal for rock music. In an interview during October of 2015, Muse lead singer Matt Bellamy touches on the importance of Buckley’s music.
“When I started singing my voice was very high, I sang a lot of falsetto. For me I felt like this wasn’t suitable for rock because in the early 90s, groups had a very rough voice. Until I heard this album [Grace], it made me feel confident that a high pitch, softer voice can work with rock.”
As Columbia/Legacy Recordings prepare to release You & I on March 11th (a collection of recently discovered tracks from the Sony vaults) we’re again reminded of how influential Buckley’s style has been.
Adele: “I try to listen to music that might uplift me but I don’t really connect with it. So mainly [I listen to] Jeff Buckley. And that’s been my entire life I’ve done that. I remember falling out with my best friend when I was like seven and listening to Jeff Buckley, because my mom was a huge fan. Grace has always been around me.”
Jeff Beck: “The simplicity and beauty of Jeff Buckley’s voice sounded amazing to me. I felt that if I could do with my guitar what he can do with his voice then I could have something pretty special.”
Ben Harper: “Jeff is one of my favourite musicians and singers of all time. Never have I seen such infinite musical potential in anyone.”
Robert Plant: “I was playing with Jimmy in the mid-90’s, working with an Egyptian ensemble and we played at a festival in Switzerland. Jeff Buckley was playing and we went to see him, and it was mind altering – his voice. Spectacular singing. And, so much conviction.”
Jeff Buckley’s stripped back approach could be deemed a gamble at the time, and his untimely death meant he never really got to see the influence of his music first hand. Yet for a young man to ditch his grunge group for a raw residency at a cafe, Buckley clearly wasn’t doing it for the accolades.
- Just Like A Woman (Bob Dylan cover)
- Everyday People (Sly & The Family Stone cover)
- Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’ (First recorded by Louis Jordan)
- Grace (original)
- Calling You (Jevetta Steele cover)
- Dream Of You And I (original)
- The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (The Smiths cover)
- Poor Boy Long Way From Home (traditional blues song, Bukka White cover)
- Night Flight (Led Zeppelin cover)
- I Know It’s Over (The Smiths cover)