Jeff Buckley died tragically almost 20 years ago after drowning in a Memphis, Tenn., river, cutting short a very promising career. In a rather remarkable feat, he’s managed to stay alive in the hearts of music fans through his songs.
The very first studio recordings made by Buckley for Columbia Records are being released in a new album of cover songs, entitled You and I. It includes 10 previously unreleased tracks, with songs by Bob Dylan, Sly & The Family Stone, The Smiths, Led Zeppelin and more. These 10 tracks have gone virtually unheard for more than two decades.
Recently discovered in the Sony Music archives during the research for the 20th anniversary edition of Buckley’s Grace album, the performances on You and I are a revelation, an intimate portrait of the artist expressing a range of emotion channelled through his singular sensibility.
Global News spoke with Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert, who manages his estate and oversaw the compilation of You and I.
Mary Guibert: Back in 1998, we all sat around this great big table and we asked ourselves, “What do we have, how do we treat it, and where do we go from here?” At that time, rather naively, I asked for a list of everything [of Jeff’s] we had in the vault. Eyes popped around the table. [Laughs] You have to be careful what you ask for, because what I got was a huge three-ring binder of computer print-outs of every single thing that’s in the vault. We’re talking repetitive rehearsal recordings, outtakes, everything.
I was adamant that we weren’t going to go shuffling through the volumes and digging through crap, when Jeff had been working on an album that he had put his entire soul into, and I wasn’t going to let them push through something they could polish and clean up. I won that battle. I wanted something the rest of the world didn’t have, and I didn’t want it phoneyed up.
So all of these songs are covers, and they’re raw recordings?
Yes. Finding these was like finding jewels in a bunch of wood ash. You have to blow the wood ash aside, and that’s where we found these early recordings. We went to Sony Music, and we had to give them something that would give them an idea of the power Jeff had in his fingers and in his voice. That’s what these demo sessions are about. The miracle of them is we decided not to fix anything, we just put them out there. Sure, we remastered them to make them sound good, but this is Jeff. If you were the intern at the recording studio sitting behind the counter, this is what you would hear, Jeff and his guitar.
That’s why we decided to call it You and I, to embody the relationship between him and his guitar, and him and the listener.
I never had the privilege of seeing him perform live. What was it like?
He had these moments where you could see him getting into the zone. Very often, it would be during the introduction of the song. He’d be thinking lots of different things, and you could see him gather all of these thoughts and all of himself, and you would witness his soul coming out of his fingertips. He could sing in this tiny voice, like super dolce … they called them “the flying Buckleys,” those high, rock n’ roll shout-outs … but the real magic was when he could just hum softly, almost breathlessly, and he just pulled everybody in. New York audiences are never quiet. Ever. And they were quiet for him.
I just have to close my eyes and remember times … you know, as a mom, you try to go to every performance you can if you’re close enough … very often I was in the back, because all the girls had to be up front. [Laughs] I can be with him again when I close my eyes. I never want to open them when I have thoughts of Jeff. The sound of his voice is just “wow.”
Is there any song that particularly resonates for you?
For me, Just Like a Woman.
Is that why it’s first on the album?
It can be so tricky. You have to put it together the way he would have wanted it to be put together. This one just grabbed me so much, there’s such a personal note in it. I was like, “This is it. We’ll have them for the rest of the album.”
Do you know if Jeff had a personal favourite of these covers?
Oh, no. Whichever artist was his preferred artist of the day. Jeff went through his phases. He had his Ella period, his Miles Davis period, his Robert Johnson period. He loved them all.
If you took that concentration of musical acumen and spread it over decades, we can only imagine what he could have created. He would have been 50 this year. When Heart was performing Stairway to Heaven at the Kennedy Center Honors, and the young man started playing guitar, I was weeping at the screen thinking “That should be my son. He would be the one honouring those guys.” But you know what? We both believed in eternal life, so the more his heroes cross over, the more I believe he’s building his own band. And won’t we all be ready to buy tickets when we get there! [Laughs]
‘You and I’ will be released by Sony Music/Columbia/Legacy Records on March 11. It is available via pr-eorder on iTunes.
Here is the complete tracklist of the upcoming album:
1. Just Like a Woman (Bob Dylan cover)
2. Everyday People (Sly & The Family Stone cover)
3. Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’ (First recorded by Louis Jordan)
4. Grace (original)
5. Calling You (Jevetta Steele cover)
6. Dream of You and I (original)
7. The Boy With the Thorn in His Side (The Smiths cover)
8. Poor Boy Long Way From Home (traditional blues song, Bukka White cover)
9. Night Flight (Led Zeppelin cover)
10. I Know It’s Over (The Smiths cover)