Eternal Life: 20 years with Jeff Buckley’s ”Grace” – Interview with Mick Grondahl(English version)
By Tommy Juto
Some say records like that aren’t made these days. But oh yes, they most certainly are. Already in 1994 people were saying that, and yet Jeff Buckley made a ”record like that” anyway. So one should refrain from being too definite, because if there is one thing great artists will infinitely do, it’s turning definitions upside down.
When Grace came out twenty years ago it sounded like nothing else. In fact, it still sounds like nothing else, and should you hear something similar to it, that’s because something similar sounds like Grace. Jeff Buckley came through like a being of his own wherever he played and sang; a singing voice made to mesmerize, looks likely to grant him a modelling career, a creativity destined to make masterpieces and an otherworldly expression. The songs he wrote drew inspiration from all musical genres from hymns to hard rock, just as his wide palate of covers reshaped into his own style. Grace put glasses on a myopic world, by whose lenses it suddenly discovered details it had previously never been able to distinguish. The album was so ahead of its time that the world even needed respite to recognize its grandeur, and the Jeff Buckley band(because through his eyes it was far from a one man show) toured it several times for almost three years as interest increased. A few years later the plans were laid to finally make a follow up entitled My Sweetheart, The Drunk, and nobody expected anything less than another leap forward from its predecessor Grace. In Jeff Buckley the world saw a prodigy, an artist and a person capable of nearly anything but walking on water. An ability, as fate would have it, one ironically wishes that he also would have possessed.
A man who contributed significantly to the making of Grace was danish bass player Mick Grondahl(born Michael Grøndahl), perhaps the one person within closest range of its evolution from farm to fork. Grondahl and Buckley met just as Buckley was making a name for himself in New York’s smaller club circuit, most notably the Sin-é coffeehouse in the East Village. When the word started spreading of the spellbinding musician with the soaring voice, record companies began queueing up, and in the end Sony Music pulled the longest straw. Grondahl remembers his first encounter with Buckley:
– Jeff and I met in the basement of a church on the campus of Columbia University. I had gone backstage to hang with the band, Glim, I was to see that evening. I seemed to have migrated over to this character next to me diligently preparing his guitar. The image of him under the florescent lights remains sharper than ever – wiping down his guitar in a plaid shirt, looking very concentrated while unfazed by the people around. Later, he played a beautiful set. There was a party afterwards and we got to talking about blues music. Cut to a few months later and I see he is playing the New Music Seminar. Before the show he was meandering round the club and I heard him singing ”LA Woman” so I chimed in and sang the last of the verse. He noticed me and we exchanged numbers. When we met at his place and jammed, there was simply a feeling of possibility. He liked that I was quiet and played simple. I kind of figured that he was already a one man band so…keep it simple and expand more as things start to hopefully evolve.
Judging by his music, Jeff seemed like this vulnerable, introvert artist, but that’s not at all what he was like, was it?
– Jeff was many things and his persona was comprised of a vulnerability that made him strong and willing to take chances. Jeff was like a river. He kept giving and giving while absorbing the environment. He was a natural leader and was able to captivate those in his company with humor and his sheer presence of being.
One early source of inspiration was ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, whom Buckley met in 1991 upon playing a tribute concert together for his father, cult singer/songwriter Tim. Although he had always seen his stepfather Ron Moorhead as his real father, Tim’s heritage was easily detectable from the outside, but the man himself had previously wanted no recognition of this. A frosty surface that had now melted somewhat. For a short period following the tribute concert, Jeff became a member of Gary Lucas‘ band Gods and Monsters(which he would soon outgrow). The two opening songs on the album, ”Mojo Pin” and ”Grace”, originated from writing sessions between Lucas and Buckley.
To what extent do you think Lucas’ influence can be heard on the rest of the album?
– I cannot say I hear Gary beyond the two tracks he penned with Jeff. I enjoyed his work with Captain Beefheart and his last record. Songs like ”Last Goodbye” and ”Eternal Life” were written long before their work together. ”Lover, You Should Have Come Over” was written before our meeting while ”Dream Brother” and ”So Real” were written during and after, respectively, the process of recording Grace at Bearsville Studio, Woodstock.
So Bearsville Studios was where the recording sessions for Grace took place together with now legendary, then hot-shot producer Andy Wallace, who had been the sound engineer on Nirvanas Nevermind. Browsing his CV, Grace really stands out among the metal, post-grunge and mainstream alt-rock. Grondahl has fond memories:
– Working with Andy at Bearsville was a treat. I had mostly been used to small studios with 8 or maybe 16 track. Andy was able to distill the creative energy and focus the songs into more of a concentrated effort. For instance, ”Lover, You Should…” had an additional verse lyric and that was cut in spite of it being equally compelling as the verses that stand.
”Grace” was such an extraordinary pop song in my opinion, full of atonal chords on top of eachother and all. What do you think made it work so well?
– Yes, well I have always admired what Jeff did with Gary‘s riffs. But, I am not sure what makes it work. I mean, it is in waltz time, 3/4, and we tried to avoid the trappings of that time signature. What I like is the imagery Jeff uses in the lyrics, the arrangement and the drum parts that Matt Johnson came up with, not to mention Jeff‘s voice and him going with the idea of a bass solo!
Speaking of which, was the bass riff in “Last Goodbye” yours?
– The bass riff at the start of Last Goodbye was actually the only part that Jeff had prescribed me to play. So, it was a part Jeff had written. The remainder was us playing together and I was changing parts as we recorded.
Jeff has said that the beautiful “Dream Brother” was the first song you wrote together along with Matt Johnson. How was it conceived?
– ”Dream Brother” was conceived at our first ever meeting with Matt in the studio. Jeff asked me if I had any riffs. I paused and then started to play the bass figure as I had written it at home while rehearsing. I figured that it was an intriguing piece and it left a lot of room for other instruments. Jeff took to it immediately and started to play the figure you hear on the record while Matt filled in the main skeleton and later overdubbed the vibraphone. It, the first practice, was a fantastic bonding experience.
In spite of all its glory, Grace did not come without flaws. For example, the ponderous, grungy ”Eternal Life” did not quite fit in. So when the wonderful ”Forget Her” was replaced last minute by the equally beautiful ”So Real”(which was written when the album was actually finished), the song to be axed should, at least in my humble opinion, have been ”Eternal Life”. An opinion Grondahl shares:
– I agree with you regarding ”Eternal Life”. That version does not stand up to the test of time. Instrumentally, it is well played but it lacks the urgency of the road version. ”Forget Her” would have been a better choice, in hindsight. Though, Jeff had issues with that song on personal grounds. Yes, it reminded him of a girl who he wanted to….well, forget.
When Sony signed Buckley they did so on very loose grounds. He hardly had any own songs, no band, no real sense of which direction to take musically. But there was no doubt whatsoever that he held a unique talent, not least proven by all of the covers he made his own in his stunning live performances.
Jeff was well known for his wide range of cover songs. Are there any covers that has yet to see the light of day, or do you have one particular cover song that you wish had been put down to tape?
– I don´t think there are any Jeff covers waiting to be discovered. Who knows? Someone may have a bootleg of his early shows with a cover. But, I believe they are all available. Jeff could have covered most anything given his range and ability for mimicry. I would have liked to have heard him sing Lennon´s ¨Jealous Guy¨ or ¨#9 Dream¨.
”Hallelujah” is arguably one of the most moving performances ever recorded. Do you think it has received its due praise or has it been overexposed over the years?
– ”Hallelujah” is a song, I am proud to say, I saw him sing more than anyone else alive. I would make a point of going into the audience to hear the piece and his improvisations. So, I think it has received due praise and his versions will continue to live on.
David Bowie has been quoted saying Grace is his favourite album of all time. Comment?
– It is an honor for someone like Bowie to hold this record in such high regard. I met him once and he seemed, for a Brit, to be quite enthusiastic.
The future looked bright, and his career, which was still only early in its rise, would seemingly take the next step with the aforementioned My Sweetheart, The Drunk. Jeff had relocated to Memphis ahead of the band to write songs and settle in, and the evening the others were mid-air on their way there, he and a roadie went down to the banks of Wolf River, a tributary to the Mississippi. With the sound of childhood heroes Led Zeppelin’s ”Whole Lotta Love” blasting from a boom box, Jeff on a whim decided to go into the water for a swim, boots and clothes still on, but he disappeared in the wake of a passing boat. His body was found further down the river six days later at the end of Beale Street, the home of the blues. If the world was in shock, it’s hard to imagine the kind of trauma it was for Grondahl and the other bandmates upon arrival to Memphis that night:
– Regarding his passing I can only say that the word ”trauma” is very fitting. For at least 12 years I thought of him every day. As they say, everyone deals with death differently. Thankfully I had a daughter and I think of Jeff every other day.
Although Grace along with the preceding EP Live At Sin-é were the only official releases during his short career, a vast amount of material has flowed into the market over the years since he passed away, deluxe editions as well as live recordings, compilations and demos. Fans and record companies have kept turning stones to hunt down rarities, which isn’t necessarily a good thing:
– The posthumous releases have been a bit much. At the same time, given the generous nature of the internet, it is only fair that these works are also released on some format like LPs, says Grondahl.
What do you miss the most about Jeff?
– What I miss about him was his presence and him making you feel like you are the only person in the room or wherever we spoke. He had a great ability to be sympathetic to people and, it seemed, he could understand what you were feeling so you did not feel alone. His compassion was genuine. Professionally, well, suffice to say, he was great to work with and he also had great ideas for our own songs. Together, he could elevate or catapult most any idea into a new realm of ideas. He was very open, inclusive and sought to bring out the best in people. Jeff was not competitive in that petty way that you can often find in music or life itself. He was a real human being who lived his life on a whole other timeline.
There is no real end to the grief over losing someone close, but if the memories are cherished you may learn to appreciate and smile at them from time to time. For those of us who never had the privilege of knowing Jeff Buckley personally, Grace is our fondest memory of him. So care for it tenderly, and take it out of the shelf every once in a while. Like his mother Mary Guibert wrote in the liner notes to the subsequently released ‘Sketches for’ My Sweetheart, The Drunk: his music is the true legacy of Jeff Buckley.
Photos: Jimmy Ienner, JR./Sony Music Entertainment