Interviews with Buckley expose his unpredictable character ranging from quiet and guarded to candid and revealing. Either way, one thing’s for sure: Jeff Buckley could never be relied on for an easy interview.
"He had a whole mythology that was kind of growing up around him," musician Jen Cloher remembers. "He was a bit edgy. You couldn't quite categorise Jeff Buckley. I think there was a bit of intrigue as well. Who was this guy? It was really fresh."
Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who was a friend of Buckley’s, says he possessed a star quality.
"What made him that person? I have no idea. But he was that person," he recalls.
"He was this amazing, unique kind of spirit that everyone was kind of drawn to. He had that quality that superstars have. But he unfortunately didn't live long enough for that to be exposed to everyone."
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While in some parts of the world – his native USA among them – Buckley became a musical hero in the wake of his tragic death, Australia embraced him as a superstar while he was alive.
Jeff Buckley's mother Mary Guibert assured triple j in 1998 that the love we showed Buckley was not only acknowledged but very much reciprocated.
"He loved Australia, adored Australia," she said. "It was so exciting for him to be there, the response was that palpable for him.
"He really wasn't ready for the depth of the response. It was really gratifying to him. There's something about the Aussie spirit, that kind of independence, that struck a harmonic note with Jeff. He was always so experimental that he didn't always get that really roaring enthusiastic reception in the US, which was alright with him. He liked just being a songwriter and admired for his singing and having a controlled following rather than some kind of raging success.
"But the genuine nature I think of the [Australian] reception, just the way the fans responded to him in concert, the feeling he would get from the people in that performance experience, which he loved to do in the first place, was really a strong and powerful one. It was good for him."
He visited Australia twice in his relatively short career. A short promo tour that saw him in small clubs in Sydney and Melbourne in August and September 1995. Just five months later he had a mammoth theatre tour, selling out some of the biggest rooms around the country, sometimes repeatedly.
The reviews were largely glowing.
"With Jeff’s first tour in 1995, there was a considerable level of excitement and anticipation," triple j Music Director Richard Kingsmill remembers. "Australia had had plenty of time to live with Grace, it had been out for exactly a year before his live show got here.
"Everyone knows now that Grace is a classic. But even after a year of it being out, he was still more a cult artist getting great reviews than he was a superstar. The shows booked in Australia on that first tour were pretty modest size rooms – nothing like the big theatres he played on his follow up tour here in 1996."
Kingsmill remembers the opening show of that first, intimate tour at The Metro in Sydney.
"It’s fair to say the crowd was full of as many local musicians as there were punters," he says. "As soon as he started playing, and then when he sang, the room was his for the next 90 minutes. It was, and still is, as close to a perfect concert I’ve ever seen. He knew this was an important show and that there was a lot riding on it for his growing popularity here.
"He and his band were on fire that night. All in his camp agreed afterwards it was a good one. For me, when towards the end of the night he started dropping in really challenging covers like Big Star’s 'Kangaroo', it had gone way beyond being just a great gig. It was simply a thrill to be a music fan and there that night to soak it all up."
Wendy Tuohy raved about Buckley's return to Australia, writing for The Age in February 1996.
"A fragile figure with a boy's white arms told us wrenching stories of loss, pain and aching," she wrote. "He used a musical language so beautiful - and sang at times in a voice as rich but tortured as a male Nina Simone - that the pain became a thing of beauty.
"We do not know the exact origins of Jeff Buckley's intensity, or what causes the compressed tension that sometimes makes him rigid at the microphone, but the ’lots of bad things’ he speaks about to journalists, the ‘lots of irreparable damage... the agony of learning all over again’ certainly came through in his coiled-spring stage presence."
Grace has spent 52 weeks in the ARIA charts since its release, even sitting in the top ten back in 1995. The record only managed 149th spot in his native US, though Buckley's mother believes this was due to his label wanting to build his profile slowly.
He got a lot of very touching letters from Australian fans which he kept as keepsakes. And he was not a keeper of things.Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley's mother
"Part of that was by intention, I'm sure," she said. "I've seen the marketing plans all throughout and they were all a very low-key, take it easy, let Jeff develop kind of thing."
There was truly an affinity between the artist and the people of this country. If you ever poured your heart out to Jeff Buckley via fan mail, there's a good chance he took what you wrote to heart.
"He got a lot of fan mail from the Australian fans too," Guibert said. "He got a lot of very touching letters from Australian fans which he kept as keepsakes. And he was not a keeper of things. But there were some really powerful letters that he got from some of the Australian fans about how his music touched them. I think that really endeared them to him as well."
Photographer Merri Cyr was a close friend of Buckley's throughout his life and took the iconic photo that adorns Grace's front cover. She also attests to how much the singer loved our country.
"I know Jeff loved Australia, particularly he loved Melbourne," she remembers. "He talked about that quite a bit. Australians really connected with Jeff immediately and embraced him, they loved him.
"I'm glad he got to experience that while he was alive. Not just adulation, but the love."
1994's Grace was Jeff Buckley's only studio album. While collections of material – demos, live recordings, rejected studio sessions – all surfaced after his passing, he left just one finished LP behind at the time.
The album was made at Bearsville Studio in Woodstock, New York, with Andy Wallace, whose production credits at the time were largely for heavy metal and punk rock bands. Making the record in the country was a way of keeping Buckley from distraction, allowing him to channel all of his energy and love of experimentation into making the record.
"I didn't know how beautiful the place would be before I got there," Buckley explained when Grace was released. "I went up there and the place is king, it's absolutely great. So we set up there and we worked for like five or six weeks.”
The core band for the Grace sessions featured Buckley, bassist Mick Grondahl and drummer Matt Johnson, three musicians who had known each other for just six weeks before heading to the studio.
"The whole process of this album was ass-backwards," Buckley said. "The studio was chosen, the producer was chosen, didn't have a band. I thought I'd get it together by that time. I knew I was gonna work with Andy before we got anything solid. We talked about how to record things and the way I wanted to do it. I wanted to get a big room, with the band and the material, 12 mics, live. Virtually we did that."
The recording space was setup in a way that would allow for the band’s ever-changing dynamic, according to author Daphne A. Brooks.
"Wallace and the group set up two different full band recording situations – for louder and softer ensemble playing with two different sets of drums all miked up and set to go at any time. Wallace was always ready with tape rolling,” Brooks wrote in her book Jeff Buckley's Grace, part of the 33 1/3 series.
"An additional third performance area with microphones was set up with a riser, similar to a small stage in a cafe. From time to time Jeff would sit down and play songs.
"There was no set plan or schedule for these recordings, but these sessions clearly provided a fluid bridge between Buckley's solo work and the structure for his new experimentation with the band."
Many consider Grace to be a classic album. It gets the kind of praise reserved only for truly game-changing records. It has earned countless five-star reviews, frequently appears at the pointy end of "best album" polls and has no shortage of glowing recommendations.
"I still think it's one of my all time favourite albums. It's just timeless," Big Scary's Tom Iansek says. "I think you can put it on now and it doesn't sound dated. I guess this just comes down to the quality of the songs. They're that good that they still have relevance and they still bring up the same emotions and evoke the same feelings as they did years ago."
Jen Cloher agrees.
"Grace is an album that stands up today, it's a classic," she says.
"It's a classic album and I think it will go down in the history books – it already has – as one of the most accomplished debut albums of all time. Amazing songs."
Speaking to Mojo magazine in 1997, Patti Smith Group guitarist and Nuggets co-curator Lenny Kaye said Grace was merely hinting at bigger things to come.
"Grace was a great beginning, staking out all the stylistic territory," he said. "I think he was getting ready to make his first real record, working out what he wanted to say without letting that wonderful voice distract people from his internal emotion. I'm sure he wanted to be more than just a pretty face and voice. He had a vast plain to work in and he never really got to work it."
On his first Australian tour in August 1995, Jeff Buckley visited triple j to talk to Richard Kingsmill about six songs that mattered to him at that time.
Music's power was clearly important to Buckley, as it was something he would connect to the key moments in his life.
"Music needs time to live in and sometimes that time is a memory, a childhood memory or a really dramatic memory of a fight, a loss, a death, a birth, a movie," he said. "Something totally ordinary – if a song captures it, those are the things that keep time in your life.
"The day I heard 'How Soon Is Now', the day I heard 'Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor' by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the night I heard Górecki's Third Symphony, the day I heard 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough'..."
Diana Ross – 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough'
Buckley began by recalling hearing Diana Ross' version of the classic soul song 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' as a five-year-old boy.
"Fullerton, California. Pritchard St house. We lived next to a railroad track and an airport simultaneously," he reflected. "My mother had a garage full of weird clothing she would make and she had her own business called Elegant Funk. I would roll joints for my parents."
When Kingsmill asked if his childhood was good, Buckley's response spoke volumes.
"Eh," he shrugged. "It was a childhood."
The Grifters – 'Get Outta That Spaceship & Fight Like A Man'
Jeff Buckley's love of The Grifters is well acknowledged, particularly by his Australian fans. He loved the band so much that, on his second tour of Australia in 1996, he brought them along to open the shows.
Buckley was first turned on to the Memphis indie rockers in the live arena.
"For some reason we ended up in Iowa City and opening up for us was The Dambuilders, a really rocking band from Boston, and The Grifters and then us. I don't know what the hell happened – it shouldn't have been like that, but it was and that was how I saw The Grifters. It was just great."
Vocalist David Shouse’s emotion is intense in this track, a trait Buckley seemed to admire above all others.
"Dave's voice... He hurts real bad. He hurts real good."
Bad Brains – 'How Low Can A Punk Get'
You wouldn't expect Jeff Buckley to be a hardcore punk aficionado after hearing his achingly beautiful songs, but Bad Brains were an important part of Buckley's introduction to New York City.
"It was D.C. hardcore and New York hardcore and hardcore all over the place. They just came out and they were so ahead of everything it seemed. Not ahead, they just nailed it.
"My introduction to New York for the first time, the first thing I heard was 'Re-Ignition', that changed my life. I Against I, that whole album...
"But the first Bad Brains album is the one that I love the most. It took a while for me to get into Rock For Light 'cos there's a lot of the same songs as on the first one and it's produced by Ric Ocasek from The Cars and it sounds really bright and clear, whereas the first one sounds muddy and evil. But I learnt to like it because there's songs on it you can't get anywhere else, such as this one."
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – 'Blues X Man'
Jeff Buckley was a well-known figure around New York's Lower East Side. So it stands to reason that he was familiar with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, another popular act formed in that area around the same time Buckley was cutting his teeth at Sin-é.
Buckley hadn't yet seen the band live, but he certainly had some ideas about what it might be like.
"I pretend I'm Judah Bauer naked in my apartment sometimes," he told Kingsmill. "Sometimes I pretend I'm the back-up girls on this song."
Shudder To Think – 'Track Star'
Pony Express Record was the first album Washington D.C. punks Shudder To Think released on a major label. It was 1996 and labels were still taking chances with loud, unique bands in the hope of another Nevermind. Shudder To Think never reached such lofty heights, but the record, mixed by Grace producer Andy Wallace, was an artistic triumph and remains critically adored.
"They used to be based out of D.C. now some of them are in New York. People think that I'm good. But this is a person, these are some people that I think are really good, really beautiful. You've never heard anything like this. There are too many things to choose from on this one, but I especially adore 'Track Star' – you'll see.”
The Patti Smith Group – 'Ain't It Strange'
Buckley was a huge Patti Smith fan. One little known fact is that Patti Smith had a profound influence on the now iconic cover of Grace, Merri Cyr explains.
"The image that was chosen for the album cover was an image that I didn't even notice on the contact sheets, and that I hadn't even made a proof of," she told Double J when asked about the now iconic shot.
"Jeff pointed his finger to it and said 'I want that one'. The reason he liked that photograph was that he could tell he was listening to music in that photograph. He could see in the image that he was listening to music.
"We were listening at that time that the shot was taken to a Patti Smith album, Horses. It was a funny thing, we both brought the same CD to the shoot that day. He was really digging into the music, so I got that moment. That's why he chose the image."
'Ain't It Strange' is from Smith’s 1976 album, Radio Ethiopia. Buckley initially said there were no words that he could use to describe the power of the song, but then couldn't resist trying to articulate what made it so special.
"This song sounds like a song of devotion in its strength," he said. "Her voice and her music and her words are all equally special and strange and penetrating and understanding. They all integrate.
"I can't separate her from her voice, I look at a picture of her and I can only imagine that sound coming out. Like a force of nature."
Jeff Buckley's father was revered folk singer Tim Buckley. The two were estranged up until Jeff was eight years old, at which point Jeff's mother took her son to see the folk hero perform live.
The two Buckleys spent a few days together following that show, but Tim died just a couple of months later from an overdose of alcohol and heroin.
Jeff could never shirk the unwelcome comparisons to his father that he garnered all throughout his career.
"It always came up," Merri Cyr remembers. "At his shows a lot of Tim fans would be requesting Tim songs. They'd say 'Play 'I Never Asked to be Your Mountain'' or something and he'd be like 'Fuck you!'. He just kept comparing himself to Tim and I think that's a sad thing."
Cyr noticed an element of competition that Jeff had with his father's legacy.
"I think there was this time when he was about 27, I remember him telling me 'By the time my dad was this age, he had seven albums already and he had slept with more beautiful women then I ever will'. So I think, unfortunately, he was in some competition with his father, but he didn't know his father so it was... I don't know if it's oedipal, but it's kind of definitely mythological."
Mary Guibert believes that Buckley was beginning to become more comfortable being compared to his father, despite his early frustrations.
"I think he was becoming more comfortable with the constant comparison," she said. "He certainly was getting to a point where he could understand how a young man of 18, at the beginning of his career, could find it difficult to break through the wall that you build over the years between yourself and an estranged son, in the way that he and Tim were estranged.
"I think, in the process of becoming a man himself, he was able to understand and accept more the way things turned out and be more at peace with that. I think if Tim were alive today he would be so proud of his son. And if you were to ask Jeff, he'd be proud of what his father accomplished. He just felt that they both deserved to have their own place."
Despite their stylistic differences, Guibert said the way the two men approached their music was almost identical.
"I think the one thing that impressed him the most about his father's work was that it was really true to him, it was an extension of himself. He didn't hold anything back. In those two ways they were similar. But not because one was influenced by the other, they were just simply that way on their own. As individuals."
Guibert's comments echo a sentiment Buckley expressed to Rolling Stone in 1994.
"Separated all our lives, and now I'm right there in the [CD] bin next to him," he said. "His thing should stand on its own, so should mine. Otherwise, how else could I bring honour to it?"
It's an easy, but fair, assertion that Jeff Buckley was complicated. His varied influences, his complex relationship with his father's legacy, the strange way in which his one true studio record was made and the deeply spiritual connection he had to music, that he often struggled to verbalise, all examples of this.
There can be no denying that the mythology of Jeff Buckley is a part of his appeal.
But what will always loom largest about Jeff Buckley is the 51-minute opus that is Grace, from the sweet, sustained harmonics that usher in the delicately beautiful 'Mojo Pin' to that one final falsetto croon that closes 'Dream Brother'. This will forever be Buckley at his most pure to his legions of current fans and the many who will continue to discover him in the years to come.
For a career that was so short, Jeff Buckley has left us with so much.
"Being a guy that's been to a lot of funerals for young people, the discussion comes up – the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long," Chris Cornell says.
"That's the way you treat the notion of a person that does well before they should. It's usually BS, it's usually a way of everybody just kinda dealing with it and feeling better about what happened. But in his case it was very true."