Guitar Player, Sept 1998 v32 n9 p60(15)
Yanked out of relative obscurity to perform his Oscar-nominated song "Miss Misery" from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack at the 1998 Academy Awards show (sandwiched between performances by Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion), Elliott Smith may have had people scratching their heads: "Who is this shy guy with the acoustic guitar wearing the rumpled white suit?" But to those who know and love the emotive folk singer's acoustic picking and whisper-to-wail voice, it's more like, "Finally!" He has been hailed as one of Spin magazine's "most vital artists of '98." And rightly so. His fourth album, XO [Dreamworks], is an intense, intelligent, but visceral jewel.
"Writing songs is like a waiting
game. The more you play, the more it will happen. And the more
I play absentmindedly, the more I'll happen upon something that
seems surprising. I usually have a lot of
songs or pieces of songs going at the same time. I play almost every day, and I kind of idly go through them. I don't sit down and decide, `Now I'm going to finish this one!' I just sort of play what I have, and I seem to make some progress over the long term. And it's usually my hand that figures it out, not my brain.
"I used to try to come up with some program that would result in a good song, but having applied myself to different methods--my own creations that all failed--it seems to me that the less you think about it, the better. The main obstacle that people come up against is deciding whether something that they just started to work on is good or bad. You should definitely follow every idea to as much of a conclusion as possible. It's easy to get really demoralized at the outset, because you come up with an idea and say, `That sounds like some other song,' or `That's not very interesting.' But the more material you have to work with, the more you can pick and choose what you think turned out well.
"And that's another whole problem,
because most writers aren't very good judges of their own material.
They'll think one thing is good, because it works, whereas other
people might like the thing
that didn't really work, but was way more interesting. Writers opt more for songs that work well than they opt for the songs that represent personal growth. And that poor choice often slows your writing down a lot.
"It's very important to try all
things that occur to you. You can't not try something just because
it might be cheesy. It's a fine line between something that sounds
like bullshit and something that
sounds really cool. A lot of people agree that Picasso is the greatest painter of the 20th century, but I was told that he has more terrible paintings than everybody else too. He just painted more than everybody else! He didn't demand of himself that everything he did had to be stellar. It's sort of like, do everything and sort it out later, because you learn from your mistakes."
"I'm kind of a sucker for passing chords, such as when you play a progression like G, D with an F# in the bass, and F. There's a half-step, descending melody in those types of sequences that I love. The Beatles did that a lot. And that's what I really like about traditional music. There are ways in which the chords connect to each other--where certain notes only move a little bit while the main notes move a lot. Anything that has an ascending or descending half-step thing in it always ropes me in."
"You can write millions more songs
word-wise than note-wise. Unfortunately, there have only been
a few people who are really interested in words, and a lot of
people who are more into the power of
volume or the catchiness of the hook. It would be cool if there was a`Sonic Youth of words,' because that band did so much for the musical and rhythmic side of things."
"A lot of the stuff I've learned
has come by way of accidents, or things that seemed like failures
at the time. In fact, most of my favorite songs are those that
surprised even the person who wrote them. That's one of the great
things about music: You can be more accomplished than you think.
One day, everything comes together, and you just go, `Wow!'"