In February 1993, Jeff Buckley was, as far as recording artists go, nobody. He was a relatively new signee of Columbia Records and a frequenter of the stage at New York City’s Lower East Side cafe Sin-é where he covered a range of other artists’ songs. He was 26-years-old and on the brink of one of the most beautiful, and tormentingly short, music careers in recent memory.
To get the singer some studio experience and to, as Columbia A&R rep Steve Berkowitz says, “break the ice that Jeff had about ‘recording for the man,'” the label booked three days at Shelter Island Sound Studios. Ten of the songs he cut over the course of those sessions are being released Friday as You And I, 19 years after his death.
EW recently caught up with Berkowitz and sound engineer Steve Addabbo, the other person in the room during the recordings, to discuss working with the late, great musician, and piece together those three days, in their own words.
Berkowitz: These [recordings] were done about four or five months after Jeff had been signed to Columbia Records. I was starting to get pressure about, “Well, what record is Jeff Buckley going to make?” So I suggested we go into a studio in New York City with Steve Addabbo and make a Table of Contents. We wanted to do several things: get Jeff more experience in the studio, maybe break the ice that he had about ‘recording for the man’ — Jeff was a very left of center, independent thinking guy and now he’s signed to Columbia Records — and lastly, to have him record a lot of the songs that he knew, and he knew so many, to see if there were one or two that he liked enough that it would be the beginning of making his first record.
Addabbo: In those days you might see “Jeff Buckley was signed to Columbia Records” on Billboard, but that’s kind of the amount that I knew about him — and that he was Tim Buckley’s son, because that was kind of interesting. But I wasn’t paying much attention until Steve called me. From the first five minutes of the sessions, you could hear that voice. He didn’t have that much material yet, but I’d never worked with anyone so diverse. It wasn’t like he did one thing not so bad and one thing great.
Berkowitz: Jeff only played good, better than good, and great. And he had so many areas of focus and ability and styles that he could play. It was a delight to be there with him and listen to that beautiful voice as he ingested the material and emitted it back out of himself, all Buckley-ized.
Addabbo: So we set up different areas for him. We had an electric guitar with my super reverb amp, we had an acoustic guitar, there was a piano for him — on the second day he might have brought his harmonium. He could just do one thing and move on to the next. And the first day he was really focused on getting good takes. I think the first thing he did was [Bob Dylan’s] “Just Like A Woman,” but as soon as he relaxed he would go from a quiet little Edith Piaf song to a screaming Led Zeppelin tune. It was fantastic, really.
Berkowitz: [“Dream Of You And I”] was really spur of the moment. During a lull in the sessions on then the second day Jeff went, “Well, that’s about it.”
Addabbo: Jeff was aware that the next big hurdle for him was starting to write his own material. So Steve was, in his own way, like “You got anything you been thinking about? Anything going on lately?” [Laughs]
Berkotwitz: I kind of went, “Have you read any good books lately or seen any plays or been around to the movies or had any dreams?” And he said, “Oh well, this is from a dream,” and then he started to play “You And I.” Until he played it, I don’t know that he knew he was going to play it.
Berkowitz: Jeff, in a way, was a little bit like a Jazz musician. He made music and art and it would come out different every time he played it. He was of that moment in his delivery. He never played at you, he would emit the music out of him in an emotional and musical freeing — much like his No. 1 idol, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. For Nusrat, it was all about spiritual release, and I think it was for Jeff, too.
Addabbo: “You And I” is very representative of the session. Once Jeff got comfortable, it was just three guys in a studio seeing what happened. And some hysterical things would happen. There’s barely 40 minutes of music here, but we recorded for three days. There are over six hours of recording. You hear him screwing up, you hear him forgetting words — he does these funny parodies of Jim Morrison. It’s tasteless and terrible, but it’s hysterical.
Berkowitz: He was hysterical. Jeff was a full service human being. Sometimes he was lost in his thought and his moods and quiet and deep, but he was hysterical. Like, Robin Williams and Jim Carey-hysterical. He had the ability to mimic all sounds and instruments and voices and eras. He was a huge Ren And Stimpy fan, and Monty Python — lots of funny stuff from the ’60s into the ’90s. He was a bright light.
Addaboo: [Hearing You & I] brings me right back to the studio. We weren’t cognizant that we were making history, we were just getting through three days of recording. But this holds up to [Buckley’s 1994 album] Grace. It’s just as interesting, and it’s more intimate. For 23 years I’ve been trying to get these out because they’re so amazing. Not because I did it, but because it was. What a great moment to capture.
Berkowitz: I love hearing them. It’s bittersweet to miss my friend and hear all the promise and what he only got to deliver in a small way. I love hearing his breath and how he goes about playing a song, delivering what he was feeling on that day. I miss him tremendously. [But] I cherish having it, and other people getting to have it.
Hear You and I, out Friday, below.