Jeff Buckley: Analysing Creativity
Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Recently, I was asked to deliver a presentation for MA Music: Sound Production discussing the creative process behind the production of one of my favourite tracks of all time, "Last Goodbye" by Jeff Buckley. As last week marked the 21st anniversary of his death, I thought I would expand upon my initial observations and share them here.
Taken from the album Grace, released in August 1994, Last Goodbye was written by Jeff Buckley and produced at Bearsville Studios by Andy Wallace.
I didn't discover Jeff's music until 2005, 8 years after his untimely death when he drowned in the Wolf River, in Memphis after deciding to go for an impromptu late night swim. I was aware of his music and the mystique surrounding him, and eventually picked up a copy of his album, Grace, on a detour to HMV whilst enjoying my annual Christmas shopping (drinking) trip to Glasgow with my cousin Danny.
When I returned home and pressed play on the CD, I was utterly transfixed from the first haunting notes of "Mojo Pin" up until the hypnotic "Dream Brother" ended the album with it's tragically prophetic refrain "Asleep in the sand, with the ocean washing over..." I had never heard anything quite like it. From that moment on, I was hooked on Buckley and sought out and consumed all of his music that I could find.
Jeff Buckley was already a dynamic live performer before signing a record deal with Columbia. He was known for his long sets featuring a mixture of his own songs alongside reworkings of classics from anyone from Nina Simone and Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin and Leonard Cohen. His approach is best summarised in his own words:
"I’ll probably play live till the day I die. It’s cool to have a CD, with a condensed moment that’s been worked over for weeks, but to do something that will just fly away is kind of special. Every time somebody tells you they love you, that ‘I love you’ flies away, and you wait until the next one." - Jeff Buckley, Columbia Press Release for Live at Sin-e
The job of producing the debut album from this free spirited live performer and focusing his ideas and energies into coherent recorded songs fell to legendary producer Andy Wallace, best known for his work with Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and Slayer. The decision to employ a producer with a background in Hard Rock and Metal to work with essentially a singer songwriter may seem strange, but it proved to be an inspired choice.
Wallace's production elevated Jeff's songs, and in particular Last Goodbye, by employing three principles:
1) Creating the best working environment.
2) Use of cliche.
3) Framing the Creative Process - structure and focus.
"Last Goodbye" was originally called "Unforgiven" and was a staple of Jeff's live shows. The influence of Wallace is clearly evident when comparing the early demo from Live at Sin-e to the version that ended up on Grace.
Unforgiven Live at Sin-e
Last Goodbye Official Video
Hennesey & Amabile (1995:11) on their study into creativity concluded that:
"People will be the most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge of the work itself - not by external pressures."
Whether he knowingly embraced this principle deliberately or not, Andy Wallace was able to create an environment in which Jeff felt comfortable enough to create his best work.
As his guitarist, Michael Tighe, recounts:
"When we recorded, it didn’t have this professional vibe to it. We could be in this creative space and play some improvised idea just to relax and get comfortable"
Steve Berkowitz, A&R, Sony Records also recalls:
"The room was set up in a way that there was a loud electric set up, a more acoustic electric set up and there was almost a little small one person folk club stage where, when he wanted to, he could go play solo. And everything was always miced."
By creating a "live" environment, Andy Wallace ensured that Jeff felt comfortable and at ease and the results were outstanding.
Use of Cliche:
There are several well known uses of cliche in Production, such as a reversed cymbal leading into a chorus (guilty!) and leaving the count-in on a track. Research shows that Number 1 hit singles employ more uses of cliche than the average song.
Wallace employs several of these techniques in the opening 25 seconds of Last Goodbye to great effect. The bluesy slide guitar gives way to a driving bass riff and cymbal build-up, but just when you expect the song to kick into standard Rock & Roll / Blues territory it opens up into a fresh, expansive, minimalist sound.
Andy Wallace has used these cliches to draw the listener in and then at the very last minute, pull the rug from under their feet to reveal something they did not expect.
"I try to provide things so that upon repeated listening there will be some new things to find that are cool… something that will continue to augment whatever I’m trying to get out of the mix on further and further subterranean levels." - Andy Wallace.
Another use of cliche is the introduction of strings on the second verse as Jeff sings "This is our last embrace, must I dream and always see your face..." The lyrics here also use cliche and the romantic sounding strings emphasise this further.
However, Andy Wallace again flips this cliche on it's head and the next time we hear strings during the third verse:
"Kiss me, please kiss me. Kiss me out of desire, babe, not consolation"
They now play an Eastern influenced counter melody, referencing Jeff's well documented love of Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ("He's my Elvis").
Structure and Focus:
I believe that the starting point for the production was based on the traditional 4 stage model envisaged by Amabile as outlined by Lubart:
• Problem Identification
• Response Generation
• Response Validation and Communication
One problem with Jeff's songs is that they were changing all the time. New arrangements were being tried and lyrics changed constantly. The songs needed structure but Andy Wallace had to approach this in a way which didn't cause Jeff to feel threatened.
As he explains:
"I remember I had a conversation with Jeff one day, Is this song really supposed to be 15 minutes long?
Jeff felt secure that he wasn't getting hooked up with a producer who was going to run him through a scheduled system. He really wanted to feel confident that he had someone who was going to be very sensitive to him as an artist. But at the same time he needed a lot of direction.
It was an important aspect of getting the record accomplished, to keep him focussed on what we were dealing with but without clamping it down and making it a dead issue."
Andy Wallace prepared for these issues by transforming the studio into a live environment that Jeff was familiar with and comfortable with. The response from his artist was to produce his most focused and assured performances.
With the exception of Jeff's peerless cover version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, Last Goodbye is Jeff's most commercial, accessible and well known track.
The first thing that struck me when analysing this song is that it has no chorus yet it continues to reveal new elements and build to thrilling conclusion.
This is also achieved without any distorted electric guitars, or huge drum fills / splashy cymbals but instead by using gentle strings, the subtle change from closed to open hi-hats. Jeff's incredible vocal range is also used to great effect.
Another technique Andy Wallace employs is balance the drum overheads subtly in the mix until he wants them to make an impact and change the dynamic of the song.
"Sometimes I will feel that I'm hearing more ambient stuff in the overheads than I want to hear in the mix. So when I get that loud section rocking the way I want, I'll end up with the overheads balanced where I want to hear the ambience and sometimes the cymbals simply won't be loud enough to have the impact that I want."
This technique can be heard during the last verse when the song builds to it's climax.
In conclusion, the Creative Environment created by Andy Wallace put the artist at ease and allowed him to work in a live setting.
The use of Production Cliches made the song more accessible to the public, and opened up Jeff's music to a wider audience.
The structure of the recording sessions meant the Artist was focused and working with the Producer to reach end goals.
Last Goodbye remains one of my favourite songs of all time, I hope this blog has highlighted a few things to look out for on your next listen.