Interview Magazine,2/94  Inrockuptibles, 9/94  OOR, Hollland, 8/94
MTV's, 10/1/95 Arte 2/95  Slapper's, Spring 1995
Inside Edge New Jersey Beat SOMA
Schwann Spectrum

SOMA (Left Coast Culture)

Jeff Buckley

When I saw Jeff Buckley perform in Los Angeles a few months back, I was reminded of why I love music. The dazzling range of Buckley's chameleon-like voice fuses the rich melancholy of Nina Simone and the operatic drama of Freddie Mercury with the awe-inspiring mystical transcendence of Pakistani "qawaal" Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But his full-length debut, "Grace", as well as his previously released EP "Live at Sin-e", make it abundantly clear that Buckley's up to something that's entirely his own.

By far the most stunning debut of the year, "Grace" - on which Buckley also plays guitars, keyboards, dulcimer and tabla, and is joined by a small backing band with an impressively big sound - effortlessly erases musical boundaries with its unpretentious mix of Western popular and classical styles with Eastern traditions. It shows Buckley engaging music as a fantastic mystery that lives far beyond the realm of radio-ready categorization. Full of highly lyrical and emotional compositions that constantly shift musical moods, "Grace" also features Buckley's adept readings of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", composer Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christie Carol", and "Lilac Wine", a song made popular by Nina Simone. Unconventional in its structure and unpredictable in its directions, the music on "Grace" is the soundtrack to a trance on the verge of explosion. I recently had a chance to speak with Buckley from his Nashville hotel room.

Josh: Let me begin by saying that when I saw and heard you perform in Los Angeles, I immediately heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It seemed readily apparent that he and the musical tradition of "qawaali" that he represents have had a large influence on you and the development of your own musical vision.

Jeff: Yeah, although I can't pretend to be it. But it makes sense to me. Really, I just developed an urge, an instinct, to get acquainted with the tonality of the song, so I could become attuned, or else the song won't come off with the same weight, the same depth. I have to get acquainted with the tone in the room and the tones from the amps and the other guys. Sometimes if the guitar is out of tune, I sing in between. And then, you know, I hate the songs to really end. Sometimes, they don't always need to be three minutes. Sometimes they need to be four or fourteen. And I have a pretty quick head about altering things once I'm playing them.

Josh: What do you think draws you to his music?

Jeff: I feel - (long pause) I just identify with his story. I identify with his adrogyny and his lack of age and his contradictory existence, meaning he's very deeply steeped in classical "qawaali" music, which is such an established order, and he's also a Muslim, and then he's a sufi. And then the whole legend behind the voice, which is that he was laughed at as a kid. Laughed at, by his father's pupils. And that's very, very, very - really cruel and really very heartbreaking to be laughed at when you're a kid. And it's in front of his father and he must have wanted to please his illustrious father. He must have. And maybe he felt somewhere he was done for. And then he had this dream that a spiritual guide came to his bed and touched his larynx. And the next day, he woke up nad he had (pauses) it. He had (pauses) the spirit, the spirit in him. Now it's an easy thing to happen in that land, because of their language and because of the long life of the people and because they're really close to their dreams. It just happens. I mean there are legends of a singer in Pakistan who was challenged by another singer to sing for the king, er sing for the emperor, and when he sang, there was this beautiful fountain in the courtyard where everybody was listening to this singer, and to this day people will say - even taxi drivers in New York, even schoolteachers from Pakistan, if they're of a a certain age will remember this, that when he sang fire appeared on the water of the royal fountain. Everybody saw it. Everybody believed that it happened. And it did happen. And it's like, yeah, I dig that (laughs). I believe that happened and I believe that that voice took people into the depths of their brain where they don't use it, into the depths of their soul where they don't go. I believe that happened, yes I do. Well, Nusrat comes from that, right? In order to be a qawaali, you have to be a scholar, you have to know poetry, you have to know history, you have to know about the people, you have to know about the leaders and the saints - a religious and historical scholar and musical scholar - so that you can draw upon it. You have to be free in your heart to sing. He's just a great artist, just a great artist. He's just a great (pauses) thing.

Josh: Have you shared your music with him?

Jeff: How could I?

Josh: I don't know.

Jeff: No, never.

Josh: Does it interest you to do so?

Jeff: Um, yeah. Actually, it would just interest me to ask him if he has a woman or anything. Or did he ever go to a dance when he was a kid. But I'm not a (pauses) - it's also not his voice. He'll tell you that. It doesn't belong to his human form, although his human form has learned his nature and it flows through him and it loves him an awful lot. I think he's also in the middle of some political shit right now. I think he is. He's very, very important to people. He's a fucking holy man. I mean, if anybody wants to know the key, just turn on the fucking TV and you see how people are mesmerized by those preachers? Well, if those preachers had just a tenth of the balls that qawaali singers from Pakistan have, then they (pauses) would have a guitar and would be singing the whole damn thing.

Josh: Yeah, I actually had a chance to see him perform for the first time not too long ago. It was really interesting because towards the end of the show, people got up, rushed the stage, and started dancing.

Jeff: What happened, did the cops come?

Josh: Well, it was interesting because most of the people who were doing that were white and a group of Pakistani men in front of me were outraged by it and were yelling out "This is not Bombay!" and saying that you can't dance, you're insulting him. It was an amazing thing to witness.

Jeff: Really? That's funny because in New York we all lose it. Well, see, that's the other thing about Nusrat that maybe people don't understand, is the he - see, what they meant by that is that people in Bombay are very demonstrative and those people (the men in the audience) are probably of a higher class. That's what people do in its communal setting: you fuckin' lose your mind, you get up, you throw money at the motherfucker, you love him, you shout his name out, you dance your ass off, you sing the words, you shout at him, he preaches to you, everybody loses it. That's exactly what happens. But, you know, it's a wierd thing. It's a very audacious existence of qawaali muslims, of sufi muslims, because orthodox Islam really looks down upon dancing and frivolity and intoxication - not by wine, but by music and love and the poetry. That's what sufis are all about and they don't feel that Islam has a monopoly on enlightenment, that there's also enlightenment of the earthly sphere. It's like a bunch of metalheads digging Paganini and then coming to the gig, right? And they're like, "Yeahhhh!," because they dig Paganini because he plays so fast and then all the like rich people who own plumbing companies and run a public TV station really look down upon them. But Paganini would dig it. It's like that. But Nusrat is also unabashedly modern. And he also lets really crappy shit happen to the music, but he doesn't care. Because the thing is that the music is so strong that you couldn't possibly screw with it.

Josh: Well, let me just say, that when I heard you perform in LA, I was, to be honest, completely blown away by how you effortlessly merged different musical traditions, namely Eastern and Western traditions, without capitalizing on it as a major artistic issue and allowing it to happen naturally, with the love of the music in mind.

Jeff: Thank you.

Josh: And, you know, listening to your voice - you have one of those remarkable voices that makes it clear that it comes from someone who listens to a lot of not only music per se, but to sound and noise as well. I was wondering who or what has influenced the ways in which you listen to and process sound?

Jeff: Everything. I mean, on the Nusrat tip, the same fascination should be poured down upon James Brown. But unfortunately, white America can't really get to it. He's in our midst and he has done what Nusrat is doing. He has done that. But, anyway, no, just everything. There's music in everything. There's music in semis going down the street. There's music in school being let out, music in Old Milwaukee beer cans rattling around in a garbage bag, it's everywhere.

Josh: How much do you think playing with a band as you do on "Grace" versus playing solo as you do on "Live at Sin-e" affects the music that comes out of you?

Jeff: I think that it heightens the range. It widens the range of emotion.

Josh: When I saw you perform, before you launched into (the overtly anti-racist) "Eternal Life", you said that it wasn't one of the best songs ever written.

Jeff: Well, I mean, it's obvious.

Josh: What inspired the writing of it?

Jeff: The subject. Just what I said. (sighs) I don't know. There's a kind of human being that finds ultimate nutrition in controlling and coercing and dehumanizing other people in order to feel superior, either intention or unintentional, cause everybody does it at one point in their life, either with younger siblings or with their children or with workmen out on the factory or the White House or from their own insane minds that a man can, or a woman, walking down the street, thinking about her fucking phone bill is in danger, somehow, of being brutally violated, is just a piece of fucking shit. A policeman is not gonna be able to take care of that problem. And usually the problem stems from the perpetrator being abused himself as a child by some other person who cannot think anymore and needs to control and hit and degrade and all that shit. Well, if you really think that that's where it is - that's where life is - it's too late for you. You'll need to really see yourself. You need to tear open the lid to your own hell and look at it, long and hard. That's what I'm sayin'. But it didn't say it at all. (pauses) There's just too much to this life to be fucking around. And I fuck around too, you know. I'm just trying to find my bearings here. I'm not claiming to be a paradigm. It's just outrage. To the best of my meager intellect, that's how I can express it to people.

Josh: Where do you find that your music takes you yourself?

Jeff: Within and without. (pauses) It takes me more in the present, which can take you anywhere. And mostly, it's not really where it takes me, it's what it attracts to me as well. The energy that culminates in a space where things are being listened to. The energy that fogs up the room.

Josh: While I was listening to "Grace", I was actually reading an essay written by a professor at the University of VIrginia, and he mentioned a phrase that spoke strongly to your record: "thinking with your ears." It felt appropriate while listening to Grace. Does that resonate with you at all?

Jeff: Well, no, because, I mean, I understand obviously, but I'd bring you down to another, more accurate term, which is why he's a professor and why I'm on tour, which is to think with your heart, to hear with your soul, with the heart of you in mind and in body. But your ears capture that for you. I'm also a person who is thoroughly convinced that this whole flesh idea is just a dream that your soul had, that the soul, like, floppin around in space, just said, "Well, I wanna reach out and grab things," well I'm pretty sure that over time a hand grew. You know what I mean. Flesh is awesome. Lots of people degrade flesh. Lots of people say it's bullshit, that the real party is happening upstairs or downstairs. But I would say that I don't agree. And I would say that it's more like listening with your soul, with your heart. But, yeah, thinking with your ears, that it lead me to that, yeah, I believe that. Sure. But it's more like - see the thing is you don't think about music. You can, but it releases all its gifts when you just are inside it. Just like love. It's freedom. It's flying. I solve a lot of my problems, I come to a lot of conclusions around music. Music is, like, this river, like a bloodstream that leads you to different tributaries sometimes. And other times it's just great to sing something from your childhood or sing something that you remember hearing and that identifies a time when you fell in love with a certain person. It's an amazing fucking force. And that's just what I've been entranced with ever since I was a kid.

[ This page hosted by  Get your own Free Home Page ]