A Live Thing
by Steve Tignor
Jan. 1, 1994
[This interview was originally published in Puncture, First Quarter 1994, #29]
His voice, his musical gifts, even his looks, eerily recall those of his long-gone father, Tim Buckley, whom he hardly knew. These traits may be in his genes, but Jeff Buckley has an agenda of his own. Steve Tignor gets the gist.
Jeff Buckley couldn’t be more out of place. Locked in a sleek black publicity room thirty floors up in Manhattan’s Sony palace, the artist with the whisper of a voice is trying to stay earnest and low-key amid the show-biz circus. While I trot out my theories about his music, he pulls at his already disheveled hair and picks at the mountain of food the company lackeys have piled in front of him.
But Buckley is forthcoming, his whispers projecting a vulnerable honesty in these surroundings. The conversation comes around to his father, the late singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, who I assumed had been a major influence on Jeff’s avant-roots style. But he sounds surprised when I mention the similarities in their singing:
“Do I sound like him? I didn’t know my father. He left. He chose another family. I can’t help it if I sound like him. My voice has been handed down through the men in my family for generations.”
I haven’t seen any mention of his father in his press. Does he want the connection downplayed?
“No, it exists. But he didn’t mention me! As a singer, I disagree with some of his vocal choices, but there are songs of his that I think are brilliant.” Jeff’s debut release, a solo live EP, has four elaborate, jazz-styled vocal excursions backed with his own guitar. Hints of the blues, mountain folk, scat, and rock guitar come through while Buckley emotes. Two of the four songs are covers, one by Edith Piaf and one by Van Morrison. I’ve also heard him do Bukka White and Bob Dylan songs in recent performances in New York.
“I’m just trying to slip into other skins,” he explains. “I’m doing songs I love, trying to work something out for myself. When I did “The Way Young Lovers Do,” I was thinking of Van scatting. I just do them and try to forget them. They can be embarrassing. One reviewer hates what I did to that song. I just tried to bring myself to Van’s style and stretch it.”
Speaking of slipping into other skins, Jeff Buckley sounds like he was exposed to a musician’s eclectic tastes from the beginning, even if he didn’t grow up with Tim Buckley’s record collection. He doesn’t seem to have been drawn to roots music by an adolescent or bohemian craving for a foreign sound (like, say, Mick Jagger) but because he always thought this is music. And he heard his father’s records. He sings a similar space-wrought Cali-soul, forsaking rhythm and stretching songs to their tortured limits with his vocals. Like a jazz player running through every approach to a phrase, Buckley sings verses from different angles, wringing vocal possibilities from each song. His musical lineage shows up not just in sounding like Dad but in his habit of phrasing vocals like the originals. John Hammond Jr. (another scion of musical privilege) does the same in his blues playing, executing technically amazing imitations of anything. Buckley and Hammond blow away other musicians, but may raise questions for listeners who find the insight of a cover song in its differences from, rather than its similarities to, the original. Inauthenticity is often more exciting (Jagger again), and tells us more about a song and an artist than technical improvement or re-creation would.
I mention Richard Thompson, a possible folk influence. “Thompson’s a great player,” Buckley agrees. “But to affect me, the music has to be more fucked. Like Dylan when he puts certain things together and I want to say ‘you can’t do that!’ – but it works. I’m trying to put together everything I’ve heard and read, the poetry I’ve written. I’ve gotten to a point where I need Billie Holiday; but half of what I’ve always been about is Jimmy Page.”
Even for solo appearances, Buckley does accompany himself with an electric guitar, using rock progressions. “Rock and roll has a place in my music. The electric guitar actually has a very warm sound, and there are things you can do with it that you can’t do in an acoustic mode. The next album will have a band. I wanted to do live shows to get my ideas together. But I can only get so far by myself. For recording, I need ideas from other people.”
When he gets rolling about his music, anyone listening to Jeff Buckley can hear his ambition. His voice sputters with frustration – too many thoughts to put into words, too much about his music that he hasn’t worked out yet. There’s no star trip; he’s more poet and craftsman than rocker. His pretensions are inner-directed, visible in a beatnik-like romanticizing of his artistic struggles. Over the course of a thirty-minute conversation, he is mostly serious. I wonder out loud what kind of audience he will have. Is there a place for his songs, none of which have the rhythms or propulsion that rock-fledged ears want to hear, outside of a small crowd of musicians? As he has said, reviewers could prove unfriendly, could dismiss his over-the-top singing as indulgent.
“No, I haven’t really thought about an audience. This music isn’t just for me, even if it’s just a crowd of bridge-and-tunnellers [NYC term for Jersey kids] at a show. I can offer stories people can relate to. I’m just like anyone else, with a brain, heart, loves, coffee stains, whatever. Anybody who is into music I hope will want to hear me.”
Judging by his choosing to work small clubs in the East Village and to debut with a live record, it seems that Buckley knows his music isn’t going to be easy to market to a pop audience. I ask him how his relations have been with Sony/Columbia, and how the company are approaching his career. “It’s not a conscious underground thing. I’ve told them that this is going to be basically me doing a live thing. It wasn’t planned to start with a live record, but we had this stuff around. I’m not that happy with any of it. I want to do weirder things with the next one.”
On that note, it’s time to go. As we get up, Buckley has more on his mind. “I have to be careful at this place [Sony]. They’re like a father who buys his daughter everything she wants. It takes me out of reality.”
We shake hands and I leave him, passing trendy-looking staffers jumping rope in the hallway. My last glance shows Buckley seated again in the shiny room, picking at his cold food as he waits for the publicity rep to bring in the next interviewer. I suspect no matter what they give him, Jeff Buckley will keep to his own path.