oscar-nominated songwriter and his writing process"
was unexpectedly thrust into the limelight last year with the
enormous success of the movie "good will hunting,"
the soundtrack of which was peppered with his gray-hued, pensive
songs. yet it's hard to imagine someone less suited to that limelight.
alone on the wide stage at the academy awards this past march,
hunched over his acoustic guitar, smith seemed less like a triumphant
rock star than an uncertain child, dolled up in his best suit,
nervously performing at a music recital.
he began his
career in portland, oregon, in a noisy postpunk outfit called
heatmiser, but it was not a good fit. while the band put out
several excellent albums, smith grew increasingly uncomfortable
with his loud rock band material, as another side to him, softer
and more lyrically astute, lurked underneath. gradually he found
himself writing more acoustic-based, painfully intimate songs.
because they didn't suit the heatmiser style, they quietly evolved
as his private, home recordings. thankfully, after some encouragement
from his friends, he sent his solo recordings to cavity search
records, who were anxious to release them. these became smith's
first solo record, "roman candle," an intense, exquisitely
haunting collection of nearly-whispered songs, as if he is tentatively
sharing close-held secrets.
after a switch
to the kill rock stars label, smith continued making home recordings.
both his self-titled second album and his third, titled "either/or,"
have garnered him more recognition as a superbly melodic
songwriter, spinning stories of disillusionment, drug addiction,
self-loathing and longing, expressing melancholy and frustration
like a searing yet beautiful heartache. he delivers them in his
manner, captivating his listeners and often leaving them dumbstruck
by his nuances of dark and light. with a keen eye for observation,
around every side of a situation with such precision that you
can practically taste it, yet leaves enough ambiguity to give
the images your own context. underneath, his guitar ranges from
desperate ferociousness to an amazingly delicate tenderness.
brought him mainstream recognition was the ear of director gus
van sant, a long-time fan. van sant, listening to smith's music
while filming "good will hunting," asked to use some
of the songs for the film's
soundtrack. smith agreed, as well as composed one new song for
it, and the result was an oscar nomination for "miss misery"
(something Smith has been quoted as calling a "freakish
accident"), and his almost incongruous prada-clad performance
at the academy awards.
have now broken up and smith has subsequently switched to a major
label, dreamworks, for his new, fourth solo record, "xo".
it's an album that
has caught his fans by surprise, with slicker production and
more involved arrangements, but smith remains a master at wordplay
and a magical, gifted songwriter.
him for "the big takeover" was really an honor. we
began with my admission of being a longtime fan who couldn't
wait to talk about his music,
specifically his writing.
elliott: no, thats cool.
id prefer to talk to someone who really wants to talk about
music. thats what i want to talk about.
pc: while living in los
angeles last year, my salvation was going to a small club, called
largo, on friday nights to see jon brion [ex-The Grays] play.
one friday night, last november, there you were, up on stage,
singing kinks and david bowie covers . was that fun for you to
just let loose?
elliott: oh yeah. whats
especially fun, though, is getting to play with jon brion.
pc: at the time, i had
no idea who you were, but then after the show someone suggested
i pick up your either/or and i loved it.
elliott: im glad you liked
it. thank you very much.
pc: so from the tiny stage
of largo to the grandness of the oscars, thats a long way.
elliott: it was really strange
being at the oscars. the oscars are all about style - anything
that has to do with famous people is about style. but all those
people were really nice to me.
pc: seeing you sandwiched
between celine dion and, what was it, michael bolton? it was
like, one of these people is not like the other, one of
these people just doesnt belong...
elliott: yeah. it was kind of
funny. i did feel like i didnt belong. but, when you think
about it, a lot of those people would rather have been making
than sitting through a long awards show.
pc: thats true. well,
lets talk about your songwriting, as thats what got
you to the oscars in the first place. i downloaded an interview
with you off of some web-site, i think you were at a radio station,
and the disc jockeys didnt quite understand what it meant
to write a song. they couldnt quite grasp that a song doesnt
always end up the way you originally intend it to be.
elliott: yeah. people think
it turns out how you want it to, but thats not always true.
i might be thinking about something when im writing the
words and i might understand what im writing about... or
i might not. sometimes i dont even know what im writing
pc: you definitely have
a lot of new stuff that youve written about cause
you have a new record, xo. i had heard that you were
going to call it grand mal, so why the switch?
elliott: actually the first
title was xo and i had changed it because i thought
it wounded too much like either/or. but, then there
was a band called grand
mal and they didnt want me to call the record the same
name as their band. i like xo better.
pc: ive been reading
the postings from your fans on internet message boards. youve
been called everything from a supergod to a supergenius
fucking cutie. in fact, and i am quoting here, one
person wrote, if it were not for elliotts records,
i most likely would have died a long time ago.
elliott: wow. yeah. i dont
know about all that stuff. i dont really read much of my
press and i dont know... all that stuff is in other peoples
minds. i mean, im just human. if they knew me, theyd
realize im very much like them.
pc: i guess some people
would like to also believe that you are the superhuman version
elliott: yeah, thats what
people want of famous people, but its not very comfortable.
its in sane to think that you could be that.
pc: there are a lot of
rock stars who do start to believe that they are superversions
of themselves. they become their own caricatures.
elliott: some people cant
wait to be it, cause they dont like who they are
and theyd rather be a caricature of themselves. there are
still plenty of ways
in which i dont know myself that well, but i know myself
well enough to not trade in my actual life for an imaginary one.
pc: i guess you wont
be setting up a 1-800-call-elliott help line any soon. [elliott
laughs] alright, lets talk about your new xo.
youre on a major label now. was there a concern to make
a bigger record than your previous stripped-down
elliott: no, dreamworks didnt
know what i was going to do in the first place, and they didnt
put any pressure on me at all. i could have made an acoustic
record and they would have been fine with that. i think dreamworks
is trying to put out records they actually like. a lot of records
get put out by labels just to make a lot of money. but dreamworks
have been really cool to
me, so far.
pc: so far!! [both laugh]
part of your signature style is your playing, with lots of finger-picking.
many singers use their voices or lyrics to convey the gist of
the emotion, with the chords supporting it underneath, but you
use your guitar as an added voice.
elliott: well, its fun
to try. i like finger-picking a lot. i like flamenco a lot. i
have learned a lot from flamenco even though i cant play
it. its great when people find
creative ways to play. people usually just strum chords and thats
fine, too, i do like a lot of songs like that. but, for me, its
more fun for my fingers to make them do different things.
pc: youve been playing
for so long, you probably need to find something different to
do. [he nods] one track on your new record that jumps out immediately
head-trippy rock tune, amity. the lyrics sound more
stream-of-consciousness and free-floating than many of your other
elliott: its a really
unguarded song - i made up the lyrics in a couple of minutes
and didnt change them. i like the way it feels, although
its not an especially deep song at all.
pc: no, not at all. but
i love the feel of it. i was dancing around my basement a la
uma thurman in pulp fiction.
elliott: [laughs] its,
i dont know... just a big rock song. its a pretty
simple song. its not so much about the words themselves,
but more about how the whole thing sounds. some friends of mine
said it sounded like i was trying to get something romantic going
with someone, and thats not what it was supposed to be
about. it was supposed to be, youre really fun to
with and i really like you a lot because of that, but i am really,
really depressed. but i dont know if that came across.
when i said, ready to go, it was supposed to mean
tired of living.
pc: oh?! like, ready to
check out of this world?
elliott: yeah. sorry to make
the song depressing for you now. [both laugh]
pc: thats ok, ill
still listen. i, too, had thought there was a romantic element
to that song. i wondered if the word amity was a
play on the french word amite.
elliott: actually, its
a person i know.
pc: my favorite part of
the song is where you sing, cause you laugh and talk/and
cause you make my world rock! its such a departure
from your usual style of writing, i liked the carefree aspect
of it. i remember
thinking that most songwriters couldnt write those lyrics
and get way with it. if anyone else had written that, i would
have thought, what a moron!
elliott: yeah. [laughs] yeah.
pc: but youre intelligent
and your lyrics are so clever that i got the feeling you were
purposely letting loose and having fun with the song.
elliott: it was very simple.
i was saying, i really like you and its really great
to hang out with someone who is happy and easy-going, but i dont
feel like that and i cant be with you.
pc: and then you get the
standard but why are you so sad?
elliott: the thing is, im
not really sadder than anyone else. im happy at times.
im not always sad and im not always happy. after
all, most people
arent incredibly happy all the time. people have their
own stuff that they constantly try and make better, and so im
just trying to be a better person, the same thing virtually everyone
i know is trying to do. the purpose of
unhappiness is to point your life in a better direction, where
you make things better. otherwise there would be no point to
being unhappy, it would just be a place that is brutal.
pc: you definitely learn
the most when you are upset. you dont tend to stop and
elliott: yeah. if you eat a
poisonous plant, it makes you sick, so you learn not to eat that
plant. so, its like that.
pc: still, your lyrics
would suggest that you go to greater extremes than some people.
On sweet adeline, for instance, you sing, im
sedation to disconnect my head/or any situation where im
better off than dead.
elliott: [laughs] i dont
know why i write that sometimes. like anyone else, i have the
full range of emotions but for some reason its harder to
when im happy. happy is a broader feeling. if youre
unhappy it easier to focus in and say, this thing
is frustrating me.
pc: perhaps one thing you
find depressing is people failing to live up to their potential,
which seems to be a theme that crops up in your lyrics. on baby
britain from xo, you sing, if you were
half as smart/youd be a work of art, and on between
the bars, from either/or, you sing, the
potential youll be/that youll never see.
elliott: right. i think people...
i think no one ever lives up to their potential, and thats
not a negative thing, though it sounds like that in my songs.
it does burn me out sometimes. but its impossible to live
up to your potential in this world because if you can, potential
itself is not worth very much. people are infinitely more capable
than what they end up showing.
pc: which can be why they
then choose to adore celebrities. they under-rate themselves.
elliott: yeah! and that is one
reason people get depressed.
pc: and then they take
anti-depressant. are you still taking them?
elliott: i quit doing that a
pc: good! i tried zoloft
and hated it.
elliott: thats what i
tried. i kind of liked it, though. i made me feel better for
a while, but then i started drinking... and that didnt
mix very well. [both laugh] now i dont take zoloft and
i dont drink very much anymore, so im feeling better
pc: i guessed you were,
because xo seems to have more elements of optimism.
there are more references to daytime and the sun.
elliott: yeah, i would say so.
pc: everybody cares,
everybody understands refers to what we were just talking
about - using zoloft, being depressed - you describe people trying
to help you out, but they dont really know what you are
elliott: thanks. its a
pretty harsh song about people who think that they know what
you ought to do with yourself.
pc: it sounds like the
sister song to st. ides heaven on your second record,
elliott smith, where you sing, cause
everyone is a fucking pro and they all got answers from trouble
elliott: yeah... i guess so.
both songs have that thing where everyone thinks that just because
theyve been through something similar and such-and-such
worked for them, that it will necessarily work for you.
pc: yeah. i love that just
get dressed and go out! line that people say to try to
snap you out of a mood. it doesnt work, does it? makes
me feel like the person in your song rose parade:
and when they clean the street/ill be the only shit
thats left behind... [elliott laughs] your songs
have a conversational style, very casual and direct. do you go
back and edit your lyrics to be more typically song-like?
elliott: i do. more song-like
to me equals more speaking-like. i like, if possible, to write
the way that people actually speak. thats why when people
bring up comparisons to poetic singer/songwriters it gets on
my nerves. i dont feel as flowery!
pc: you arent flowery,
but you do use metaphors and imagery.
elliott: i like words to be
lyrical, you know, but i think its cool when they still
hold a connection to the reality of english as a spoken language
and not just as a bunch of ideas.
pc: you meld reality with
fantasy. for example, on bled white, you sing about
taking the f-train in manhattan, a very real situation, and then
how it is connecting to a friend of yours, so you bring in more
metaphorical stuff and interweave the two. you tell just enough
of a story to get your message across, and leave enough imagery
for us to play with in our heads.
elliott: im really glad
you said that, because that is something i try to do. i dont
try and do much when i write songs, but that i really work at.
pc: heres the perfect
story, then. i was on the subway yesterday, listening to bled
white, when i looked up and realized i was the only person
on the entire subway. the train wasnt moving and the doors
were locked. and at least a hundred people were staring in at
me, alone in the empty subway car. they had been watching me
bopping around, imagining myself on the f-train in manhattan.
i had to pry open the subway doors, then smiled sheepishly and
asked, um, what is going on here? everyone busted
out laughing and someone said, we were asked to evacuate
the train a while ago. i had been completely oblivious
to the real world because, in my head, youd transported
me to a manhattan subway!
elliott: [laughs] thats
a great story! see, that could have been in the song!
pc: you always evoke strong
visuals with the way you paint your words. are you unfamiliar
then with eidetic imagery and thinking in pictures?
elliott: i very much do that,
i see the pictures in my head. Thats how i write. most
of the time when im writing, im describing a picture
in my head. well, not really one picture, a bunch of them that
pc: even the word picture
comes up quite a bit in your songs.
elliott: when i refer to a picture
in a song, im referring to the picture in my head.
pc: i can see how various
images mesh together and end up in your songs. in bottle
up and explode [on xo], you talk about seeing
stars, but then you
describe them as being red, white and blue.
elliott: yeah. actually, i was
thinking about fireworks exploding. it could be a celebration,
but then again, it could be something bad. i just try and make
connections between things. im not so interested in telling
complete stories anymore - now i like it better if the songs
are like abstract movies.
pc: youd like a little
more right-brain activity, a less linear approach?
elliott: yeah. more like a dream.
pc: i guess that might
give a song stronger staying power as well? when people listen
to it repeatedly, theyll always imagine it themselves and
be certain if that is what you had truly intended.
elliott: yeah. the song wont
complete itself without someone activating their imagination.
the music is supposed to do that. a lot of my favorite songs
are ones that arent complete without me finishing them
in my head.
pc: such as...?
elliott: the beatles strawberry
fields is like that. its kind of like a bunch of
connected images, not a song that says, ok, heres
what happened and why.
im trying to write more like that now, cause the
other way is very one-way and the only time you can really connect
to a one-way song is when you feel exactly like i do, right now.
pc: strawberry fields...
hmmm... magical mystery tour.
elliott: yeah. thats also
one of my favorites. i like that kind of record, with a lot of
melody and a kind of cool, murky quality.
pc: when i was listening
to oh well, ok, from xo, its essence
actually conjured up the feeling i get from the beatles
fool on the hill [from that same lp].
elliott: oh really? cool.
pc: at what moment are
you filled with inspiration while writing your own songs?
elliott: when i surprise myself.
thats the best, and it only happens when i dont have
a plan. thats why i dont sit down and try and write
songs about specific things. by doing that, you end up with songs
you already know you can write. they might be good songs or bad
songs, but theyre definitely boring songs to me, cause
i already know i can write that. the most exciting thing for
me is to accidentally think of something that surprises me and
that i wouldnt usually write.
pc: do you keep lyric notes?
elliott: more often i have a
bunch of pieces of lyrics and music in my head all the time,
usually like 20 or 30 things. over time some of them end up as
songs, some i forget about and some hang around for several months.
ill write stuff at bars on napkins and stuff but i dont
look at it later. if its memorable, ill probably
remember it. [smith wrote the whole of xo in a
bar near his brooklyn home, and at the luna lounge bar in manhattans
east village, a mere two blocks from my home. i was dying to
know why id spotted him in there so frequently, until he
mentioned this in alternative press - ed.]
pc: where are you living
now portland or new york?
pc: youve said that
you wanted to go to new york to escape yourself, but that youd
finally realized that you were only going to be the same person,
but in new york. yet, here you are in brooklyn! [both laugh]
so, are you still you?
elliott: yeah. [laughs] i mean,
im only around for a week or two at a time anyway, so theres
no real point in thinking about where im living. and, ive
been out touring this record.
pc: well, elliott, thanks
for the interview and take care of yourself! a lot of us think
of you like your words in amity, because we think
your music is so beautiful, you make my world rock!
elliott: [laughs] thank you.
thanks a lot!