The art of the cover song is less like sitting down at a canvas hoping for catharsis and more like voluntarily engaging in emotional trench warfare. In the digital age, bastions of Twitter armies with their fingers hovering above the keyboard-trigger complicate matters even more. So much so it seems that the fight to capture the essence of any great song in the pantheon of music history, coupled with the aforementioned onslaught, make the uphill battle purely Sisyphean. To cover a tune delivered by the Angel of Alt-Rock, Jeff Buckley? Well, that’s something akin to building a log cabin on an Indian Burial Ground — on purpose.
When Jeff Buckley stepped onto the pulpit at New York’s St. Ann’s in 1991 to perform “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” in tribute to his late father, Tim Buckley, his personage became instantly cloaked in mysticism. Jeff’s spectral persona appeared, fittingly, out of thin air, and listeners everywhere would revel in cult-like ecstasy for years to come. This notion was only furthered by Buckley’s debut album, Grace, which came to fruition in one of rock’s most inspiring years. While Buckley shared radio real estate with the likes of Green Day, Nirvana, and more, he was a master of a sound all his own — one that traded the listlessness that plagued masculine music of the ‘90s for honeyed woe, a sticky, sweet slow drip of tangled emotion that revealed him to be an electrifying guitarist, a wayfaring dreamer, an inimitable vocalist, and an irreconcilable romantic.
These traits culminate in a phenomena only a few artists can elicit: Buckley’s songs launch from the speaker and instantaneously catch us by the throat. We feel jolted, seen, more aware — hell, more alive. The moment is crystalline forever, and if we’re lucky, it happens on each listen. However the stature of Buckley’s musical genius makes us miss, or misconstrue, the truth about Jeff Buckley, what draws the listener to him are not the characteristics of a prophet who blessed us with sonic delights, but instead those of someone deeply mortal. Buckley was emblematic of what it was to be human: to feel pain, fear, loss, and love in perpetual flux. To be flawed and in search of meaning — the most mythic and most mortal pursuit of all.
Perhaps it is this deep resonance within our collective unconscious that makes Buckley’s work an inspiration for so many, regardless of gender and background, and yet so daunting to cover. These human elements, shrouded in the wretched sainthood, make diving into a Buckley song feel like stepping on sacred ground. A Buckley cover is not so much about emulating the saccharine song. Few and far between could succeed at such a feat. Instead, here are 10 takes on Buckley by female artists who put their humanity at the forefront of their performance and aren’t afraid to take the risk.
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Kimbra – “So Real”
“So Real” is a song of grit, paranoia, and longing after a once unshattered dream of reality. Its composition, as such, ranges from fragile acoustic to raucous rock and roll. At times, it is hard to believe that such a song exists on the same record as “Corpus Christi Carol”, but this is Jeff Buckley we’re talking about. As such, it would take an artist whose influences range from Prince to Björk to do the tune justice. Enter New Zealand rocker Kimbra, who here uses — in truly Buckley style — her voice not as a means of delivery, but as another layer of frantic and pained introspection.
Emel Mathlouthi – “FALLEN”/ “Fall in Light”
“New Year’s Prayer” sees Jeff Buckley turn snake charmer for a tune that feels like a trance-like stroll across the Sahara. And as Jeff Buckley could take any song and make it so perfectly his own, Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi, whose viral protest song instantiated her as the “Voice of the Arab Spring,” does just that. It’s a sinister, occult-like rendition that hypnotizes the ear and ends up sounding more like Chelsea Wolfe covering Nine Inch Nails than any Buckley output on the market. We imagine Buckley would have dug it.
Miley Cyrus – “Lilac Wine”
In 2012, Pharrell Williams and Miley Cyrus joined forces to record The Backyard Sessions, a series of covers that showcased the former Hannah Montana star’s raw vocal talent and musical influences in a way that gripped even the most skeptical among us. Within The Backyard Sessions is Cyrus’ take on one of Buckley’s own covers, Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine”. Cyrus’ take is the most linear cover on this list, a near-perfect mimicry of Buckley’s hushed, ethereal delivery. We only wish it was set under the still of moonlight.
Company of Thieves – “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”
If ever there was a song to come out of Buckley’s gorgeous debut that melted your rubber soul to the pavement and sucker punched you in the gut, it’s “Lover, You Should Have Come Over”. Imbued with yearning for his then girlfriend Rebecca Moore, who consequently would serve as muse for Grace, Buckley is noted as saying he “wrote this song while lying listening to the telephone in my apartment,” he added, “but she never called.” Chicago indie rockers Company of Thieves’ live performance of the track is fueled with that same slow-burning hunger that many have tried to emulate and failed.
Madison Cunningham – “Dream Brother”
The last song on Grace, “Dream Brother” was written as a plea to Chris Dowd (Fishbone) not to leave his pregnant girlfriend. It’s a full-circle moment for Buckley, who got his start remembering the man that walked out on him in a similar fashion, his father, Tim Buckley. Madison Cunningham, backed by a band that even includes original co-writer Matt Johnson deliver a hypnotic rendition that effectively oozes at the wound.
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Madison Cunningham – “Lover, You Should Have Come Over”
Madison Cunningham’s cover of “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” finds success in the quiet moments, though her pounding piano keys and sweltering delivery of the song’s bigger moments are impossible to ignore. Much like when Buckley performed the song solo electric, this stripped-down version results in an intimate, quiet desperation perfectly married to a simple, black-and-white visual.
Ruth McCavery – “Last Goodbye”
When I began the hunt for Jeff Buckley covers, Ruth McCavery’s collection of piano ballads was first to pop in my mind. McCavery’s instrumentals serve as a prime example of the way Buckley’s discography has become a budding inspiration for musicians of all genres. You won’t get any of Buckley’s poignant lyricism here, but McCavery caresses the ivories with the same tickling touch her source material approached the notes.
HAERTS – “Everybody Here Wants You”
Brooklyn outfit HAERTS take a languid Buckley slow jam and birth its atmospheric synthpop sister. It’s not the funk-laden original, which popped up on Buckley’s posthumous release Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, but carries the same sonic line of thought that ends up being similarly affecting. Frontwoman Nini Fabi explains, “I think sometimes someone else’s material can express exactly what you’re feeling at a certain time — better than you yourself could — and that happened with this song, and that’s why we covered it.”
Demi Lovato – “Hallelujah”
Jeff Buckley took Leonard Cohen’s Biblically-bent “Hallelujah” and turned it into a sapphic love letter to life, love, and sex. And while the song met paltry results in his lifetime, Buckley’s unique take would infiltrate public consciousness some 11 years later. The exact moment is lost to time, and there are now heaps of “Hallelujah” covers cropping up on televised talent competitions and YouTube alike. Demi Lovato delivers the tune with a masterful mix of power and ease all her own.
Morgan James – “Grace”
As mentioned, to cover one Jeff Buckley song requires a very certain mix of talent and guts, to cover his opus, Grace, from beginning to end is simply herculean. Morgan James takes this notion to task to affecting results. She tackles the title track with herculean strength and a smokey, indignant vocal all her own while still capturing Buckley’s cosmic battle for his soul.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Grace, Jeff Buckley’s proper studio catalog has been re-released and packaged with rare recordings and bonus international material. The set dropped on August 23rd via Columbia and Sony Legacy. Bonus: We’re giving away a set!