During the week that Jeff Buckley’s You and I gets released, who better to talk to than the man who signed him. Steve Berkowitz was working as a producer at Columbia Records when a friend told him to check out a singer-songwriter who had taken up permanent residency at the Sin-e Cafe in New York. It wasn’t long before Berkowitz took Buckley under his wing during a studio session that was all about breaking the ice. The recordings would go on to instill a confidence in Buckley that saw him put out Grace, but it was also the catalyst for a friendship that lasted up until the singers demise. We sat down with the multi Grammy award winner to get a grasp on how Buckley was feeling during his first ever studio session.
In your words, what did Jeff Buckley have that the thousands of other singer-songwriters trying to break it in NY didn’t?
He had that voice, the dynamics of the delivery of the lyrics, the intent of the song, and was able to translate and sheppard a feeling and emotion to an audience that always moved them very deeply. This is what I was always looking for in an artist and in art. Going from the moment of creation to the the moment of the heart and soul of tapping of the foot.
Jeff was an unbelievably talented guy with a voice of gold that could be beautiful and rough and everything in between. He had a very deep understanding of guitar, chord versions and music. The arrangement coming out of his hand was like a full band or orchestra. He was able to make music and have this expression different to anything I’ve ever seen.
What side of Jeff Buckley do we see in You and I?
I think that the recordings made those three days, and the recordings that make up the majority of the album could have been exactly like they are or 180 degrees different. It’s just how he improvised it out that day, or suggestions from myself and Steve Addabbo, or his reaction from one song to the next, or where his hand fell on the guitar. He was very much a jazz musician in a way. He thought improvisationally and openly. It was an unbelievable exercise those three days as it helped him to break the ice and become less worried in front of the microphone. Whereas in the cafes he played in, he was always so natural.
How did Jeff breakthrough in such a grunge heavy era? And was there ever any questioning from the label as to why you signed someone who didn’t reflect the style of time?
I don’t think in genres, I only think in levels of good and great. I don’t care what format you want to call it, those are all made up. People either like it or they don’t. You can try to genre-fy it or slice down these various markets, but the making of music and art is a separate matter. I was fortunate enough to gain the confidence of the company and be able to sign music and artists who were in potential of greatness, and in the great tradition and history of Columbia Records, whether it was Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, or Billie Holiday, or what everyone thought was the bizarre signing of Bob Dylan, we used our power to uplift the taste of society, and try to stand on our own and say this is great art and everyone should listen.
Not all successful musicians would make good producers, how were you able to transition between roles so well?
I can’t tell you exactly, but I always thought music was important. What it said, what it sounded like. The psychoacoustics of it, the meaning of it. How did it go from the point of creation, to the moment of moving someone to do something about it? Even now in the world with distribution changing I still care about the ‘it’ of the music. The feeling, what is it about, what does it mean, why does the artist feel that way, how does it affect the listener, why does it become popular, why does it become classic, why do people think it sucks? All the various reasons. I considered myself early on as a bit of a musical Sheppard.
How do you shape an artist, but at the same time not change them?
The relationship between a producer and an artist is a lot like a couple. When it works out it’s great, but often it doesn’t. There’s a dynamic that’s unique and pure that defines a relationship.
My personal thing was that I wasn’t necessarily a hit record maker. I had grown up through working with artists. If I had to tell an artist what to do, I thought I was working with the wrong artist, that was my particular thing.
My job with Jeff was to keep people out of the way, and just let him make sure that the avenue was open for him to do what he wanted to do and discover what he was after, never to tell him what to do.
What was your highlight with Jeff?
While living in Memphis we were figuring out what the record after Grace would be. I spent time with him as he worked through one path, then another path, then another. But there was one beautiful day where we played pool on Beal St and listened to Bobby Womack’s greatest hits on the jukebox. We drank some bourbon, and then walked back to his apartment and listened to the demos of Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk.
That was pretty great, I just wish it had continued…
Read our review of You and I and our take on Jeff Buckley breaking through during the grungy 90s.
You can order You and I through any the following link.