is not a junkie. He's not desperately messed-up, at least not
anymore than anyone else. he claims to have written a happy song,
and believes that his music seems a bit darker than most because
for one thing, he doesn't have a band, and for another, he wouldn't
dream of singing contrived lyrics that don't mean anything to
him. so explains the singer-songwriter on the phone from his
hotel room in
nashville, a recent stop on a national tour that will bring him
to the roxy in boston monday. "for a while it seemed live
everyone was asking me why i was so depressed. but i can't do
anything about what people read into the songs. if people are
constantly going to be putting someone under a microscope, then
that person is either going to quit what they're doing, or get
good at not being bothered by it.: still, it's not hard to see
why smith has been cast in the role of tunesmith to the downtrodden
alt-crowd. his records are filled with
unflinching, emotionally raw portraits of drug addicts and alcoholics,
and spare, poetic sketches of self-loathing and decayed love.
gorgeously tragic words are melded to melodies that are as simultaneously
lush and forthright, and as inevitable-sounding, as those crafted
by smith's great
inspiration, the beatles. smith sings in a wispy, fragile voice;
on his most recent album, "xo," he thickens the sensitive-misfit-and-his-guitar
aesthetic with piano and string, drums and chamberlain. the album
is a triumph of bittersweet pop poetry, and wound up on countless
top ten lists (including this writer's) for 1998.
i thought of it as storytelling. it's never seemed confessional
to me," says smith, a soft-spoken 29-year-old. "i
don't need people to understand what it is to be me. it's more
like dreams . . . pieces are me
and pieces are other people and pieces are some character i'm
making up." however blurred the line between experience
and imagination may be, the
product of smith's craft is extraordinarily precise. listening
to the songs is as lonely and solitary an endeavor as the lives
his characters lead. even the instrumental embellishments of
"xo"*which might easily have cluttered the bleak emotional
landscape smith painted with stark arrangements on three previous
albums*lend a powerful grace to smith's
people who really like stripped-down music were like, hey, why'd
you have to go and pile on all this crap. you should have just
played the songs,'" recalls smith, who recently moved from
portland, oregon to brooklyn. previously on the olympia, washington-based
kill rock stars label, smith was signed last year to dreamworks,
which released "xo." but he insists that high-profile
corporate backing and its reciprocal demands had nothing to do
with the fleshed-out sound of "xo," but rather everything
to do with growing as a musician. "it's sort of boring
to do the same thing over and over that you already know you
can do. for me, it was a new thing to try and use more instruments,
even though it makes it sound
more normal in a way. a lot of times when people use strings,
for example, they turn out sappy and sentimental. that just
makes it more fun to try to use strings in a way that's better
than that. i like being in
an area where things are discredited, and to try to put life
even as a
child, smith found himself drawn to the cracks that rend a polished
surface, preferring a skewed musical angle over the smooth flow
of a song. with time, he's learned the power of merging the
two. "when i was a kid my favourite thing about songs was
when they would change from one part to another," says smith,
who began writing songs when he was 13.
"So i would make up all of these transitions and put them
together. they were really linear and phosphorous, and didn't
repeat enough to be songs.
they had lots of chords. too many. but i learned a lot about
to wit, smith's
favourite beatles song is the epically twisted "a day in
the life." his fondest memory--and this tells you a lot
about smith's subject matter--is of when he started going out
with his ex-girlfriend.
smith's songs are so painfully wistful one has to wonder if the
songwriter sees them as a way of reaching out, or if the process
is rather one of retreat from a world that supplies such tragic
fodder. "that's something i've actually thought about quite
a bit," muses smith. "i've come to no conclusion.
it's something i've done for so long it's just kind of built
what of the
music fan who derives deep pleasure, such good feeling, after
all, from such sad songs? "i think when people feel bad
they often lose touch with reality, and they think they're unique
in a bad way. so then they hear these songs, and it's like when
you get upset and you talk to your friends so that someone can
go this happened to me to.'"
with a figurehead
as eloquent as smith speaking for the misfits and loners, it's
no surprise that a cult of loser-chic is emerging in his wake.
"at the risk of being pretentious, i think that that doesn't
really have anything to do with me or my songs, but how contrived
the music that's available is," smith protests. "people
don't usually sing about anything that really matters to them.
so if somebody comes out with something that seems less stilted
. . ."
was brought into bold relief at last year's academy awards, where
smith performed his oscar-nominated song "miss misery"
from the "good will hunting" soundtrack. smith, stunningly
out of place with his greasy hair, white suit, and acoustic guitar,
was sandwiched between country-queen trisha yearwood and chest-thumping
celine dion. the effect
was surreal, as if smith had taken a wrong turn on his way to
a club gig and wandered in the stage door to the dorothy chandler
pavilion. "that's exactly what it was. surreal,"
smith says with a quiet laugh. "i enjoy
performing almost as much as i enjoy making up songs in the first
place. but the oscars was a very strange show, where the set
was only one song cut down to less that two minutes, and the
audience was a lot of people who didn't come to hear me play.
i wouldn't want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk
around on the moon for a day."
at the roxy will split the difference: he's touring with a two-person
band in support of "xo." he sounds, however, as if
he's already begun to walk away from the album. like the malcontents
songs, smith has already turned his gaze toward the change from
one part to another that he's always embraced. "it's kind
of like once something is done it always seems to be lacking
something," smith says. "even if it turns out well,
it's not good anymore. but i guess i'm about as pleased with
it as i ever am."