Talking Music: Confessing to Strangers
by Paul Young
“Singing intimate songs is ‘kind of embarrassing,” says Jeff Buckley, but his honesty and vulnerability are drawing a crowd.
“I’m still not comfortable with what I do,” says singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. “Every time I get home after a show, I feel really strange — like when you wake up in the morning and you realize that you went out the night before, got high, and told some stranger all the most intimate details of your life. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Maybe so, but Buckley’s honesty and vulnerability-along with a mesmerizing voice that quakes with tenderness and intimacy-are precisely what make his songs so extraordinary. And with the summer release of his self-titled debut album on Columbia, Buckley’s distinctive brand of blues and folk-tinged rock seems bound to attract a passionate following.
Buckley’s late father, folksinger Tim Buckley, cast a similar kind of spell. Still, the elder Buckley couldn’t fairly be called an influence on his son. Jeff met him only briefly, as a young boy, shortly before he died of a drug overdose at the age of 28. Buckley admits, however, that the singers in his family have possessed a similar falsetto technique. “A lot of people don’t know this,” he confides, “but that was not [my father’s] voice he was singing with, just as I don’t sing with mine. There’s a long tradition that goes back generations in my family of singing with a high-register voice.”
Indeed, Buckley’s voice is a wildly flexible instrument that seems to drift effortlessly from a lilting, sinuous vibrato to a full-throttled wail. “I’ve always felt that the quality of the voice is where the real content [of a song] lies,” he says. “Words only suggest an experience, but the voice is that experience.” Not surprisingly, he cites as influences such distinctive vocal stylists as blues greats Robert Johnson and Son House, along with Patti Smith and the Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. (“I idolize Nusrat,” he says. “He is a god to me.”)
As a fledgling recording artist- and his father’s son-the 27-year-old Southern Californian wavers between artistic idealism and congenital cynicism when it comes to the music industry. On the one hand, Buckley says, the corporate music world “steals, it chews up, it spits out, and it forgets.” On the other, he adds, “it allows you to make your living at being who you are. And that’s a very beautiful and lucky thing.”
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