25 Years of 'Grace': Jeff Buckley's photographer Merri Cyr opens up on the late artist's enduring legacy

Jeff Buckley's 1994 studio album, 'Grace'.
Jeff Buckley's 1994 studio album, 'Grace'. Photo credit: Columbia Records/Merri Cyr

Jeff Buckley released only one studio album, Grace, before his promising career was tragically cut short. 

It has been 22 years since rock's fabled songsmith drowned in a Memphis harbour at the age of 30, leaving behind a small repertoire of largely unknown work. 

Released in the midst of grunge and Cobain hysteria, Grace was not immediately understood by the mainstream ear, peaking only at number 149 in the US. Yet 25 years on from its August 23 debut in 1994, it has come to define Buckley as one of America's most enigmatic, seminal talents.

Photographer Merri Cyr witnessed Buckley's ephemeral career. Then an aspiring young artist, Cyr met Buckley during his days of playing covers in New York's East Village coffee shops. 

When Buckley asked her to shoot the cover of Grace, their work developed into an ongoing partnership. A regular fixture in Buckley's inner circle, Cyr documented it all, from early gigs to studio sessions to his intensive touring. These photos and recordings have since become instrumental in upholding Buckley's legacy. 

Ahead of the release of Cyr's new commemorative photo book, 25 Years of Grace, the New York-based photographer spoke to Newshub about the timeless record and her late friend's enduring legacy.

"Jeff was instrumental in my creative life, in helping me get my start," Cyr said.

"He was the most amazing artist. It was a privilege that he volunteered, literally, to be my muse."

Buckley live at Sony Studios.
Buckley live at Sony Studios. Photo credit: Merri Cyr

From the early coffee shop crowds emerged a dedicated fanbase, captivated by Buckley's vocal elasticity, emotionally exhaustive performances and diverse array of influences.

The sounds of Nina Simone, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Édith Piaf and Bad Brains (to name a few) formed a blueprint of what Grace would eventually become - an alternative, intimate record ranging from blues-inflected angst to tortured ballads to operatic hymns.

 

"Twenty-five years later, people are still finding different ways to reinterpret his music, pondering why it affects them so intensely," Cyr told Newshub. 

"Grace was created in another century, yet each new generation seems to ascribe it new meaning and embrace it as their own."

Buckley had a thing about death - it's hauntingly evident across the album's ten songs. And this recurring theme does imbue the album with a sense of tragic self-prophecy. 

"When I was photographing Jeff, I was always aware he was here for a very limited time. That awareness of time running out for him was always there," Cyr said.

In his own words, Buckley's modus operandi was "shaping sounds to show an emotion". Each track expresses a sentiment. Perhaps that's why Grace continues to move, connect and resonate with listeners to this day. Mainstream music trends come and go, but the spectrum of human emotion stays the same - and therefore, doesn't date. 

"Grace is what matters in anything... life, growth, tragedy, pain, love, death... it keeps you from destroying things too foolishly. It sort of keeps you alive," Buckley told a MuchMusic journalist in 1994.

A personal standout is the title track, 'Grace'. It's a slow build, Buckley's somewhat prophetic musings over mortality heightened by soaring, spine-chilling wails. It's alt-rock, but on cocaine - elevated by Buckley's pervading emotional fragility.

 

'Lover, You Should've Come Over' is heartbreakingly beautiful. "I feel too young to hold on/But much too old to break free and run" lyrically captures every 20-something's dichotomy between stability and freedom. The tormented line, "My kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder" is also responsible for my ridiculously high romantic expectations.

 

"The music still breaks hearts, while also comforting the broken-hearted... Because the beautiful music Jeff produced is so limited, it makes it all the more precious," Cyr said. 

This limited catalogue has been drip-fed to listeners over the years. Awed by the seraphic voice of the myth-like man with the here-then-gone career, fans have demanded every demo, B-side and live performance to be excavated from the barren depths of the Buckley vault. As Pitchfork's Jeremy D. Larson puts it: "It's as if he's leaking these from some SoundCloud in the afterlife."

To honour Grace's 25th anniversary on August 23, Buckley's catalogue has been digitally reissued. Grace, the 1998 posthumous release Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk and the live album Mystery White Boy now include new rarities. Four new live albums and one of his final demos, 'Sky Blue Skin', have also been released from the vault for the first time.

Although Grace has been given the expanded treatment, its cover remains the same. The now iconic photo of Buckley, clad in his "Judy Garland glitter jacket", is perhaps the most widely recognised image of the singer - in the same way his harrowingly ethereal rendition of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' is his defining song. 

"After he got me my first album cover with Columbia in 1993, photography was officially my life," says Cyr. "[But] the cover for Grace was an image I was totally uninterested in. 

"He said, 'That's the cover. I can tell I'm listening to the music in that shot'. Since he was granted artistic control in his contract, he got his way.

Buckley, Grace cover.
The shot that made the cover. Photo credit: Merri Cyr.
25 Years of 'Grace': Jeff Buckley's photographer Merri Cyr opens up on the late artist's enduring legacy
Photo credit: Merri Cyr.

"Later, I was told [Columbia] didn't like the choice as they thought he looked too effeminate, which seems very comical to me," Cyr revealed.

It is ironic, as Buckley's image became largely characterised by his soft demeanour and unabashedly emotional expression. He even modelled his career on the idea of being East Village's very own 'chanteuse' - a female songstress who performs renditions of popular songs in cabarets and nightclubs. This is evident on Grace's covers, 'Hallelujah' and James Shelton's sultry 1950s' musical theatre piece, 'Lilac Wine'.

But it was this sensitivity which set Buckley apart from his contemporaries. He radiated a certain fragility, even when feverishly performing the aggressive 'Eternal Life' or screaming through MC5's proto-punk 'Kick Out the Jams'

He just wasn't a traditional rockstar. Sure, he had the girls, the guitar and the flirtation with drugs. But he was also the poetic dreamer who handed white roses to queuing fans outside a London bar. 

"I wanted him to survive. I loved him. I really wanted him to make it past that deadline he set for himself, albeit consciously or unconsciously," Cyr said. 

After all these years, Cyr still feels a sense of responsibility towards Buckley.

"He chose me to document him and bear witness. I am trying to pay tribute as authentically as I can."

Whether 25 or 50, Buckley and his gift of Grace are everlasting. Here's to Eternal Life.

Merri Cyr's 25 Years of Grace will be released in October 2019. 

25 Years of Grace.
25 Years of Grace. Photo credit: Supplied.

Lana Andelane is a Newshub digital news producer.

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