between acquiring a broader musical palette and bouts of oscar
madness, elliott smith has become an unlikely pop star. and he
did it all by
this is elliott smith and it's been 10 years. congratulations."
as the video camera's red light flickers out, smith shoots a
wry, sideways grin at me, obviously amused at the multimedia
invasion (well, me and the guy with the camera) going on in his
dressing room. he's just flatly delivered his line for a promotional
spot marking the anniversary of the venue where he's performing
his head. "it's strange," he says. "ever since
i got here, they've been asking me to do that. i've never even
been here before."
been seeing smith in all the unfamiliar places: the academy awards,
mtv, entertainment weekly. and now gracing the cover of a lush,
orchestrated pop record for the dreamworks mega-label.
is the album, and its compositions appropriately conjure the
intimacy of handwritten notes, heartwarming and heartsick sentiments
and, of course, hugs and kiss-offs to lovers, friends and those
who just don't understand. whether smith's migration from portland,
ore., to brooklyn last year had any
inspirational effect is a question that doesn't need asking;
new york city is imprinted upon the record like a silent partner's
songwriting credit, lyrically hovering in the background alongside
the cosmopolitan touches of piano, strings and brass arrangements.
it's safe to say that no one will call "xo" a folk
is in burgettstown, pa., a small, pasture-ized cowtown somewhat
near pittsburgh, but closer to nowhere in particular. at the
lake amphitheatre - site of neither lake nor star (it's foggy)
nor star-shaped lake brimming with soft drink - the polite and
soft-spoken 28-year-old singer/songwriter is on the third of
four dates supporting two popular purveyors of the new kitsch:
beck and ben folds five. as such, the security forces are on
full alert; i spend a lot of time explaining i'm a journalist
to staff members who suspect i'm going to cart off one of beck's
oxygen tanks after i'm done stitching shut the legs of folds'
so we grab
a couple of sierra nevadas from the amply stocked cooler, take
a left past the door marked "beck: yoga" and walk out
to a sun-drenched set of
dilapidated wooden stairs near the bakcstage loading dock. despite
the june weather, smith retains his omnipresent knit cap of baby
blue and rounds out
the ensemble with olive pants and a plain black t-shirt, a blank
variation on his more familiar willie nelson or hank williams
in light of
the wardrobe and bill, i suggest that perhaps tonight smith can
lend beck the white suit he wore at the oscars. "beck already
has a white suit, i think," he says. "i became reminded
of that many times after the
academy awards. i don't usually read my press, but I did a couple
times after that, and entertainment weekly had a picture of me
and the caption was something like, 'sedate beck impersonator.'
why? because of my white suit?"
the mere fact
we're discussing comparative celebrity fashion begs the more
grounded question of whether smith's audience is actually expanding.
"i can't picture what would be my audience," he says.
"i'm happy that some people seem to like it. i don't think
about that a whole lot - i just like to make up songs and play
them. i'm doing good to be able to do that. why complicate
from our perch,
we have a view of a basketball goal where members of the beck
and folds contingents are lazily bouncing the ball off a lopsided
rim. smith, too, has been the target of badly aimed shots. if
you believe what's been written, he's minnie driver's shy, severely
depressed boyfriend who was discovered in a coffeehouse by gus
van sant. or better yet, a spokesperson for the disenfranchised
fans who adore him; the ones who call out titles to songs smith
himself has forgotten, then jog his memeory by singing the first
few bars. it's all false, of course, except for the part about
the fans, which speaks volumes more than gossip and rumor. and
it's the spokesperson role smith probably resists most. remaining
on the fringe seems integral to what he does.
to imagine we'd be chatting up typically rock-star topics such
as popular ascent and the toss of outsider status without telling
the story of how mr. smith went to hollywood, which began when
the musician befriended filmmaker van sant. the pair soon discovered
they shared more than a portland residence and a mutual artistic
admiration: an interest in
songwriting and home recording. so it was more asual than unusual
when van sant asked smith to contribute to teh soundtrack for
his movie, "good will hunting".
point, he mentioned putting some songs in the movie, but i had
no idea there would be so many of them and that they would be
so prominent," smith says. iI ended up making up one for
it, and the rest were on other records."
misery" earned the indie darling an academy award nomination
for best original song - filling out the ranks of a category
that included celine dion, michael bolton and trisha yearwood
- and lots of sympathetic support as an underdog to sink the
warbling beast from the great white north. smith was busy recording
"xo" at sunset sound in los angeles when he heard the
he'd been nominated for what he terms "this bizarre award."
just kind of shocked - i didn't see that in my future at any
point," he says, also admitting that the real-life consequence
of the whole affair was merely to slow down the recording process.
of the award-show performance proved puzzling for smith, a decidedly
do-it-yourself kind of guy. he stumped the shows' producers
by asking for a chair (as sitting down is a more comfortable
position for playing acoustc guitar) to use during his song.
initially denying smith the simple prop, creative showbiz types
came up with a couple of ill-fated solutions. "i would have
to sit behind this moving panel during the trisha
yearwood song," he says, "and then it would dramatically
raise up to reveal that i'd been sitting here all that time."
smith politely declined. "and then they had another idea
for me to sit on the steps of the stage - like a down-home jamboree.
'c'mon people, follow me along in this song. i'm just hunkerin'
down on the steps.' that was just ridiculous."
one of smith's
favorite memories of that night is dion's overt friendliness
and "super supportive" encouragement, telling him not
to be nervous and that
she'd be listening to his beautiful song. (smith's pristine
impersonation of the canadian chanteuse, incidentally, is one
of my favorite memories of this month.) although quite a few
people felt an awkward joy in his one-night stand in the celluloid
void - award presenter madonna apparently one of them - smith
claims it didn't really feel like anything at all. "everything
in slow motion," he says. "and i didn't feel particularly
nervous. i just felt like i was in some odd dream that was probably
meant for someone else. everyone was really nice, but the point
of the show is the show. it's
certainly not me. the point of it is to have a big parade of
the aftershocks of the academy awards would continue long after
the designer gowns had been returned, after the hors d'oeuvres
through the colons of the stars, after the grinning spectre of
james cameron's inflated bravado had ceased to haunt the dreams
of ordinary, godfearing citizens. and the effects weren't necessarily
out with minnie driver in l.a., which was picked up as some sort
of news item, as if we were a couple, which was not true,"
he says. a little thing like the truth, however, didn't prevent
the masters of insinuation, tv tabloid american home journal,
from taking separate pictures of smith and driver and splicing
them together. "i really like her, but it wasn't like that,"
he says. "it didn't make my girlfriend really happy."
smith has recently taken to excluding "miss misery"
from his set list, a point of consternation among new fans won
over by the soundtrack and modern-rock radio airplay. a surprising
decision, considering that smith claims to eschew the politics
of the music-making business. "i think it's great when
people do what they feel is right," smith explains. "and
sometimes that involves politics... To me, the fact that 'miss
asociated with the academy awards makes it less of a candidate
for my live show. it's attached to too much baggage."
a valid point,
but is not playing a hit song just as good as admitting defeat
- essentially being limited by the power of popular opinion?
that some sort of agenda gets applied to music, i think it's
a drag," he says. "music is worth doing just because.
it doesn't have to be justified by some political point of view,
and it's kind of insulting to the music to make it a tool for
is mostly correct. movies and music too often blend into a heady
popularity that enhances neither one. although the "good
soundtrack sold close to 200,000 copies and exposed smith to
a billion pepole, hollywood can be a gravy train that makes only
one abrupt, spotlit stop for musicians. and how much is the
academy awards about music, anyway?
smith replies. "but how much is it about movies?"
the spaghetti-strapped teenage girls and big-pantsed boys gathering
at the t-shirt and soft-pretzel stands aren't really paying much
attention to elliott smith, whoever that is.
smith is backed
tonight by quasi, the portland duo of drummer janet weiss (also
of sleater-kinney) and bassist sam coomes (ex-heatmiser). smith
an electric guitar in place of his more familiar acoustic, and
the trio drives quickly through a half-hour set mostly comprised
of smith's more "rock" material.
a couple days
later, i'm in a coffee shop talking to weiss and coomes in philadelpia.
quasi has just finished performing an energetic set at a bar
down the street. a bar, coincidentally, where smith played to
a sold-out crowd of fervent fans just a few months ago. we get
around to talking about
the more surreal, and even disturbing, aspects of smith's recent
tour: that all the venues looked exactly the same and that each
concert seemed to be
affiliated with a certain softdrink giant.
such a small percentage of it that's about the music," weiss
says. "most of it's about sponsors and all these people
and record labels and who's backstage. it's not that fun."
remind me of what smith says about the academy awards and echoes
some of his thoughts about the tour as well.
playing with beck and ben," smith says. "but , of
course, i prefer to play in smaller places, where people come
to see me play, instead of a big place, looking out over a sea
of people who want to go snowboarding. don't make that the big
blow-up quote, i don't want people to think - "
that you don't
want to be playing these big tours?
born in omaha,
neb., smith grew up in dallas with his mother and stepfather.
family problems led to his relocation at age 14 to portland,
where he lived
with his father, who encouraged him to play the guitar. smith
began to experiment with four-track recording; one remnant from
this high-school songwriting days, "condor ave," survives
on smiths' first solo album, "roman candle."
limitations and a general disinterest in higher education don't
fully explain his last-minute application and acceptance to hampshire
college in massachusetts, an expensive, ultra-liberal school
with no grades and no majors. he sheepishly admits to merely
following his high-school girlfriend. a rookie mistake in the
field of love, perhaps, and also a costly endeavor - only recently
have the student loans been paid off - it was nevertheless the
setting where smith would begin to chart a musical course with
classmate neil gust. the duo's collegiate collaborations only
went as far as occasional acoustic shows about town, but a post-graduate
return to portland sparked loftier ambitions - for gust, at least.
smith had other ideas.
wanted to start a band and i did too, but i'd talked myself out
of it at that point," says smith. "i wanted to be
a fireman. i came around to fireman by the process of elimination,
looking for something that was
actually, definitely worthwhile to do. i wanted to be free to
do what i wanted to do. which meant if it had to be a straight
job, it had to be one with a lot of free time, because i was
going to play music regardless. it
didn't occur to me to try to get ahead."
firemen may very well have been in demand at the time in some
place (off broadway? parisian symbolist revues?), in portland,
gust settled for forming a group with a fiery name. heatmiser,
a loud and often troubled rock outfit that was pretty much waht
you'd expect of a northwestern band in the early '90s. four
releases on the frontier label established both smith and gust
who shared vocal and songwriting duties - as considerable talents.
however, the band's ranks weren't quite as tight as
its fuzzed-out, rhythmic music. after heatmiser signed to virgin
in 1996 and recorded "mic city sons", the band promptly
called it quits, stranding its most varied and surprisingly melodic
effort. according to coomes, who filled in on bass for heatmiser's
last album and tour, the band had broken up at least three times
during his brief membership. but even as smith was co-piloting
heatmiser's abrasive trajectory, it was apparent that he had
hidden his love away in a quieter, more introspective place.
i was on tour with [heatmiser], he brought an acoustic guitar,"
coomes says. "and after we'd play a show, he'd hole himself
up and practice these
elaborate guitar things. i never heard him play like that before."
reasons for smith's closely guarded secret. not only was he
liable to be set up up for one of modern music's most infamous
wherein a member of loud-rock band flounders on what's perceived
to be limp solo material - the setting seemed all wrong.
idea of playing [my music] for people didn't occur to me,"
says smith, "because at the time it was the northwest -
mudhoney and nirvana - and going
out to play an acoustic show was like crawling out on a limb
and begging for it to be sawed off."
was sort of fist-in-the-air rock," relates weiss, "and
i think everyone was really pleasantly surprised and shocked."
soon prove that smith should never have hesitated. "for
a long time, i played to five people and a guy in the back playing
darts," smith says. "so i got used to a kind of confrontational
thing, not so much in a negative way, but sort of like, 'i'm
really gonna play my songs no matter what happens here in this
bar and make sure to do them in a way so that there's something
that must be good about them.' now it's sort of more like, 'play
this song, play that song.'"
as smith started
making money from his own shows, he was able to quit jobs, which
included stints as a baker and construction worker, and after
much coaxing by friends, put nine songs to tape for a possible
single on the cavity search label. "i made (cavity search)
a tape," he says, "and then they called back and said,
'we want to put it out.' i said, 'all right. which
songs?' they were like, 'we want to put it out.'"
songs, recorded on a four-track in the basement, became 1994's
slow-burning "roman candle". "things have sort
of gone like that for me," he
says. "that's why it's hard for me to talk about things
that have happened to me, because so little of it has been my
doing. i've been the fortunate beneficiary of happy accidents."
he pauses for a moment, then adds, "some of it's my doing
- i make up some songs, i guess."
ah, the songs.
if smith has indeed led a charmed life fraught with unexpected
successes and the pitfalls brought on by supportive benefactors,
it certainly isn't reflected in his near-whispered songs. bleak
monologues confess tales of broken hearts, drug addiction and
social isolation in a world where the bartender's last call is
the solitary drinker's death knell. all imagery with which others
have depicted him as
the hopelessly romantic, jukie saint. i get to know him as a
man who's simply fond of his metaphors.
a very simple change of device, i'm two opposite things to people,"
he says. "i mean, you can't even understand your neighbor
much less someone you
saw on a television program. and i'm not necessarily talking
about msyelf, but people form such strong and narrow opinions
of people, and they're going
on such litttle information. the thing that's fun for me is to
make parallels between things. that's more interesting to me,
at the moment anyway, than
writing really straight songs about a particular person or event.
metaphors work a lot better when you don't draw attention to
the fact that they're metaphors. talking about drugs - and why
people do drugs and how they feel about it - just leads you to
the same things as talking about relationships and people in
circumispect is smiths' 1995 self-titled album. songs like "needle
in the hay" and "the white lady loves you more"
suggest a more literal interpretation of the narcotic imagery,
one that places the singer uncomfortably close to his subject.
were on my mind, but they wren't only on my mind because of my
involvement with them," he says. "they were partly
on my mind because it's a very useful device to talk about other
things that are harder to name. if you can't name the big hing,
you have to break it apart into small things with names and build
it back up using the small things."
with his explanation, lets loose a broad smile that quickly disappears
when I bring up folk music.
like folk music, but i don't like it any more than any other
style," he says. "it's sort of like punk - as a style,
it belongs to something in the past. as a way of life, it's
something very alive."
the lazy description
of smith's music also spawned a seemingly endless stream of comparisons
to an urban folk singer of a different era, paul simon. the
further similarity between the two - smiths "good will hunting"
contributions being analogous to simon's for "the graduate"
- merely added fuel to the fire.
used to really get on my nerves," he says. "but now
I feel bad for letting it rub me the wrong way, because i kind
of ran my mouth off about paul simon, and it wasn't very nice."
smith is most likely referring to a 1995 interview in australian
fanzine "spunk", wherein he called simon's lyrics "corny."
unlike simon, smith is uncomfortable with being a generational
mouthpiece; his aren't protest songs. "when people hear
acoustic music," says smith, "they say, 'oh, he sounds
like paul simon,' or 'oh, a man with a guitar, he must be playing
in order to point out things that are wrong with the world.'
which isn't necersarily true. people can play alone just because
they love playing music."
smith buries the folk categorization under a perfectly constructed
mess of beautiful sounds. "i was paying mroe attention
to the musical side of things than i had before, just because
i could," hes says. "there was going to be more tracks
and resources, and it was an opportunity to build up bigger soundscapes."
from the melodic
pop of "bled white" and the reimagining of "eleanor
rigby" with beach boys vocal harmonies on "oh well,
okay" to the funky, brassed-off
"a question mark" and a pair of contemplative waltzes,
"xo" shows smith coming out of his shell and blossoming
in a variety of musical styles. in conversation, smith afffects
an unambitious, laid-back attitude toward his music; he's being
modest. On "xo," as on all of his records, smith is
responsible for almost every sound, with the notable exceptions
of a few drum tracks laid down by drummer joey waronker (beck,
r.e.m.) and some chamberlain parts by session musician jon brion.
smith would have produced the album, too, but "wearing
all the hats," he says, "makes it slow." as such,
tom rothrock and rob schnapf (who mixed 1997's "either/or"
and produced records
by beck and foo fighters) lent a hand.
musical prowess, shop talk with smith never gets too technical.
a year of piano lessons when he was 10 is the extent of his formal
training. most of his songs were written on his girlfriend's
unwittingly detuned guitar. he currently doesn't have a guitar
of his own, the one his father gave him is, he says, "too
four-track to string arrangements in a couple albums, that's
one thing that i really like about him," says coomes. "he's
always trying to grow as a
musican, and very few people have that kind of discipline."
the ante for the rest of us, too," weiss adds. "it's
really inspiring, like, 'wow, look what elliott's doing! we
gotta try harder.'"
burgettstown, i notice the set list torn into thing strips and
scattered on the dressing-room table. prior to smith's performance,
i'm told, it had been tossed in the air and reassembled into
a random order. it works well as one of smith's metaphors, exemplifying
an unpretentious aesthetic that leaves a lot to chance.
really have any goals specifically," he says. "just
to write more songs and play. i have one true love. maybe two
- a person, too."
were i not
certain of his sincerity, smith's words would seem almost naive.
not many things i can think of doing that really have a point
to them, there's just things that i think are worthwhile doing.
music is one."