Making It In New York: Jeff Buckley

by Jim Testa
May 2, 1993
New Jersey Beat

[This interview was originally published in New Jersey Beat Magazine, 1993.]


A famous father, drop dead good looks, talent up the wazoo, a major label deal after just two years of playing gigs… Some guys have all the luck.

Jeff Buckley certainly seems to have been touched by providence, which may be why he titled his debut album “Grace”. But life hasn’t been all lollipops and daffodils. Buckley barely knew his father, folksinger Tim Buckley, who died when Jeff was still in grammar school. Jeff Buckley came to New York with an acoustic guitar and a pile of songs he’d written in Los Angeles, and started playing every coffeehouse, open mike, cocktail lounge, and folk club he could find. Barely two years later, he was signed to Columbia Records and releasing his first record, the CD5 Live at Sin-é. Who says you can’t make it in New York? The question is, how? So we asked.

Q: Are you from New York originally? Or were you one of those guys who just showed up at the Port Authority one day carrying your suitcase and guitar?
Jeff Buckley: Well, in my case, it was more like JFK airport. But I was living in California, in Los Angeles, before I came to New York. That was 1990. But I didn’t really start gigging in New York until ’92, maybe late ’91.

Q: And that’s when you started playing at Sin-é?
Jeff: [corrects my pronunciation] Shin-AY. Right. And other places too. First Street Cafe, Cornelia Street Cafe, Bang On, Tramps, the Knitting Factory. Anything I could find, basically. Over and over and over and over again. So I don’t know what I can tell you. The only way to really make it — anywhere — is to put every bit of your being into the thing that only you can provide. The only angle is the art that you choose, that only you can provide. And to do that, you have to be quiet for a long time and find out what you bring forth. You have to know what’s in yourself — all your eccentricities, all your banalities, the full flavor of your woe and your joy. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What makes it different from everybody else’s. It’s totally subjective. You’re just given the task of bringing it up.
It’s like going up to some girl with a guitar and saying, “you are the only one, right now, who can make your music.” Right now. You don’t even know how to play the guitar. You’ll find it, you’ll find that chord, if you express your hear, now. You’ll find that small inner platinum mine, that reservoir. It’s something that’s there, you just have to dig deep and find it. But it’s something you have to do yourself. It’s not something that can be pulled out of you by any teacher, not any that I’ve ever met. None. Close friends can tell you when you’re finding. Other people who are out there doing it, they’re good to talk to. But you have to find it yourself.

Q: The thing you hear all the time from bands is “there’s no place to play in New York.” When, of course, there are lots of places to play in New York, there just aren’t a lot of places where you can play to a decent-sized audience and make any money on a regular basis.
Jeff: There are a thousand places to play in New York.

Q: Your experience would suggest that it doesn’t really matter where you play, it’s the playing itself that counts.
Jeff: That’s it exactly. You can make a very sacred place out of The Speakeasy (a decrepit old Lower East Side bar.) If you put enough heart into it. Or you an turn it into a complete circus. You can do anything you want, anything. I’ve seen it all. You can blame the sound system sometimes. If you’re a band, and the sound system sucks, there’s nothing you can do, you’re fucked. But if the sound system sucks, then you just mix yourselves on the stage, you turn up or turn down until you make it sound okay, and you use what little you have. There are always angles around technology, around managers, around people. But when you put the music forth, when you put the art forth, the performance piece, whatever, the heart of what you do speaks for itself. And that’s what you go with. You lead with that. Each time. Every time. Every second. Sure, you need to be aware of technical things, and take care of them whenever possible, but your salvation lies in what you and your friends together have. What, you’re going to blame the Pyramid for not getting a record deal? Your band broke up because the soundman at CBGB was in a bad mood last week?
The thing is, I never went and pursued a record deal. Ever. It’s too funny to even talk about. It’s like playing craps in Vegas. You know the odds belong to the house. You’ll always lose. If that’s why you’re up there doing it, forget it. You’re already fucked.

Q: Unfortunately, I’ve started seeing that more and more. You find these bands and you talk to them, and the only reason they want to be in a band is because they want to get signed. It’s like they don’t even know why they’re making music.
Jeff: Really? That’s sad. That happens all the time in Los Angeles, so I’m sort of used to that being the standard by which bands are measured – by how ambitious they are about getting a deal.

Q: I think Los Angeles was always more up-front about it being a place where bands would go and play the Strip and get signed. New York never used to have that mentality.
Jeff: That’s true. Although on the upside, even thought they’re a lot farther down in the underground, there are bands in Los Angeles who have nothing left in their lives except their music. But in New York, there’s more of an expectation of hunger – ravenous, and angry – for originality.
Sure, there are always people who are only there because they want to get signed. And in a way, that’s not a bad way to go, because the laws that govern the music business sort of point you in that direction anyway. It’s like everything is set up for the people who want to be most famous. And if that’s the place for you, baby, then go for it. But otherwise, it’s a complete 24 hour a day dilemma. And let me just say that this is a very hard thing to judge from the outside. It’s really difficult to just hang a label on someone and say that they’re only in it to be rich and famous. Because it is a completely confusing universe.

Q: Okay, but let’s take a band that’s in it for all the right reasons. They’re competing with hundreds of other local, unsigned bands who live in that area. And they’re also competing with hundreds of bands from all over the world who come through New York on tour. So it seems almost impossible for any one band to get itself noticed in that total melee. And having watched your career, it seems to me like your approach to that wasn’t any gimmicks, and you just kind of separated yourself from the pack by being good at what you do.
Jeff: Yes, I guess you could say that. And that’s a tremendous compliment. But how do you think those (industry) people got there? It was because of my association with one industry person. Somewhere down the line, even if it’s something you don’t actively pursue, it has to be somebody who knows you. One person, two people. The people who will always be my joy were the people who were there at the beginning. And we’ve had a dialogue since dirt was invented. And that’s my audience. And one of those people happened to be music business people, and once that circuit gets started, it’s like a huge chain reaction, a domino effect, all those clichés. They come either to dispel the rumor that what their friend is seeing is good, or to totally get on it, so they can be a part of it. That’s not real, though. Those aren’t real people. Because that industry thing, that buzz, that can always be taken away. But what real people feel, that’s there. Don’t get me wrong, there are record company people who are real people, who really love music. But the aspect of those people that represents their role in the music business, that can come or go. What’s real is the people who come to see you just because they’re into what you’re doing. And who get into music to experience it, not to judge it. They will always be there, as long as you keep your heart open and strong.

Q: To be honest, I’ve been around the music business for about ten years, and I really do think that the kind of people who are working in the music business now are much more into music, and less into the business end of it, than people in those jobs would have been, say, ten years ago.
Jeff: That’s true. It is a very, very different environment today. I’ve been watching it for a long time, and it is a different place. The people I deal with at Sony are just like me. They’re there because they like the music and they just happen to have a job there. It’s communicating, and agreeing or disagreeing with people, that’s all it comes down to. In the music business, ideas are like cigarettes in prison. People sell them, people steal them, they’re gold. Even if you don’t smoke.

Q: What sort of experiences did you have with the local press before your album came out? One common complaint is that none of the local papers in New York have any interest in writing about the local scene.
Jeff: Good. I think that’s good. Are you kidding? The last thing I want in my neighborhood are a bunch of people who are down there because they think they should be down there. People should come of their own volition, not because some guy in the paper says it’s cool to go.

Q: But doesn’t that just make it that much harder for bands to get noticed, to separate themselves from the throng?
Jeff: I don’t know. New York Newsday said I was stealing from the black man, and I was failing at it whereas Michael Bolton was succeeding. So fuck ’em. The Village Voice…they don’t know what’s going on. The press doesn’t matter unless the people on the staff love you. Then, yeah, they can help your career. People on the staffs of the dailies here don’t love me, so who cares… But anyway, you can’t judge yourself through the eyes of journalists anyway, because they will always be on the outside of the process, and never know anything, deeply, about your art, even though they will continue to make pronouncements about it. If they ask you questions and you tell ’em, then fine, that’s accurate. And yeah, press helps. It does help. But if you’re looking for humanism in it, forget it, it ain’t gonna exist.

©1993 by New Jersey Beat Magazine. All rights reserved