the incorruptible one
written by ?, taken from les inrockuptibles 11.4.98
it's a triumph that elliott smith arrives in france,
several months after the release of his already classic album "xo".
the occasion is to confirm the incredible wealth of the songwriter,
and to eye the tattoo which adorns his biceps: a bull sniffing some
flowers - a metaphor that perfectly suits this brute poet, a magnificent
loser propelled in spite of himself, to hollywood.
today, despite the beginnings of a little glory, nothing
seems to have changed in the life of elliott smith: no visible signs
of wealth in the pleasant yet shabby flat which he shares, in a dull
brooklyn street. humble and with a frozen realism, he talks to me below
his home, in an Irish tavern, a dark dive, which, from the outside we
would swear that it has been closed-down. but elliott smith is used
to this place and the barman. "it's an annex to my flat,"
announces the sombre songwriter, as the empty glasses pile up underneath
a picture of the local hero, the legendary baseball player babe ruth.
shy and curled up on his chair, elliott smith is the antithesis of the
presumptuous, of the winner. he, who became the favourite smashed up
darling of hollywood, seems to be many light years away from the very
idea of pressure, of career, of ambition.
the first time we met elliott smith, we didn't see the
real him: it was impossible to perceive his elegant writing in the desperately
ordinary rock of heatmiser, a post-grunge band. so, the day a charitable
hand sent us his first album, "roman candle" (1994), featuring
the magnificent "condor avenue," we believed the writer was
laughing at us: how could he pass from cotton to silk so quickly, from
the guitar of an axe-man to a romantic guitar of a tender guy? the same
charitable hand that we've got to shake more often, then sent us "elliott
smith" (1995), the second album where we saw elliott smith, smelling
a bunch of daisies with a sinister look - a rather fitting metaphor
for the music.
but it's with his third album, the staggering "either/or"
(1997) that elliott smith invited media attention. with melodies so
beautiful, that no one since has come close, the american tattooed like
a thug, sang delicately with one of the most astonishing contrasts ever
envisaged between the brightness of the music and the darkness of the
lyrics. elliott said at that moment that he wanted to be both paul mccartney
and john lennon…
by then, his fan-base began to grow from day to day,
going from fans of hole and beck to those of radiohead and belle &
sebastian alike. among them was an old friend of elliott smith, also
born in the anti-folk scene of portland, oregon: the producer gus van
sant, whose own records go unrecognized. for the soundtrack of "good
will hunting" he chose four of elliott's songs, including a new
unreleased one - "miss misery," the song in the film's credits
- and a collaboration as short as it is amazing with danny elfman, who
regularly works with tim burton. the general american public discovered
elliott at this point when a little pathetic thing in an odd suit came
to sing "miss misery" during the oscars in march 1998, where
his song was competing in the category "best film soundtrack of
the year" against céline dion (who'd win in the wake of
titanic). during this period, the unknown man from portland was recruited
by the legendary lenny waronker of dreamworks, a label established by
the titans spielberg and geffen.
ever the philosopher, he knows we came across his songs
by accident; that they didn't ask to be found by anyone, and will soon
be alone again like they were before all of this. we could describe
him as a loser, but should never forget the adjective leonard cohen
grafted: beautiful loser.
elliott: "the pressure, i don't feel it. even during
the oscar ceremony, i didn't succeed to imagine it was about me when
people were talking in flattering way. it's a world which i'm not from,
that was an unreal experience. i was feeling like the freak in those
parts - that was like a very strange acid trip."
gus van sant was also from portland. were you friends
at this time?
elliott: "he records folk songs at his home, so i knew him as a
singer rather than a producer. we exchanged our little secrets about
how to record at home without money and gear… if a big wig from
hollywood had proposed to use my songs, i would have refused. but i
knew the creativity of gus; the relationship was more sentimental than
professional; i was certain that he wouldn't manipulate me. when i was
nominated for the oscars, all the professional film-industry press interviewed
me, asking me which other movies i am working on. suddenly they assumed
i was a soundtrack writer! so that was just a coincidence… also,
for this soundtrack, i had the pleasure to re-record my song "between
the bars" with a professional orchestra conducted by danny elfman.
i don't want to compose cinema music, neither do i have the desire to
mingle with people in hollywood. i don't want to see my name in the
credits of "terminator 7" (laughs). i hate action films, just
as i hate action. i just want to continue to write songs which mean
something to me."
how have you dealt with the success of the song "miss
elliott: "like an injustice. why me? most people who i know that
are in groups deserve at least as much attention, as those who get into
the charts. they don't even get the chance to record their songs, so
each time that i switch on my radio, i only hear songs that don't deserve
to be there. i don't want my songs to frequent those channels. i've
only played a small part in my success - it's the others who have made
me successful. i was happy enough recording my little albums for local
labels. there is an advantage to sometimes have few resources, like,
my songs were recorded on a four-track where i couldn't afford to make
mistakes, limiting the number of decisions i had to make. if i had to
make choices, i'm sure i would lose every time. if it was up to me i
would just continue to record at home."
can one record for the giant dreamworks, while having
so few ambitions?
elliott: "i have never in my life sent a single tape to a record
company, and it makes no difference if my records are distributed throughout
the whole world. my songs don't care who will eventually sell them.
my only concern is that i don't have to work on a building site anymore.
and at the same time, i feel a bit ashamed, i know that i don't deserve
to live my music. i had already had this problem when my former band
heatmiser to a big record company behind my back. i wanted to leave
the group, and i suddenly no longer felt a part of it. the other musicians
had already secretly budgeted what they were gonna do with the money
and me. i was obliged to go along with them and not be known as the
in this 'tough' rock band, did you play a role?
elliott: "yes, but that didn't bother me playing this role. for,
musically speaking, i hated most of their songs anyway, but i loved
them as humans. secretly, i was dreaming of changing the musical direction
of the band, but i didn't have the courage to do it. so i started to
record my songs alone… nevertheless, with heatmiser, i was writing
and singing half of the songs. but i thought what they did to my songs
was unbearable - they transformed them into rock songs. i really had
to love them to stay (he laughs)… and on another level, i didn't
have enough trust in myself to sing and play alone. for about a year
i hated my voice, i couldn't completely control it. i'm still not convinced
that i can sing."
what finally gave you that necessary confidence?
elliott: "i began writing those songs when i was 14, but they never
left my bedroom, during those years. i was certain that i would be humiliated
if anybody listened to them. in the place i lived, no one did this,
nobody talked about acoustic guitars in the punk sort of world, everybody
was listening to like, nirvana or mudhoney. i was a coward who refused
to leave the horde. it was my girlfriend at that time who pushed me
to go and put out a single. she sent a tape to a label there, cavity
search. they called and told me: 'great! we want to put it out! but
which ones do you want to put on a single? everything? we'll make an
album!' without that first album, i wouldn't ever have dared to do any
concerts. and i wouldn't have suffered for it - i'm not looking to be
known, i never had posters of any pop stars in my bedroom. to be honest,
i always hated that side of it. take a look at me now - how can i take
myself for a star?"
who inspired you to write songs when you were 14?
elliott: "at that age, most of the musicians around had only one
thing in mind - do covers. me, i was away from all that, i'd been taking
music very seriously for a long time, and was determined to write my
own songs. when i was 5, i wanted to be a bassist. that was the fault
of the beatles' white abum. like, how couldn't i have had the desire
to become a bassist after listening to helter skelter? that sound traumatized
are you ever envious of other songwriters?
elliott: "it's a feeling which i'm not proud of, but i feel an
unbelievable jealousy when i listen to some songs - stuff by alex chilton,
john lennon, leadbelly. i hate them so much to stop me writing that
song! it happens less often with my contemporaries. except for maybe
quasi, beck or sebadoh. they are among the only bands i'm around. moreover,
i toured with beck, and i love the way his brain works (he smiles)…
except for that jealousy, i make a big effort to be a good person, though
i'm rather anti social. my friend mary lou lord is able to talk to people
for hours at the end of her concerts. i just run away as soon as possible.
i'm not able to talk with more than one person at a time. in a group,
i'm the one who doesn't say a word and who does everything he can not
to be noticed, so people can let me be quiet!"
you're often associated with some american mavericks,
like lampchop or sparklehorse. do they help you to feel less lonely?
elliott: "it's like the national health: my folder has been lost
and has just been put in the same tray as the other unclassifiable ones.
i've got nothing in common with those bands - i hate their styles, it's
he same with the style new country. that's why i love to compose songs
so much, cos they are born without any style. then after the cement
hardens when they're set in a style they don't interest me anymore.
they're dead as soon as they get recorded! more, my sensibility is more
pop than theirs is. it makes me laugh when i'm labelled as lo-fi, because
i've grown up listening to the productions of george martin. i don't
understand those people who say they prefer lo-fi to hi-fi. it's like
saying 'i prefer the french language to the spanish one.' some things
are easier to say in french, and others in spanish. i'd like to be both
john lennon and paul mccartney at once - i can say this without any
illusions, like i can say that it could be great to be superman. i don't
know why that within the beatles, people always want to separate the
talents of lennon and mccartney - between the insipidly pretty ballads
and the acid-y songs. both worked well together.
when i was five, i went on holiday to my father's place
for the first time after the divorce of my parents. at that time he
was a hippy… he'd come back from vietnam and was a real enigma
for me. because i was from dallas, a white town, religious, constipated
and white-trash where his kind of character just didn't exist. in my
block, the main ambition was to earn more money than your neighbour,
to buy a bigger car his. and my father was living in los angeles writing
songs about the things he knew - horse racing, drug dealers… and
he collected records. i found him really odd, i even thought he looked
kind of weird. moreover, i was always scared that something would happen
to my mother when we were in los angeles.
it was during those first holidays in california that
i fell in love with the white album. on my mother's side of the family,
nobody was listening to that kind of music. they were all musicians
though, playing in big bands where they covered gershwin, jazzy ballads,
old stuff like moonriver… my grandfather was a drummer who played
with bands in new orleans with his wife singing. man, that annoyed me
to death. they forced me to learn piano, putting a lot of hope on me.
but very quickly, all that interested me was rock music and after that,
punk music. from the beatles, i passed to the clash and bauhaus. my
mother's new husband hated my records and for many years, did all he
could to prevent me from buying a guitar. it was my father during the
little time i spent with him on holiday, who taught me guitar: i owe
knowing how to play, don't think twice, it's alright by dylan, to him."
your family was considered odd in texas?
elliott: "we never made waves to be part of the masses. when you're
not black or gay, they leave you in peace. and also, playing music was
enough for us to be considered a family of freaks. we were looked down
upon - how could you spend so much time doing something so useless as
music? why do that when it doesn't make money? when i saw the cartoon
king of the hill, it made me laugh. but my life is pointed and different
to that, though there remain some hurtful memories. you live and die
in a few square miles without ever going outside, without ever stopping
to work, and meeting people who look like you. my grandfather, who is
seventy, still works.
i was bored to death there. that is just why, one day
when i was fourteen, i slammed the door, realizing that there were other
people out there living differently, that the world was more interesting
and more wealthy than the south suburbia of dallas. i cannot enter into
details, because that would hurt my mother, but i had to go. i couldn't
stay in the same house as my step-father."
how did you make the cross-over from a world that was
so closed to culture to the beatles, then to dark punk bands?
elliott: "strangely enough, it was my piano teacher. he was around
twenty years old and was composing some avant-garde pieces on the piano.
he was excited by the tonal music and discord. what he played, sounded
to me, like a horrible mess, but at least he communicated his faith
in music to me. i began buying records and didn't talk to anyone. i
spent all day listening to them in my bedroom. there was a sadness,
that made me full of joy. it was like a secret magic. anyhow, i didn't
like to go outside, i wasn't talkative. when i was out there were always
how did a kid from the south-east find himself in the
north-west, in portland?
elliott: "when my father finished living in california he moved
to portland and i followed him. what immediately struck me there, was
that nobody in the street wanted to have a fight with me. that was a
big relief after being in texas. furthermore, there was a passionate
rock scene with bands like hazel."
your hippy father was also a psychiatrist - did he ever
use you as his guinea pig?!
elliott: "luckily, he never saw my childhood drawings (he laughs)…
i would have liked to do the same work; i read a lot on the subject
- especially freud. but, well, i'm not the kind of guy who becomes a
psychiatrist or psychologist, i don't have enough to offer to other
people. when i was a child i would have liked to be a mathematician,
but i realized that i couldn't be in business on my own account but
i'd have to work for a firm or organization. so i turned towards my
only passion: music. i wanted to understand why some songs upset me
to such a point. so i broke them up, i observed them from every angle,
with the hope to find my answer."
did you already write?
elliott: "word became a real pleasure later… i don't do music
to hide myself, that doesn't bother me if the lyrics reveal some aspects
of my personality. i cannot bear the records which are empty and inoffensive,
anymore. i realized very quickly, as a young adult, that talent glowed
very dimly under he spotlight, that the people i admired were inevitably
in the shadows… so i trained myself to be lonely and despised,
to be crushed in the future. if i prepare myself in this way, i won't
be disappointed. it's not about being pessimistic: i'll know what will
be in store for me and i won't mind it. openly, i'd like to write cheerful
for many years i went out with a girl who i was crazy
for. and then i decided i was fed up with portland and i came to new
york… i wanted to be in a place where i was anonymous, because
in portland i knew too many people, i felt stuck there, and stuck in
my habits. me and my girlfriend decided to separate, and for the first
time in my life i had the impression that i acted like the beautiful
loser - i really drank too much, i dragged myself along in the tunnels
of the subway, i acted like i didn't care about anything, and had nothing
to hang onto on this earth. luckily my friends shook me; they were frightened
for me, but i didn't see it then. i was miserable and i wanted to die.
so i tried suicide (silence)… my friends forced me to follow a
treatment against this nervous breakdown - it had nothing to do with
drugs, which i had stopped taking in portland."
how do you fight against this depression?
elliott: "my problem is that I have too much free time. writing
songs isn't a full-time job… so i ruminate. i truly hope the future
will give me something to be nostalgic over, because at the moment,
there aren't a lot of things i can remember with warmth. to kill worry,
i write. i try to maintain my brain activity, constantly thinking about
my songs. because if i worry, i begin to drink… i must always
battle against this idleness.
i find a lot of ideas walking in the street or in the
subway. when i'm in bars too, where i fill my notebooks; not to use
them later, but just to purge myself, to get rid of ideas which rot
my brain. once these ideas are on paper, they let me be at peace. i
tried to write some short stories, but they were awful. i have a big
love in my life: songs. i don't want to be a bad lover by trying to
paint or write books."
so, writing is an escape, not a pleasure?
elliott: "the creativity is inevitably the result of a problem.
there is certainly a lack in my life. but my songs aren't depressive,
that i find all people and life depressing. if my writing is found so
sad, it's maybe because, in rock, writers cheat, we feign a bit. when
i call myself shit in a song, it's something i regularly tell myself:
it's not depressing, just honest. why forbid the accessibility of these
kinds of feelings in songs? i do music, and some other people earn money
from it. when the well has dried up, they will throw me in. but i won't
cry, i never need compliments. but people aren't ever fair. i've been
ill-treated, but i've lived. i've come to the point where i just hang
what's the story behind your tattoo?
elliott: "It's ferdinand, a children's character. he's the only
bull who like to smell flowers, and when the matador comes to the meadow
to choose the one for the fight, he spots ferdinand. the poor old bull
has just been stung by a wasp while smelling a flower and he jumps.
so he gets selected because everyone thinks he is brutal. but at the
beginning of the battle, the spectators throw flowers into the arena
and he just smells them - he doesn't ever realize he is there to have
a fight. the confused matador takes him back to the meadow, where he
will live old and happy among the flowers. he is taken for being simple,
but he succeeded in avoiding a sure death. he is taken for a failure
because he refuses the fight - but i know it's not true. he just wants
to live out of the system. i recognize a lot of myself in ferdinand."
thanks to lynsey