This article originally appeared in SPIN’s February 1994 issue. In honor of Grace‘s 25th anniversary, we’ve republished it below.
Sprawled on the floor of a mid-Manhattan recording studio, Jeff Buckley is showing off the newest addition to his instrumental repertoire: an antique harmonium. An elegant contraption of hand pumps, varnished wood, and ivory keys, the instrument was purchased as a tax write-off, to offset the advance from his 1992 signing to Columbia Records. But Buckley has grown attached to his new toy: “I first saw one of these on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when I was a kid,” he laughs, his fingers dancing across the keys, “and I knew I had to have one someday.”
Buckley usually plays the electric guitar, accompanying himself as a solo vocalist in the small, dingy lower-Manhattan clubs and coffeehouses where he’s been a mainstay since 1992. There’s something disarmingly innocent about Buckley in performance. With his cherubic face, head full of curls, and shy, apologetic manner, he’s the closet thing the East Village has to an alternative heartthrob. Buckley’s real draw, however, is his voice, a pure, multi-octaved tenor that can glide from the anguished hysteria of a scat-singing Robert Plant to the lilting, serpentine moans of qawwali sensation Nusfrat Fateh Ali Kahn—in one effortless motion.
The son of the late folk singer Tim Buckley (with whom he claims to share little more than a famous last name), Jeff was raised by his mother, a classically trained pianist and cellist, and his step-father, an auto mechanic who turned him on to Led Zeppelin. For years, he avoided singing in public, performing instead as a guitarist in a series of fusion and reggae bands. “I used to lie to people and tell them I had nodes on my throat to avoid singing,” he now confesses. In 1991, he recovered his voice and moved to New York, playing in the avant-rock band Gods and Monsters with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, before setting out on his own in 1992.
Even if Buckley’s debut studio recording, due in early ’94 and featuring both a bassist and drummer, hits big, he plans to continue playing alone. He traces his passion for solo performing back to his heroes, blues singers Robert Johnson and Son House, and their rowdy “barrel house” shows during the early days of country blues. “It was just the singer, his voice, the guitar, and this tiny shack,” Buckley sighs, “and people dipping their cups in a big barrel of whiskey. If you sucked, nobody danced. So I decided to perform in very small, inescapably intimate places—to see if I could make big magic in a really small place.”