Somewhere 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 himself. By Matthew Fritch. Photo by Christian Lantry.
“Hi, 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 tonight.
Smith shakes 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.”
Lately, we’ve been seeing Smith in all the unfamiliar places: the Academy Awards, MTV, Entertainment Weekly. And now gracing the cover of a plush, orchestrated pop record for the DreamWorks mega-label.
XO 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 record.
Today, Smith is in Burgettstown, Pa., a small, pasture-ized cowtown somewhat near Pittsburgh, but closer to nowhere in particular. At the Coca-Cola Star 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’ corduroys.
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 backstage 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 jerseys.
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 it?”
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 memory 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.
It’s hard to imagine we’d be chatting up typically rock-star topics such as popular ascent and the loss 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 casual than unusual when Van Sant asked Smith to contribute to the soundtrack for his movie, Good Will Hunting.
“At some 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. “I ended up making up one for it, and the rest were on other records.”
“Miss 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 news he’d been nominated for what he terms “this bizarre award.”
“I was 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.
The logistics of the award-show performance proved puzzling for Smith, a decidedly do-it-yourself kind of guy. He stumped the show’s producers by asking for a chair (as sitting down is a more comfortable position for playing acoustic 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 there 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 was 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 celebrities.”
For Smith, the aftershocks of the Academy Awards would continue long after the designer gowns had been returned, after the hors d’oeuvres had passed through the colons of the stars, after the grinning spectre of James Cameron’s inflated bravado had ceased to haunt the dreams of ordinary, god-fearing citizens. And the effects weren’t necessarily desirable ones.
“I hung 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.”
Ironically, 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 Misery’ is associated 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?
“Anytime 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 something else.”
Smith’s logic is mostly correct. Movies and music too often blend into a heady popularity that enhances neither one. Although the Good Will Hunting soundtrack sold close to 200,000 copies and exposed Smith to a billion people, 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?
“None,” Smith replies. “But how much is it about movies?”
In Burgettstown, 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 sports 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 Philadelphia. 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 soft-drink giant.
“There’s 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.”
Weiss’ comments remind me of what Smith says about the Academy Awards and echoes some of his thoughts about the tour as well.
“I like 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 his high-school songwriting days, “Condor Ave,” survives on Smith’s first solo album, Roman Candle.
Financial 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.
“Neil 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 a 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.”
While singing firemen may very well have been in demand at the time in some place (Off Broadway? Parisian symbolist revues?), in Portland, Smith and Gust settled for forming a group with a fiery name: Heatmiser, a loud and often troubled rock outfit that was pretty much what 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.
“When 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.”
There were reasons for Smith’s closely guarded secret. Not only was he liable to be set up for one of modern music’s most infamous scenarios—wherein a member of a loud-rock band flounders on what’s perceived to be limp solo material—the setting seemed all wrong.
“The 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.”
“Heatmiser was sort of fist-in-the-air rock,” relates Weiss, “and I think everyone was really pleasantly surprised and shocked.”
History would 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.’”
These nine 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.
Somewhere 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 himself.
“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 inner 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, junkie saint. I get to know him as a man who’s simply fond of his metaphors.
“With 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 myself, but people form such strong and narrow opinions of people, and they’re going on such little 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 love.”
Particularly circumspect is Smith’s 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.
“Drugs were on my mind, but they weren’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 thing, you have to break it apart into small things with names and build it back up using the small things.”
Smith, pleased with his explanation, lets loose a broad smile that quickly disappears when I bring up folk music.
“I really 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—Smith’s Good Will Hunting contributions being analogous to Simon’s for The Graduate—merely added fuel to the fire.
“That 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 necessarily true. People can play alone just because they love playing music.”
With XO, Smith buries the folk categorization under a perfectly constructed mess of beautiful sounds. “I was paying more attention to the musical side of things than I had before, just because I could,” he 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 affects 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.
Despite his 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 nice.”
“From 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 musician, and very few people have that kind of discipline.”
“It ups 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.’”
Before leaving Burgettstown, I notice the set list torn into thin 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.
“I don’t 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.
“There’s 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.”