Noisey

Kevin Morby Listens to Jeff Buckley: ‘Like Watching LeBron Play Basketball’

The Kansas City songwriter tackles religion on his new album ‘Oh My God’ but has never heard ‘Grace,’ the 1994 classic that’s full of spiritual gravitas.

by Josh Terry
Jul 2 2019, 11:00am

Photos by Tim Nagle

Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut Grace is a document of a singular talent, one whose story is as awe-inspiring as it is tragic. The son of the late artist Tim Buckley, he cut his teeth playing impassioned covers across Manhattan venues like the now-defunct Sin-E in the early ‘90s before finding his footing as a songwriter. Because of his lineage and his goosebumps-inducing voice, Columbia Records handed him a record deal and had high expectations for the fresh-faced songwriter. On the LP, songs like the title track and “Last Goodbye” showed that he could match his croon in emotional resonance. But while his death at 30 in 1997 never allowed him to officially follow-up his breakout, 25 years on Grace stands as a perfect document of an adventurous and special artist.

The most well-known song on Grace is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s one of those rare renditions that transcended the original, becoming the de facto definitive version that artists have imitated for decades. Kansas City’s Kevin Morby, who just released his excellent fifth album Oh My God, is a longtime fan of Leonard Cohen but his gateway to him was hearing Jeff Buckley. “I know that he covers 'Hallelujah.' I liked that song. I remember that version was used in The O.C,” he says. But while he knew that song, he never dove into Buckley’s limited catalog. Because his latest record grapples with religion, using signifiers of the Christianity he abandoned on songs like the title track and "Hail Mary," it a similar gravitas as Buckley’s Grace. So Noisey decided to bring a copy of the LP before his show at Chicago’s Thalia Hall.

“For the longest time I just thought he was a guy who had committed suicide at a young age," Morby explains."But recently I found out that it was actually an accident and he drowned in the Mississippi River in Memphis while recording his follow-up to this album.” Morby pages through a vinyl insert of the album as he continues his train of thought: “I've always thought he's a very beautiful man. He's just a striking looking man and an avatar of the ‘90s.” Read on for his track-by-track observations below.

1. "Mojo Pin"

Kevin Morby: “Mojo Pin” is an interesting title. Looking at the credits, I notice there’s a G. Lucas who plays on here. When I was in Woods, we also had a G. Lucas in the band.

Noisey: The G. Lucas on this album is Gary Lucas, who used to play with Captain Beefheart.

Oh, no way.

So I know you’re a huge Leonard Cohen fan, and there’s obviously the connection there with Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” cover. You’re also a huge Dylan fan and originally wanted to listen to Slow Train Coming for this interview. But what did you grow up on?

Third Eye Blind were the first band that made me want to listen to music because neither of my parents was musical. I didn't grow up around any records or musical instruments so it was all stuff on the radio. And at some point, my sister got all these records at once doing one of those penny scans out of a magazine. That was kind of my first introduction. The first records I ever got was like Third Eye Blind, and self titled Backstreet Boys, that first Robyn record, TLC, and Brandy. Those were my introductions which led to finding out Green Day, which is the ultimate gateway drug band. Once you learn about them you learn about Operation Ivy and the Replacements and then the sky's the limit.

I am sure for many people the movie Shrek was their gateway into Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley because they liked the John Cale “Hallelujah” cover in Shrek.

It’s funny you mention that because we’re doing this interview and I remember the time Ryley Walker first heard Leonard Cohen. But with Ryley especially putting out that covers LP of Dave Matthews Band’s The Lillywhite Sessions, [the influence this music has on us is] real. We did grow up with that music and it’s a part of our fabric. We’re in this funny era now where we can admit that.

What do you think so far?

It’s emotive. He’s got a very pretty voice. It’s an almost operatic voice.

It’s great you bring up opera because a traditional cover song later on in the record was inspired from a version by opera singer Janet Baker. He’s also pretty obviously big into Led Zeppelin and Robert Plant.

It’s so crazy what he’s doing with his voice right now and I couldn’t relate to it less in the sense that my voice is very one-dimensional. I have to use tricks to get anyone to think that I know how to sing.

I wish this LP had a lyrics insert. It’s sometimes better to be able to read along as you listen for the first time.

It’s ok because I love this vinyl package. It’s so nineties. I like his tennis shoes in this photo. It reminds me of a Reality Bites, Ethan Hawke, Camel Lights-smoking kind of guy. He looks like that and he sings like this. I’ve always related to that one Silver Jews lyric from “We Are Real” where David Berman sang, “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” I’m like that. I really like people who use their limited range to do what they need to do. Because of that, it’s like I’m watching a magic trick when I hear people who sing like Jeff Buckley. It’s fascinating.

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Photo by Tim Nagle

2. "Grace"

You know what's interesting about Jeff Buckley? Maybe it's his album cover and the fact that he's got this amazing voice but it's all very Chet Baker to me. Chet Baker died in kind of a crazy way too, where he fell out of that hotel room and there was some mystery behind his death.

That’s interesting. I do know that Jeff Buckley idolized a lot of jazz musicians. One of the reasons he signed with Columbia was because they had signed Miles Davis. Nina Simone was also a huge influence.

She’s one of my biggest influences. You know when there are local bands in a town that really explode? For whatever it's worth, he has that feeling to him. He's some talent that can't be contained and finally got put on this proper scale but then unfortunately passed away.

Did you ever listen to his father Tim Buckley?

No.

Oh, wow. You’d really love him.

He had a famous father? I did not know that.

They only met once. He started using his birth name Jeff Buckley after his father passed, which was months after the two had finally met. He grew up in Southern California and in his 20s moved to New York. His first public performance there was a Tim Buckley tribute show, where he played “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain,” which was about how Tim had abandoned his son.

Oh wow. That is crazy.

He already had the mythmaking.

That’s so interesting. This definitely has a coffee shop vibe in how the acoustic guitars sound. It’s not my thing. There is something appealing about this though especially considering the story. I’ll also say it’s way more grunge than I was expecting.

You would think that it’s going to be just like the “Hallelujah” cover. This is a hot take that I will get roasted for but a lot of Grace feels like it’s proto-Creed. Some of the guitars and the occasional heaviness feel like it would fit on My Own Prison.

Sure. Even in the look of Scott Stapp I can see it. That’s so funny.

I shouldn’t include this in the piece.

Stand by your takes, man. I also never noticed how much the Atlas Sound LP Parallax references this album cover. Everything that's happening here is very musical but also the opposite of my music. I don't hate it even though it wasn't made for my tastes. Hearing him sing is like watching a gymnast. How does someone go on a balance beam like that and not fall off?

I can’t imagine an artist going for those sort of theatrics in 2019.

There’s Greta Van Fleet but that’s obviously a different thing.

3. "Last Goodbye"

This sounds familiar. I love that bass line. That tone should be illegal. I like this way better than the first two songs.

This is a very eclectic record. “Mojo Pin” doesn’t really predict what’s to come.

I don’t dig the Zeppelin thing. He seemed like a cool guy. I’ve always thought that. In researching his death, I felt that too. He seemed like someone who was obsessed with music. With someone like him, he could probably sit in with anyone and that’s really cool. I admire that and the fact that when he was recording his follow-up and gigging in Memphis is very cool considering the history of that city.

His body was found at the foot of Beale Street too, which makes it even eerier.

Wow. That’s really insane.

This particular album was recorded at Bearsville outside of Woodstock, NY.

I love Bearsville. I didn’t know that. I wonder if Jeff Buckley smoked cigarettes.

He did. That’s when you could smoke inside in New York City.

If I have one cigarette I can’t play a show and I can’t even really sing as is. It must be a muscle where they’ve gotten it so strong.

4. "Lilac Wine"

Oh, I know this. This is a Nina Simone cover. I feel like she knows no limits with her voice. In saying that, she still knows how to manipulate her voice to really transcend. I feel like 's something that I've really tried to take from her or borrow or really influenced me, is a directness. A sense that I'm telling you something and pointing my finger to the listener that this is how I feel. But then with this, he can actually hit the notes which is impressive. What a great song. Can you turn it up? This is really good. There’s nothing wrong with this. If I was in a New York City cafe in the 90s or any time in my life and there was a man as beautiful as Jeff Buckley singing this, I would be very pleased. This is the first time I’ve really enjoyed this record. What’s your favorite one?

I think the next one “So Real.”

I really love the title “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” That’s coming up.

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Photo by Tim Nagle

5. "So Real"

This is your favorite.

Listening to this song, it probably won’t shock you to know that the members of Grizzly Bear love Jeff Buckley.

I hear it. That guitar tone sounds like Built To Spill. I could hear this on Sirius XMU. I like how diverse this album is. Wait, what was that lyric?

“And I never stepped on the cracks 'cause I thought I'd hurt my mother / And I couldn't awake from the nightmare, that sucked me in and pulled me under.”

Oh, whoa. “Pulled me under.” Like a wake. Wow. This is such a cool song. The Grizzly Bear comparison is very apt too. This guitar freakout also sounds like Built To Spill again. They probably had such huge amps. Refrigerators onstage basically.

6. "Hallelujah"

Here we go. This is the one. This cover is all-time. This thing will live forever.

After this song came out, people stopped covering the Leonard Cohen original and just tried to mimic Buckley’s version.

For sure. It’s kind of jarring when you Leonard Cohen’s version, especially because the first time I ever heard the song was on The O.C. Leonard Cohen just talks the song, which is kind of what I do, but with this, it’s like watching Lebron play basketball. He can really get that warble with his voice. There’s so much space on this recording and I love that he’s using an electric guitar. He’s not too precious about it.

The live recordings are the biggest part of being a Jeff Buckley fan. It’s fascinating how he just owned being a performer before he started writing songs. Usually, it’s the other way around.

What's always been my idea of him is that he already had something good going for him. He had his looks and he had his talent and then he discovered that he was a songwriter. Like, he knew he already had these other talents or something but he entered music in a different way than most people. It's almost like being a ballet dancer and then you begin to choreograph yourself.

It’s just so jarring to hear someone sing like this in 2019.

I know. The only person I can think of is Marlon Williams. Maybe Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes. That’s why the Beatles are so powerful. You can shout their songs in key no matter what. Oh wow, listen to this guitar.

So good.

I love songs that are so delicate that demand your attention and are meant for a quiet room. It’s like butter. I think if I trained for two years and never talked, I could hit that falsetto once but then it would go away.

7. "Lover, You Should've Come Over"

I just love this song title. This one also sounds very Nina Simone-inspired. Very 90s coffee-shop too. Here’s the thing about the 90s. Because I feel like people’s influences were the same as ours is now, but through the 90s filter, it came out lame. The drums would have these big reverb effects and people’s fashion was just so bad. But to its credit, it was its own thing. It wasn’t niche shit from the past. It was forward-thinking but it didn’t date well. I can hear the influences in this that are the great influence. I’ve been in his head where I’m writing a song and think, “This is a Nina Simone song.”

It definitely seems like you’re coming around on this.

I will say the first two or three songs I wasn’t into but now I’m liking the record. From “Lilac Wine” to now, I have really been into the LP. Now I’m liking the record. I really feel the Nina Simone inspiration in him.

It’s cool that you both share that.

I'm 31 now, but at some point in my twenties I remember right around my record Singing Saw, she just came into my life in a couple of different ways. It happened that way that it's like when you hear the name of a book from so many even sources you know you have to get that book. One of her live records really blew my mind, I heard her cover Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" too, and then I saw an LP at a friend's house and loved the LP cover. From there it was a total deep dive. Hearing her songs I remember it was just penetrating the air and every line was jumping out at me. One of the best ever.

It’s so great to find a world-opening artist like that later in life.

Her ability to cover songs is pretty similar to Jeff Buckley. If you can cover a song that’s arguably better than the original it just means that you know how to transcend your emotion. It’s really powerful.

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Photo by Tim Nagle

8. "Corpus Christi Carol"

So this is the traditional song?

Yeah, that’s his voice.

Insane. I like that this album is almost like a mixtape. He has an amazing voice and is a fantastic guitar player. He could be respected by anyone.

He sang on a Patti Smith LP called Gone Again when he was working on his follow-up.

I read that he was working with Tom Verlaine. That’s a fascinating pairing.

9. "Eternal Life"

This sounds like it’s going to be a rocker. It sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Oh wow. This is “Can’t Stop.” But now it’s getting grungy.

Who did he record this with?

Andy Wallace, who was the engineer on Nirvana’s Nevermind.

This bass tone is horrible. I can’t get down with this song. I was afraid this would happen.

I don’t think this is a favorite of many Jeff Buckley’s fans. I read that the band wanted to cut this one.

I think with all the other alternative rock bands from that time, I feel like Jeff Buckley didn’t go all-in. He was soft and never went totally loud in the way that other U.S. bands who got successful were. This is not for me.

I’m trying to come up with a current band that sounds like this. I know there’s one.

It’s wild. This album cover is not in line with music like this. He looks like James Franco. He’s got an Ethan Hawke thing going on. You can imagine him saying that cheesy line from Reality Bites where he talks about how much he loves Quarter Pounders, the sky before it rains, and Camel Lights.

10. "Dream Brother"

This one kind of feels like a Radiohead song.

I wish it had another song like “Hallelujah” to close it out. Does he sing “butterscotch egg” here?

No, “butterscotch hair.”

I’m really glad we’re doing this record. His story is just so interesting. I’m glad I can say I’ve finally listened. I will listen to “Hallelujah” for all time. I do like “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” and that Grizzly Bear song “So Real.” I’m just not into the grunge.

Final Verdict: This was good! I’m going to go back to the songs I liked but I was a little taken back by the grunge stuff. But in context, I get it. It’s very ‘90s. No one is really foolproof from that decade except for Bonnie Prince Billy of not falling victim to the post-Nirvana production choices. But the moments I loved were exactly what I expected.