In February 1993, Jeff Buckley walked into Shelter Island Sound, a small recording studio in New York's Chelsea district, armed only with several instruments, a handwritten list of other people's songs and an absolutely riveting singing voice.
Though he'd signed a contract with Columbia Records just a few months earlier, the 26-year-old musician wasn't there to begin work on his debut album, or even demo songs for it. The three-day sessions at Shelter Island were merely exploratory, an attempt to help Buckley — whose live repertoire at the time included everything from pop standards to classic rock to Delta blues to Sufi devotional music — zero in on a specific musical direction.
"Nirvana and the whole grunge thing was happening," remembers Mary Guibert, Buckley's mother. "Here was this kid singing Robert Johnson and Edith Piaf. So it was, 'If we can just get him into the studio and get him to sing, we'll find a couple of numbers that we can show to the suits and say, "Look, this kid's got all this talent!"'"
"It was clear when you heard him how much talent was there, and how much innate musical ability and music history was in him," says Steve Berkowitz, Buckley's A&R man at Columbia. "But he hadn't figured out which Jeff Buckley to become yet, and what record to make. He had so much talent in him, and he could really do so many things, that it was really difficult for him to decide. So I suggested we go into the studio. It was like, 'Why don't you create a table of contents of music that you've been playing or want to play?' Hoping that one or two or three of those would lead towards the beginning of an idea of an album concept."
Nine songs from those Shelter Island sessions (along with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" that was recorded later in the year at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York) can now be heard for the first time on You and I, Sony's new collection of previously unreleased Buckley recordings — out March 11th — which was overseen by Guibert. Recently unearthed in the Sony Music archives, the tracks, which have never even been bootlegged before, do indeed illuminate Buckley's encyclopedic knowledge of 20th-century popular music, as well as his prodigious abilities as a singer and guitar player.
You and I's material includes deeply personal solo interpretations of songs by Sly and the Family Stone ("Everyday People"), Led Zeppelin ("Night Flight") and the Smiths ("The Boy With the Thorn In His Side," "I Know It's Over"), as well as the R&B ballad "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'" (first recorded in 1946 by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five) and delta bluesman Bukka White's "Poor Boy Long Ways From Home," along with an early version of Buckley's signature song "Grace" and "Dream of You and I," a haunting studio sketch that features trace elements of "You and I," a song that would appear on his posthumous 1998 collection, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk.
Since Buckley completed only one fully-formed studio album — 1994's widely acclaimed Grace — before dying during an ill-advised 1997 swim in the Mississippi River, any collection of "new" material from the singer would be warmly welcomed by his worldwide legion of fans. But You and I offers the additional attraction of an intimate, previously unseen glimpse into a crucial phase of his career.
"In the all too short period of Jeff recording for Columbia, there are kind of four parts to it," says Berkowitz. "You already know Chapters Two, Three and Four, which are Live at Sin-é [a four-song EP released in November 1993], Grace and Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. To some degree, this is Chapter One."
Cut live to two-track DAT, You and I's 10 tracks are completely free of any post-production sweetening — they're just bracing blasts of pure, unfiltered Buckley in all of his seductively gifted glory. "There's no mixing, no fixing, no edits, no overdubs, no nothing," says Shelter Island owner Steve Addabbo, who engineered the sessions. "What Jeff heard in his headphones, and what Berkowitz and I heard in the control room 23 years ago, that's what you guys hear on this."
Addabbo says that he had no prior knowledge of Buckley's music or abilities when Berkowitz booked the three days at Shelter Island. "I was completely oblivious," he laughs. "Steve was like, 'Just set up the mics and let him play. We're not gonna produce him; we're not gonna tell him anything. Let him get comfortable, and let him do whatever he does.'
"I'm good at first albums with people," Addabbo continues. "I'd co-produced Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin's first albums, so it was kind of a natural thing for me to not expect anything, but just make his headphones sound great, put some nice reverb on 'em, and let him go. And then he started singing, and I was like, 'Holy shit!'"
Addabbo and Berkowitz both recall the initial day of recording being a trifle awkward, with Buckley gradually finding his comfort zone as the sessions progressed. "The first day he came in, he would do two or three takes of each song to 'get it right,'" says Addabbo. "But then, as he got comfortable, he would kind of just do one take and move on. He was having a good time, and he realized that we were like, 'Hey, we're not looking for perfect takes here — we just want to see what you've got, and where this could possibly go.'"
"He'd brought a list with him of 12, 13 songs, and he'd kind of gotten to the end of it on the first day," says Berkowitz. "He still hadn't broken his own ice yet; he was not singing and playing like I'd seen him do in the clubs. He was kind of uptight …
"He finally said to me, 'OK, that's it,' like he was done. And I said, 'That's not it; you know every song ever written!' And he was like, 'Yeah, well, uh …' I said, 'Do you know any Isley Brothers songs? Do you know any Curtis Mayfield? What about Sly?" And he starts playing the 'Everyday People' riff, but he says, 'I don't really know that, though.' But somebody wrote down the words for him, and by Take Three, the version that you hear — when he opens his throat and chest and sings 'I-I, am everyday people' — that's when he breaks his own ice, right there. And then he continues for the next two days, playing, drinking coffee, having a beer, talking … He really felt comfortable doing whatever he wanted to do."
As entrancing as Buckley's vocal performances are on You and I, it's also revelatory to hear how expertly he accompanies himself on guitar throughout these songs. "He really took guitar seriously," says Addabbo. "I think his voice was secondary to him, really; he was a guitar player. Listen to what he does on the Sly tune — he covers practically every part of the music, and it's just him on guitar. And then it's like, 'And, oh, by the way, here's my voice!'"
"To provide your own virtuoso accompaniment to your virtuoso singing? That is just mind-boggling," says Guibert. "It gets me every time I listen to it. You know, he swore he wasn't going to be a singer. Up until he moved to New York [in 1990], he was like, 'Oh no, Mom — I'm gonna be a guitar god. I'm never gonna sing.' 'Oh, really? Okay, Son. Whatever! [Laughs]'"
The son of Tim Buckley, another tremendously gifted (and equally uncategorizable) singer-songwriter, Jeff inherited his father's fabulously elastic vocal range as well as his brooding good looks. But the elder Buckley died of a heroin overdose at the age of 28, having only met his son once; and while much of the original music industry frenzy around Jeff resulted from him being the spitting image of his father, he owed a far greater musical debt to the great Sufi vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Echoes of Khan's ecstatic Qawwali stylings can be heard throughout Jeff's dynamic vocal performances on You and I.
"It would be unclear sometimes exactly what he was going to play," says Berkowitz, "and sometimes I wasn't sure he knew, either. But he would get a groove going, and then he would deliver the song to you. He would emit the music. So when people say [of You and I], 'Gosh, this feels so personal,' well, that's because it is. He's not playing this music at you — he's inviting you into this mood and this feel. It was very spiritual and very personal; what you're hearing is what's coming out of him."
"There is not a single performance on tape that I have heard where Jeff was not completely present in a song," adds Guibert. "It was almost as if he'd slip into a little bit of a trance, and go to a little happy place where he and the song were one — and then when the song was over, he'd come out of it, almost like he was coming out of hypnosis. No matter who he was playing for, it was if the song itself was sacred to him, and he couldn't do it without giving each note its due respect."
The "fly on the wall" intimacy of the sonic setting also lets the often-enigmatic Buckley's personality shine through, such as in the playful yet intense monologue that comprises much of "Dream of You and I." Guibert, for her part, wishes that a lot of studio banter from the original tapes had been included on You and I.
"I wanted there to be two versions of this," she says, "the version that's coming out, and a deluxe version that would include more of the patter in between the songs. Because it's a crack-up! At one point, the tape is rolling, and he says, 'Aw, guys, I know what you're going to do — some day you're gonna call these The Basement Tapes and put 'em out after I'm dead, right?' [Laughs] I want you to be there for that, or when the pizza guy gets there. I think that should be heard, but it doesn't lend [itself] to a neat CD or iTunes package."
Addabbo says there's also plenty of unreleased music left from the Shelter Island sessions. "There's about four 90-minute DATs worth of material from those three days, and when you listen to it, there's not one moment where you're like, 'Oh, this is crap,' or 'This is boring.' I don't know the exact count, but I would say there's gotta be another 25 to 40 tracks on there of stuff that's worth listening to.
"In a way, for me, [You and I] is incomplete," he continues, "but for fans, I think they're just gonna go nuts. You don't get anything like this anymore, where it's so completely innocent, and at the beginning of someone's career. He's so present and so powerful and so convincing …
"This is a definitive Jeff Buckley document, because he really could do all these things without anybody's help. Sure, I turned the mics on and made sure that he didn't distort the levels, but I was basically just documenting what he was doing. It was amazing then, and it's still fresh when I hear it now. It hasn't dated one day."