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Jeff Buckley guitarist Michael Tighe: “That dude could have done anything; he could have gone into opera, or more classical-type stuff”

Jeff Buckley with bandmates Matt Johnson, Michael Tighe and Mick Grøndahl
Jeff Buckley with bandmates Matt Johnson, Michael Tighe and Mick Grøndahl
(Image credit: Merri Cyr)

When Jeff Buckley went missing on 29 May 1997, it proved to be one of the greatest losses in contemporary music.

Leaving a single completed album to his name, accompanied by a legion of fans wondering ‘what if?’, Buckley’s legacy is well and truly cemented in popular culture as one of his generation’s defining singers, guitarists and songwriters.

Time has done nothing to diminish Buckley’s legacy, as his sole full-length, the spellbinding Grace, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, with a series of limited-edition releases and revealing new live recordings hitting streaming services.

Those releases showcase his compositions in a raw, almost psychedelic light, augmented by the astonishingly dynamic playing of drummer Matt Johnson, bassist Mick Grøndahl and guitarist and co-songwriter Michael Tighe, who penned the music for So Real while he was still in high school.

To commemorate the quarter-century that’s passed since Grace upped the ante for singer-songwriters around the globe, we caught up with Tighe, who has continued to write for a variety of high-profile talents, most recently with Andrew Wyatt and Liam Gallagher, as well as the likes of Rag’n’Bone Man and Kimbra.

In the conversation that follows, Tighe’s recollections of his time with Buckley are candid and vivid, as he recounts their early conversations about Grace’s tracklisting, the group’s “telepathic” live shows and how their guitar playing fed off each other, as well as contemplating just what kind of music Buckley would be making now.

How did you and Jeff first cross paths?

There was this one night when he was playing at Sin-é, and he did Hallelujah, and at that moment it really hit me that, you know, he was going to make history

“We had a mutual friend in common - actually, Jeff’s girlfriend when he moved to New York was a close friend of mine; her name was Rebecca Moore. When he moved to New York from Los Angeles, he moved in with her in the East Village, and that’s when we became fast friends.

“He didn’t really know that many people in New York, so Rebecca introduced us, and then I just started going over there when I would get off of high school, because I was still in high school at the time. I’d just show him around the city, around the East Village, and we’d go and play pool and get into bars if I could get in, and listen to music at his house. And he’d come over to my place, and play guitar with me. We bonded over rural blues music, like Son House and Robert Johnson.”

What was your first encounter with the music he was making?

“Well, I went to a lot of those early shows that he would do in the East Village at cafes and Sin-é. I mean, at that time, he was mostly doing covers - he was almost basically busking in New York City for his dinner. He was maybe playing a few originals. The one that I really remember him playing most was Last Goodbye; he told me he wrote that when he was 17.

“It was very obvious to me that he was such a gifted singer, but I thought of him as my boy, my friend. There was this one night when he was playing at Sin-é, and he did Hallelujah, and at that moment it really hit me that, you know, he was going to make history.”

How did you come to join Jeff’s band after that?

“When he first came to New York, like I said, sometimes we would play guitar, over at my house, or sitting on my bed, so he knew I was pretty new to guitar, but quite passionate about it, and I’d done some compositions.

“I actually composed the music to So Real, and I played that for him one day at my parents’ house when we were just sitting on the bed playing guitars. I was really into Son House, and he was as well, so we would play slide guitar together a lot and bonded over that. So he knew my style of guitar playing, and even though I was kind of a novice, he seemed to like it.

“He went off to Bearsville [Recording Studio] to record most of Grace, and then when they were finishing that up and realising that they had to go on tour, and they needed another guitar player, he held auditions, and he asked me to come. It just really clicked with Matt and Mick and Jeff and I. The next day after the first time we got together and played, he was like, ‘You’re in the band.’

So Real was recorded and finished very quickly. And that night, at like 4am, Jeff said to me, ‘I want this song to go on Grace. I think it should replace Forget Her’

“Shortly after that, he was like, ‘You remember that riff you played me at your parents’ house?’ which was the So Real music. So, we were at a rehearsal, and he was like, ‘Will you play that?’ And so I started playing that and he got behind the drums, and he came up with the melody for the chorus of So Real, and he started singing ‘so real’. He didn’t have any of the verses, but we arranged it, and got it to a good place in one day.

“Then, maybe a couple of days after that, we went to Sony Studios to record B-sides for singles for Grace, and we did a cover of Kanga Roo by Big Star, and then we did So Real. But he didn’t really have all of So Real written still, so we recorded the instrumental, and he had the chorus part.

“Later that night, he took a walk around Hell’s Kitchen with his notebook and he had the verses. And then he cut the verses in two takes. The song was recorded and finished very quickly. And that night, at like 4am, he said to me, ‘I want this song to go on Grace. I think it should replace Forget Her.’ Which was a cool song, but I think Jeff felt it was the most middle-of-the-road song that he had on the album. That was a bit of a standout, because the label wanted Forget Her to be one of the singles - but it ended up working out.”

When you took the songs from Grace into the live arena, how did you go about dividing up guitar parts?

“I mean, for about half of the songs on Grace, Jeff had two guitar parts written, so I would play the parts that he had written, and for about half of them, I would write and arrange parts myself.

“Occasionally, we would alternate; in a song like Grace, some nights he would play the lead part and the intro, some nights I would. We’d swap between the picking and the lead parts in that song. And then there was a bit of experimentation and improvisation with the encores a lot - with Kanga Roo.”

Did the live shows change a lot from night to night?

“The setlist changed quite a bit as far as the sequence, but the songs were basically the same. We didn’t do a lot of writing on the road, and didn’t introduce any new songs until some of those last tours. I think the last tour in Australia we started playing new material. But for the most part it was just Grace in its entirety, with the setlist having a different sequence each night.

“Each night, the songs were definitely quite different, and had a lot of improvisation, and the intros would always be very different and spontaneous, and sometimes last forever. And the band got pretty good at learning how to follow him. In that way, it was kind of more like jazz in some ways. Matt, the drummer, was extremely telepathic with Jeff. So when you have the singer and the drummer having that telepathic connection, then you’re in a good place.”

Was Jeff a tough boss to work for? He was an impressive player himself... 

“I was a lot younger than Jeff, so in many ways he was a tutor and a teacher and a big brother, so he just took me under his wing and taught me a lot. He knew that I had limited experience with playing in a band. That was my first band; I’d never even stood up and played guitar, but he just liked something about the way I played, and he liked the compositions I wrote, so I think that’s why he asked me to join.

Jeff was technically a virtuoso. And I think one of the reasons he was drawn to me was because of my innocence and my approach to the guitar, because I didn’t have much training

“He was a great teacher, actually. He was a proficient guitar player. He had gone to the Guitar Institute in LA - he could totally shred, and he could play metal. He was technically a virtuoso, I’d say. And I think one of the reasons he was drawn to me was because of my innocence and my approach to the guitar, because I didn’t have much training, really.”

You also co-wrote The Sky Is A Landfill and Vancouver [for posthumous release (Sketches) For My Sweetheart The Drunk]; how did those songs come together?

“It was kind of similar to So Real in that I came up with some music for it and played it for him, and he really gravitated towards those songs. It was the same kind of thing where he would write a piece of the song, maybe the hook, but for months and maybe even a year or so, I didn’t hear any of the verses for Vancouver or The Sky Is A Landfill. And then when it would come time to record the songs, in the 11th hour, that’s when he would finish it.

“I mean, we would arrange it a bit with the band in rehearsals and stuff, but a lot of those songs started with just me playing him the riffs and being like, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ and developing it with him from there.”

Those songs in particular display a more alternative-rock influence; were there any heavier players you were both into?

“Yeah, The Sky Is A Landfill definitely was influenced by this band that we toured with in the States and Australia named The Grifters; they had a huge influence on Jeff. That’s actually one of the main reasons he moved to Memphis, because he just wanted to be with them, and he really looked up to the singer of that band, Dave Shouse, and saw him as a certain kind of mentor.

“We definitely loved that band; they were a bit harder, grungier - you know, we loved Soundgarden and Nirvana and stuff as well, and Jeff was definitely interested in exploring the punk-rock side of himself that he didn’t feel was really reflected on Grace. That’s what he was going for with the second album.”

How did your guitar tones evolve over your time with the band?

“For the second album, I think we were kind of hoping to get the sound of Marquee Moon, by Television - that’s one of the reasons Jeff wanted Tom Verlaine to produce it - to get that kind of dry, angular sound and the very tightly woven guitar parts.

“Live, there were two sounds that we had: the very wide, washed-out reverb sound, with the Fender Vibroverb. One of the things I loved about Jeff’s guitar playing is he made it sound like chimes or bells, almost. And that was really unique and cool. That’s always been one of my favourite aspects of his guitar playing.

After Jack White, everyone started focusing on vintage gear a lot more, which I think is a great thing. We weren’t quite cool enough at that point!

“And then for the harder stuff, we had  - and this is the very LA side of Jeff - we just had Mesa/Boogies [Dual Rectifier Trem-O-Verbs]. At that time, there wasn’t quite the obsessions with analogue and vintage gear - it was just pre-Jack White, or at least Jack White wasn’t known in the mainstream.

“After Jack White, everyone started focusing on vintage gear a lot more, which I think is a great thing. We weren’t quite cool enough at that point for that. But I think the guitar tones were cool, and the playing was great.”

What other gear do you remember Jeff and yourself using back in those days?

“We had pedalboards, the Fender Vibroverb, the Mesa/Boogie - then when we were starting to do the second album, Jeff did get more on that vintage tip, and got a bunch of trashy old vintage guitars, a Gretsch, and this very cheap but very cool Ibanez guitar that was kind of like a surf guitar [most likely a Talman - Ed].

“There were a lot of pedals in the live set - Big Muffs, but also just the standard Boss reverb pedals. It was nothing too boutique.”

Jeff Buckley performs live

(Image credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

And in terms of guitars, you guys were mainly Tele players.

“Yeah, exactly. But Jeff also started playing a Les Paul after a while. And in the beginning, I played a Strat for maybe one or two tours, but then I switched over to Teles.

“I thought one of the coolest guitar sounds in the set was in Kanga Roo, where sometimes he would play the 12-string Rickenbacker, and I thought that really suited his vocals in a great way, because the 12-string has such a mystical sound to it, as does his voice. So I thought that was a great marriage. We also focused on a lot of ambient slide, kind of Eno-ish playing.”

You obviously learned a lot from Jeff, but do you think he learned anything from you as a guitarist?

I would come up with chord shapes that someone who has a lot of music theory background would never really think to do

“Yeah, definitely. I think he really appreciated my unconventional approach, and he saw the value in that. When you get to a point where you’re too educated with music sometimes it can stifle the creativity, so I think he enjoyed watching my approach, which was very innocent.

“I would come up with chord shapes that someone who has a lot of music theory background would never really think to do, because in some ways they’re even wrong, but the sound is cool.”

Jeff had a very advanced use of chord voicings as well - did his approach influence any of your projects that followed?

“Definitely. He taught me so much. He really taught me about clusters; he always tried to augment the chords to a degree, or leave certain notes out to make it sound a bit more hollow or unresolved. He was very into the unresolved aspect of chord progressions, and the cyclical aspect of certain chord progressions, and that’s definitely influenced me. It’s not all I do, but that’s my favourite type of music to write, and I definitely think you can hear it sometimes.

The music that we made together as a band was definitely a bit more atmospheric and trance-like

“Liam Gallagher put out his first solo album a few years ago, and it had a song called Chinatown. That’s me on guitar, and that’s very much a Jeff-influenced song, for sure.

“One thing that he really showed me how to do was just to try to not think too much about composition necessarily when you’re starting, and just try to create some kind of trance of spell with a riff or lead line, and just repeat it for as long as you want. And then the changes will just come naturally, and [he taught me] not to be afraid of repetition, even if it’s very simple. To create a trance and a spell is one of the more important aspects of writing music. That’s the music I think he and I were drawn to.

“That being said, he thought out a lot of his compositions as well, in a great way - something like Lover, You Should've Come Over, you know he had that capacity to write more of a traditional ballad, and I learned a lot from that as well, but the music that we made together as a band was definitely a bit more atmospheric and trance-like.”

What kind of music do you think Jeff would be making now if he were still alive?

“You know, I think about that a lot. And I can’t quite figure it out, but - and I don’t know if I’m just projecting because this is my taste - I feel like there would be some kind of urban, R&B element to it, because I feel people like Frank Ocean, that music reminds me most of Jeff for whatever reason.

“What got me wanting to play music was blues music, and that of course turned into rock ’n’ roll and that whole energy, and Jack White has that. And I don’t really hear that very much in the mainstream anymore, but I do feel that rock ’n’ roll energy in a lot of trap and R&B and hip-hop stuff.

Jeff always wanted to push the boundaries and find ways to just let his voice be free, because he sang with such abandon

“I could see it having kind of a Frank Ocean or Dev Hynes [vibe], but with more of a Cocteau Twins top line - those melodies that the Cocteau Twins wrote he gravitated towards, and I think he was still really exploring that. And I think you can hear that on songs like Vancouver.

“The imagined Jeff music probably wouldn’t have a comparison; it would be unique, but I do think it would incorporate those elements. Even though the second album was quite hard and punk, I feel like he would have gotten into more beautiful, psychedelic, R&B-influenced music. That’s my feeling. Because someone like Nina Simone was such a huge influence to him, so the way she’s influenced R&B, I could see him picking up on that trail.

“But that dude could have done anything; he could have gone into opera, or more classical-type stuff. But I definitely think it would be super-unconventional, because that was his thing: he just always wanted to push the boundaries and find ways to just let his voice be free, because he sang with such abandon. So I feel a lot of the times the songs that he wrote were just structures to let his voice fly around it. Because his voice was really the thing that generated his music more than anything.”

Grace 25th anniversary bundles are available to order now.