Before Jeff Buckley recorded his stunning debut album, Grace, he was still discovering himself as artist. Shortly after being signed to Columbia Records, he walked through the doors of Shelter Island Sound in New York City in 1993 to record for three days with Steve Berkowitz, his A&R, and Steve Addabbo, the producer who engineered the sessions. The end result was 5- 90 minute DAT tapes of material containing covers of Bob Dylan, Sly & The Family Stone, Led Zeppelin, The Smiths, and many more. These recordings have been locked away until today, being released as a 10- song collection called You and I, and offer a glimpse into the beginnings of one of the world’s most dynamic artists.
Rock On Philly got the chance to chat with Steve Addabbo, the producer behind the sessions, about his experience working with Jeff Buckley as well as how the music industry has changed since then.
Rock On Philly: So how did you and Jeff first meet?
Steve Addabbo: It was actually through Steve Berkowitz who was the A&R person that signed Jeff. Steve and I met when I was working with Shawn Colvin who was signed to Columbia Records. Steve was a product manager at the time and worked his way up to become an A&R and shortly after that he signed Jeff Buckley. He didn’t know the depth of what Jeff could do. He’d seen him a few times live and hung out with him but he thought it would be a good idea to put him in the studio with me to do some no pressure recording and figure things out.
ROP: What were those sessions like?
SA: Steve was like, “We’re not going to produce him or anything. Let’s just see what he has and let him play.” So we set him up with an acoustic guitar, my 1967 Guild F-50. Jeff brought his tele. He wandered from one thing to the other and just did whatever he felt like. He played mostly covers but had a few originals. The sessions were like a ‘table of contents,’ really…
ROP: An introduction to Jeff?
SA: Exactly. We did something similar with Suzanne Vega when I first met her. It’s the early stage of artist development. The pre, pre- production phase of a record.
ROP: Does that early development phase still happen in music today?
SA: I don’t think so. It’s a different world now. Back then, a record label saw talent, signed an artist, and didn’t expect a hit on the first album. With Suzanne, I was told flat out by A&M that they would be happy with 30,000 records sold. Did Bob Dylan have a hit record on the first thing he did with John Hammond? He was almost dropped because no one could understand what he was doing. But A&R had vision back in those days. You believed in an artist and you saw it through. Now it’s like, “She has a billion hits on YouTube. Let’s sign her!”
ROP: So coming back to Jeff, what were your first impressions of him as a musician?
SA: It was pretty evident within the first twenty seconds of the session that we were in the presence of someone special. Very few people could do what he did. To be honest though, he was so all over the place, in a good way, I couldn’t help but think how challenging it would be to make his first record. What direction should he go in? He could sing anything, from opera to Led Zeppelin to Sly & The Family Stone. He was a phenomenal guitar player. Had been a session player in LA for year. He had a deep well and he knew it.
ROP: How long did he record with you at Shelter Island Sound?
SA: We recorded for three days, from February 3rd to February 5th in 1993. The sessions weren’t super long as he wasn’t singing for eight hours straight. There was no structure to it at all. He just came in, I got his headphones sounding nice, and we just let him have fun. After the three days, we had about 5- 90 minute DATs of material.
ROP: What set-up did you use to capture his voice? It has so much range…
SA: Nothing out of the ordinary I wouldn’t do for anyone else. I had to be on top of it though because he was very dynamic. There were times when he was just wailing and I’m diving for the controls. (laughs)
ROP: You made sure to drink plenty of coffee that day!
SA: Yeah. The first day he did a song two or three times until he got it right. Then he loosened up as we went on and would just blast through one take. Top to bottom live performance. The music just poured out of him. He would put his head back, close his eyes, and create this moody, bluesy energy effortlessly. He went somewhere and was totally in it… An important thing to remember about these recordings is that what you hear on You and I is exactly what Jeff and I heard in the studio. Just a live two-track recording. No punching in. No post-production…
ROP: Was that you and Steve he was talking to in “Dream of You and I?”
SA: Yup! There was no one else in the studio. (laughs)
ROP: Jeff Buckley’s music has such melancholy, vulnerable feel. He really digs down deep emotionally. What was he like as a person?
SA: Actually, very funny, bright, and smart. He looked deep into your eyes when he spoke to you. He wasn’t side-tracked. He made you feel very much at ease. He wasn’t withdrawn or moody as one would think listening to his material. He was very respectful. Interested in what I had done in my career. Cracking up half the time we were recording…He was also a very private person from what I gather. He wasn’t a social butterfly hanging out at clubs all the time. He didn’t do drugs. He had a little bit of wine but not to excess. He was really focused on developing his own work from what I gathered. Was such a refined talent. He wanted to be as good as he could be. It wasn’t about ego. It was about being driven to quality and excellence.
ROP: Do you remember the first time you heard him play live?
SA: I didn’t actually see Jeff perform live until after I worked with him. There was a lot of buzz going on about him at the time, a bit of a bidding war between the different labels trying to sign him. Once one A&R got interested, everyone got interested…
ROP: Like sharks with blood in the water?
SA: Pretty much. Yeah, after I worked with Jeff I would see him play at Sin-E from time to time and it was pretty low key. Whenever I was there, maybe 7 people were listening to him play. After he got signed, he hung back a bit to focus on making a great record.
ROP: Now the original Sin-E closed in 1996. Can you describe what the venue was like back then?
SA: It was a little coffee shop on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. It was small! You walk in and there were maybe four tables wall-to-wall. You could maybe fit 50 people if you jammed them in there but that would probably be a fire hazard. (laughs) When they had the espresso machines going, it was hard to hear the singer. (laughs)
ROP: So on a somber note, what was it like when you heard the news of his passing in 1997?
SA: I was in the studio and we still had Shawn on Columbia and I remember a phone call came through and the label gave us the news- “We think we lost Jeff Buckley today.” I remember it being so unreal. It was one of those moments where everything gets quiet around you. The world slips around you for a moment. It was terrible.
ROP: What was it like keeping these recordings a secret for so long?
SA: I sat on this for 22 years so it was really frustrating, to be honest. I’m like why aren’t they putting this out? It’s so pure, so pristine, so early…it’s a Holy Grail in a sense. Finally, at around the end of last summer Berkowitz told me they were finally putting the record out. Every now and then I would listen to the recordings and it would take me back. I was like, “Damn this is good.” So I’m glad it’s finally being released. If it does well, who knows, maybe there will be a Volume II. There’s enough material.