a conversation with elliott smith
from the slow burn of his quiet indie debut, roman candle, through 1998's major-label foray into the sonically expanded xo, 30-year-old elliott smith has rather gracefully revealed himself to be one of the finest song makers of our generation. it seems likely that his songs will rise to be covered by future players much as those of dylan and drake are today. even this early in the game, figure 8, smith's second release for dreamworks, is easily one of this year's top ten recordings. picking up where xo left off, figure 8 rocks out harder, layers instrumentaion more majestically, forms a splendid explosion of sound, both tender and tense, in which the songs themselves are still the core. roughly midway thru smith's small acoustic pre-release tour, i meet him in the cloud room, stop the camlin hotel, one of downtown seattle's most groovy vintage digs. slight and sleepy, smith is altogether affable, bright and deliberate in speech and manner. over brews and smokes, smith speaks in a pleasantly warm drawl, laughs easily and there are moments where his whole face opens like a parting pacific northwest sky. elliott smith is not what one might expect. like his songs, he is every colour and style and tempo at once.
mean: you've said you like to write in bars, and to have that noise as background.
elliott smith: It's just hard to get stuff done just sitting around in a quiet room, where there's no distractions. you're kindof hyper-aware of what you're doing, and it's too self-conscious, you know? it's easier in a bar, or in a car or something, where there's some noise and you can't concentrate all that much, and it's easier to kinda dream it out and see what it is. part of your brain can be paying attention to what's going on around you, so it's not constantly policing what you're making up. after there's more than one line, if i'm sitting around at home, it's easier to make up one line and be like, 'aw, that sucks.'
m: that's interesting that you say 'making up.'
es: it seems so formal, to be like [adopts poseur serious art-rock voice]: 'well when i was writing this, when i was composing this rock and roll song....' [laughs] it sounds so uptight. it's anything but formal. i don't have a plan. i don't like, pick a topic and then try to make a song about it or anything. it's kinda like daydreaming.
m: yeah, that'd be like a high school essay.
es: right. [in dry teacher voice] 'you have to turn in your outline for the song on monday...' [laughs] i understand how that being taught to children gives them a pre-made structure if they need one. but i think if you like doing some creative thing, then you're probably gonna make up your own idiosyncratic structure anyhow. [when i write], i try to remember to take a pen with me. but usually the bartender will give you a pen. and i do write stuff down, but not in order to look at it later cos i usually don't. i just figure that if i forget it, then it's not memorable and i'm not losing anything by forgetting it. if i make it too precious, then i'll start to concentrate and fuck it all up, just as if i was sitting at home. i figure if it's any good, i'll hopefully remember it.
m: so, youre records seem like they're getting more and more dense.
es: [slightly embarrassed laugh] yeah, i guess so.
m: well, i'm thinking about them in succession, and the whole density of sound, it's still organic, and that's what's so really beautiful about them to me. it seems to have grown from this much more simple way of laying something down, to--you know those magic rocks you put in water?
m: and you know how they grow and take their own crystal form?
es: that's a good way of looking at it, cos that's kinda how i think of it too. the point isn't to make it more complicated. actually, there wasn't any point. i just started adding more instruments because i could, and i couldn't before. they just weren't around. for a while, for a long time, i was recording myself and i didn't ahve the patience to pick up all the shit and move it to somebody's house that had a piano. so i just wouldn't play the piano, or i just wouldn't play the drums cos they were't there, or because there weren't enough tracks.
m: and you started out as pianist, right?
es: i just took lessons for a year, when i was ten. but yeah, i learned to play guitar from piano lessons, so i kinda thought of it like the notes were sorta all in a line. it took me a while to get used to playing guitar cos it's more like 'shapes,' less like a linear thing. it's just a whole different way of looking at it. i guess my records have gotten denser, but they probably won't keep getting denser and denser.
m: there's more bite, more edge to this record. i read something where you talk about being known for soft songs, and there's certainly an element of that. you've retained that understatedness, but with figure 8, there's an edge that makes it something altogether different.
es: i'm glad you think so. i mean, my first couple records were acoustic because that's what i had available. i didnt' particularly want to make soft-sounding records, but that's what there was. but then people think, okay, you're playing by yourself on an acoustic guitar, so you must be really into paul simon. it's like, 'oh man....' whatever. that was kinda weird. i do like acoustic music.....sometimes. but i'm not coming from a folk place, really. it's just that because i play acoustic sometimes, i have to do battle with the whole notion that somehow i'm a really introverted, sensitive guy. if i'm so introverted and fragile, why am i putting records out and going on tour all the time? it doesn't really make sense, but it's a convenient cliche.
m: people like to stick everybody in a box.
es: it's alright. if i was in a punk band, it'd be a
different box, even if it was the same songs, but just in a different
style or something. i don't care. it's my box. i don't actually live
in it, so why should i? i always wanted to be in a band. i didn't
m: you get to be john and paul, and george and ringo. all at once.
es: [laughs] its' really fun to play the drums. i can say that.
m: anything in particular that's striking your fancy lately, musically?
m: what do you think it is about her records that touches you or whatever?
es: they just put me in a trance. sometimes there's not a lot of things moving except for her vocal. so it's just this one coloured, sort of static music going on under it, and she's sort of singing, there's only [that] moving. i think i'm drawn to it because it's very different from my own songs, i always want them to move and change as much as possible without them getting really irritating.
m: yeah. that is true of you! you always have these time-signature and chord change-ups.
es: so i really like her records because of that.
m: it's like polar opporsites?
es: well, i think there are greater opposities! i think maybe the backstreet boys would be more of a polar opposite [laughs]!
m: i wasn't even thinking of them being in the same sphere.
es: right, right. but inside the window of records i can actually relate to, i guess, yeah.
m: so the song 'mary k'?
es: 'pretty mary k.' it's just an impressionistic song about people that should connect, but aren't. that's as far as i got trying to figure out what that one's about if it's about anything. there's a lot of songs on this new one, that are just kinda impressionistic, like dreams. i like 'story' songs, but i didn't really feel too much like it this time. there are a couple of songs that are really straight lyrically. but without sounding really pretentious: you can go look at a painting and not know what it is, but you can get a feeling from it. when i was in new york, i could go to the museum and look at paintings and be like, 'oh, man, i wish i could make up something that kind of sounded like this looks.'
m: do you feel like once you make something and then put it out there, it's not so much yours anymore?
es: oh yeah. definitely. when finishing up a record, there's two things that happen that make you do another one. one of them is the feeling of 'okay, it's not my thing anymore, really.' and the other one is, 'oh, i see what kind of record it is now.' whereas at the beginning, it could be anything. then, as it becomes more and more like a picture developing and then you see what it is, and it's that one picture. it's not that abstract million-records-in-one that it felt like at the beginning. it makes it finite. that's when thngs seem kind fo boring, when it becomes a definite closed [thing.]
m: it's kind of the difference between film and theatre.
es: yeah. that's the cool thing about going on tour, it changes it a little bit. anyway, it's not a bad thing. it just means you have to make another record, which is good if you like doing that. and i like it.
thanks to rebekah