On the Record
Anna Calvi on why Jeff Buckley’s Grace feels like falling in love for the first time
Anna Calvi first heard Buckley’s one and only record on cassette aged 17. In our weekly celebration of albums, the Mercury Prize-nominated singer-songwriter explains how it has inspired her ever since
I still feel it’s important to hear an album in its entirety. Once you know it, of course it’s fine to skip to the songs you like. But at first, I want to hear that sequence of songs. That’s how I listened to Jeff Buckley’s only studio album, Grace.
A friend gave me Grace on cassette when I was 17, and they told me: “If you like Radiohead, you’ll like this.” I listened, and I was so amazed by this voice I’d never heard before that I stayed up all night listening again and again. It altered the course of my life. I became obsessed, trying to find out everything I could about him, writing his lyrics on my bag. I read all the biographies, watched all of his performances on YouTube.
I learnt that he died aged 30, after walking fully clothed into the Wolf River in Memphis, Tennessee, so I would never get the chance to see him perform live. His father, the singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, had also died young. Buckley never knew him – but the late producer Hal Willner invited him to perform at a tribute concert in New York in 1991. It was the first time he’d ever performed live. “It bothered me that I hadn’t been to his funeral, that I’d never been able to tell him anything,” Buckley told Rolling Stone in 1994, when Grace was released. “I used that show to pay my last respects.”
Buckley performed “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” from his father’s 1967 album Goodbye and Hello. The song is about Tim leaving his wife and infant son, and Buckley’s rendition sent chills through the audience: “Here was this skinny kid with this unearthly voice, just wailing,” former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas told NME in 1998. “I was next to him playing guitar but I was really just watching the audience, who were really turned on by it... It was electric.”
From there, Buckley’s life changed – music industry folk and fellow artists rushed to hand him their business cards. “In a way, I sacrificed my anonymity for my father, whereas he sacrificed me for his fame,” he later told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “So I guess I made a mistake.” Weeks later, he moved to New York permanently, and spent brief stints in Lucas’s band Gods and Monsters, and playing a regular Monday night gig at Sin-é, a café in the East Village. The buzz around his performances drew music executives hoping to sign him. Columbia Records won, and Buckley signed to the Sony imprint in 1992.
“The best art comes from artists who have an unending, life-or-death urgency to speak their heart,” Buckley once said. When I’m onstage, I try to harness that sense of risk-taking that he had, really going to the edge of what I feel is humanly possible to do, with this body that I have.
My favourites from Grace have changed as I’ve got older. I used to adore “Last Goodbye” and the title track, now I really love “Lilac Wine”, “Corpus Christi Carol”. I think “Hallelujah” has been ruined for me by the X Factor covers. I find so much to listen to on “Lilac Wine” in terms of Buckley’s delivery. Every word is so perfectly placed, as though he’s wrapping his soul around it. From a singer’s perspective, it’s incredible to listen to and learn from.
His voice has a classical feel to it; the way he sings is quite operatic. You felt he was going beyond what his capabilities were, like he was reaching for something. The way he played his guitar, too, that reverby effect, had a huge impact on me. And that music is just in me now. When I do put it on, it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic about being a wide-eyed teenager, and my first experiences, and the beginning of my journey as a musician. It’s the feeling of falling in love for the first time. That’s how I feel when I listen to Jeff Buckley.
One song on Grace that really influenced me was “Dream Brother”. I loved its Indian scales and melismas. I was so drawn to this sound that it encouraged me to explore classical Indian music. As a result I got completely obsessed with Ravi Shankar. I bought a sitar and experimented with alternative tunings on my guitar to make it sound more Indian. This is one of many ways in which Grace has opened up so many aspects of my listening repertoire.
If I was to suggest a new listener to Grace, I’d say there are songs like “Eternal Life” where you can hear the Nineties-ness of it, which detracts from how brilliant he is. You need to excuse that Nineties production. Whereas his cover of “Lilac Wine” feels timeless. You should also prepare to feel emotional while listening to this record, so don’t do it while drinking gin, maybe.
The second half of that Buckley quote about speaking your heart goes: “And as those artists grow older, there’s a real serenity to the art, a great relaxation and ease that’s beautiful to watch… That’s what I want. That’s what I call ‘Grace’.” Buckley never had an opportunity to experience his idea of grace, but I feel now, although perhaps this is shallow: he is eternally beautiful. This is a record that will make you feel a lot, and reaffirm your belief in what art can do.
As told to Roisin O’Connor