elliott smith 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 quiet, breathy manner, captivating his listeners and often leaving them dumbstruck by his nuances of dark and light. with a keen eye for observation, smith circles 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.
what finally 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.
heatmiser 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.
chatting with 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, that’s cool. i’d prefer to talk to someone who really wants to talk about music. that’s 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?
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.
pc: so from the tiny stage of largo to the grandness
of the oscars, that’s a long way.
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 doesn’t belong...”
pc: that’s true. well, let’s talk about
your songwriting, as that’s 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 didn’t
quite understand what it meant to write a song. they couldn’t
quite grasp that a song doesn’t always end up the way you originally
intend it to be.
pc: you definitely have a lot of new stuff that you’ve
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?
pc: i’ve been reading the postings from your fans
on internet message boards. you’ve been called everything from
a “supergod” to a “supergenius” to a “fucking
cutie.” in fact, and i am quoting here, one person wrote, “if
it were not for elliott’s records, i most likely would have died
a long time ago.”
pc: i guess some people would like to also believe that
you are the superhuman version of them.
pc: there are a lot of rock stars who do start to believe
that they are superversions of themselves. they become their own caricatures.
pc: i guess you won’t be setting up a 1-800-call-elliott
help line any soon. [elliott laughs] alright, let’s talk about
your new “xo”. you’re on a major label now. was there
a concern to make a “bigger” record than your previous stripped-down
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.
pc: you’ve 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 is the head-trippy rock tune,
“amity.” the lyrics sound more stream-of-consciousness and
free-floating than many of your other songs.
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”.
pc: oh?! like, ready to check out of this world?
pc: that’s ok, i’ll 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.”
pc: my favorite part of the song is where you sing,
“’cause you laugh and talk/and ‘cause you make my
world rock!” it’s such a departure from your usual style
of writing, i liked the carefree aspect of it. i remember thinking that
most songwriters couldn’t write those lyrics and get way with
it. if anyone else had written that, i would have thought, “what
pc: but you’re intelligent and your lyrics are
so clever that i got the feeling you were purposely letting loose and
having fun with the song.
pc: and then you get the standard “but why are
you so sad?”
pc: you definitely learn the most when you are upset.
you don’t tend to stop and question happiness.
pc: still, your lyrics would suggest that you go to
greater extremes than some people. On “sweet adeline,” for
instance, you sing, “i’m waiting for sedation to disconnect
my head/or any situation where i’m better off than dead.”
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/you’d be a work of
art,” and on “between the bars,” from “either/or”,
you sing, “the potential you’ll be/that you’ll never
pc: which can be why they then choose to adore celebrities.
they under-rate themselves.
pc: and then they take anti-depressant. are you still
pc: good! i tried zoloft and hated it.
pc: i guessed you were, because “xo” seems
to have more elements of optimism. there are more references to daytime
and the sun.
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 don’t really
know what you are feeling inside.
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 they’ve known.”
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
doesn’t work, does it? makes me feel like the person in your song
“rose parade”: “and when they clean the street/i’ll
be the only shit that’s 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?
pc: you aren’t flowery, but you do use metaphors
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 about 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.
pc: here’s 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
wasn’t 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, you’d transported me to a manhattan
pc: you always evoke strong visuals with the way you
paint your words. are you unfamiliar then with eidetic imagery and thinking
pc: even the word “picture” comes up quite
a bit in your songs.
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.
pc: you’d like a little more right-brain activity,
a less linear approach?
pc: i guess that might give a song stronger staying
power as well? when people listen to it repeatedly, they’ll always
imagine it themselves and not be certain if that is what you had truly
pc: such as...?
pc: “strawberry fields”... hmmm... “magical
pc: when i was listening to “oh well, ok”,
from “xo”, it’s essence actually conjured up the feeling
i get from the beatles’ “fool on the hill” [from that
pc: at what moment are you filled with inspiration while
writing your own songs?
pc: do you keep lyric notes?
pc: where are you living now portland or new york?
pc: you’ve said that you wanted to go to new york
to escape yourself, but that you’d 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?
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
thanks to helen