elliott smith
written by pamela chelin, taken from the big takeover no. 43

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?
elliott: oh yeah. what’s especially fun, though, is getting to play with jon brion.

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.
elliott: i’m glad you liked it. thank you very much.

pc: so from the tiny stage of largo to the grandness of the oscars, that’s a long way.
elliott: it was really strange being at the oscars. the oscars are all about style - anything that has to do with famous people is about style. but all those people were really nice to me.

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...”
elliott: yeah. it was kind of funny. i did feel like i didn’t belong. but, when you think about it, a lot of those people would rather have been making movies than sitting through a long awards show.

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.
elliott: yeah. people think it turns out how you want it to, but that’s not always true. i might be thinking about something when i’m writing the words and i might understand what i’m writing about... or i might not. sometimes i don’t even know what i’m writing about!

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?
elliott: actually the first title was “xo” and i had changed it because i thought it wounded too much like “either/or”. but, then there was a band called grand mal and they didn’t want me to call the record the same name as their band. i like “xo” better.

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.”
elliott: wow. yeah. i don’t know about all that stuff. i don’t really read much of my press and i don’t know... all that stuff is in other people’s minds. i mean, i’m just human. if they knew me, they’d realize i’m very much like them.

pc: i guess some people would like to also believe that you are the superhuman version of them.
elliott: yeah, that’s what people want of famous people, but it’s not very comfortable. it’s in sane to think that you could be that.

pc: there are a lot of rock stars who do start to believe that they are superversions of themselves. they become their own caricatures.
elliott: some people can’t wait to be it, ‘cause they don’t like who they are and they’d rather be a caricature of themselves. there are still plenty of ways in which i don’t know myself that well, but i know myself well enough to not trade in my actual life for an imaginary one.

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 solo recordings?
elliott: no, dreamworks didn’t know what i was going to do in the first place, and they didn’t put any pressure on me at all. i could have made an acoustic record and they would have been fine with that. i think dreamworks is trying to put out records they actually like. a lot of records get put out by labels just to make a lot of money. but dreamworks have been really cool to me, so far.

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.
elliott: well, it’s fun to try. i like finger-picking a lot. i like flamenco a lot. i have learned a lot from flamenco even though i can’t play it. it’s great when people find creative ways to play. people usually just strum chords and that’s fine, too, i do like a lot of songs like that. but, for me, it’s more fun for my fingers to make them do different things.

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.
elliott: it’s a really unguarded song - i made up the lyrics in a couple of minutes and didn’t change them. i like the way it feels, although it’s not an especially deep song at all.

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”.
elliott: [laughs] it’s, i don’t know... just a big rock song. it’s a pretty simple song. it’s not so much about the words themselves, but more about how the whole thing sounds. some friends of mine said it sounded like i was trying to get something romantic going with someone, and that’s not what it was supposed to be about. it was supposed to be, “you’re really fun to be with and i really like you a lot because of that, but i am really, really depressed.” but i don’t know if that came across. when i said, “ready to go,” it was supposed to mean tired of living.

pc: oh?! like, ready to check out of this world?
elliott: yeah. sorry to make the song depressing for you now. [both laugh]

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.”
elliott: actually, it’s a person i know.

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 a moron!”
elliott: yeah. [laughs] yeah.

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.
elliott: it was very simple. i was saying, “i really like you and it’s really great to hang out with someone who is happy and easy-going, but i don’t feel like that and i can’t be with you.

pc: and then you get the standard “but why are you so sad?”
elliott: the thing is, i’m not really sadder than anyone else. i’m happy at times. i’m not always sad and i’m not always happy. after all, most people aren’t incredibly happy all the time. people have their own stuff that they constantly try and make better, and so i’m just trying to be a better person, the same thing virtually everyone i know is trying to do. the purpose of unhappiness is to point your life in a better direction, where you make things better. otherwise there would be no point to being unhappy, it would just be a place that is brutal.

pc: you definitely learn the most when you are upset. you don’t tend to stop and question happiness.
elliott: yeah. if you eat a poisonous plant, it makes you sick, so you learn not to eat that plant. so, it’s like that.

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.”
elliott: [laughs] i don’t know why i write that sometimes. like anyone else, i have the full range of emotions but for some reason it’s harder to write when i’m happy. happy is a broader feeling. if you’re unhappy it’ easier to focus in and say, “this thing is frustrating me."

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 see.”
elliott: right. i think people... i think no one ever lives up to their potential, and that’s not a negative thing, though it sounds like that in my songs. i mean, it does burn me out sometimes. but it’s impossible to live up to your potential in this world because if you can, potential itself is not worth very much. people are infinitely more capable than what they end up showing.

pc: which can be why they then choose to adore celebrities. they under-rate themselves.
elliott: yeah! and that is one reason people get depressed.

pc: and then they take anti-depressant. are you still taking them?
elliott: i quit doing that a year ago.

pc: good! i tried zoloft and hated it.
elliott: that’s what i tried. i kind of liked it, though. i made me feel better for a while, but then i started drinking... and that didn’t mix very well. [both laugh] now i don’t take zoloft and i don’t drink very much anymore, so i’m feeling better again.

pc: i guessed you were, because “xo” seems to have more elements of optimism. there are more references to daytime and the sun.
elliott: yeah, i would say so.

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.
elliott: thanks. it’s a pretty harsh song about people who think that they know what you ought to do with yourself.

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.”
elliott: yeah... i guess so. both songs have that thing where everyone thinks that just because they’ve been through something similar and such-and-such worked for them, that it will necessarily work for you.

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?
elliott: i do. more “song-like” to me equals more speaking-like. i like, if possible, to write the way that people actually speak. that’s why when people bring up comparisons to poetic singer/songwriters it gets on my nerves. i don’t feel as flowery!

pc: you aren’t flowery, but you do use metaphors and imagery.
elliott: i like words to be lyrical, you know, but i think it’s cool when they still hold a connection to the reality of english as a spoken language and not just as a bunch of ideas.

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.
elliott: i’m really glad you said that, because that is something i try to do. i don’t try and do much when i write songs, but that i really work at.

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 subway!
elliott: [laughs] that’s a great story! see, that could have been in the song!

pc: you always evoke strong visuals with the way you paint your words. are you unfamiliar then with eidetic imagery and thinking in pictures?
elliott: i very much do that, i see the pictures in my head. That’s how i write. most of the time when i’m writing, i’m describing a picture in my head. well, not really one picture, a bunch of them that go together.

pc: even the word “picture” comes up quite a bit in your songs.
elliott: when i refer to a “picture” in a song, i’m referring to the picture in my head.

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.
elliott: yeah. actually, i was thinking about fireworks exploding. it could be a celebration, but then again, it could be something bad. i just try and make connections between things. i’m not so interested in telling complete stories anymore - now i like it better if the songs are like abstract movies.

pc: you’d like a little more right-brain activity, a less linear approach?
elliott: yeah. more like a dream.

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 intended.
elliott: yeah. the song won’t complete itself without someone activating their imagination. the music is supposed to do that. a lot of my favorite songs are ones that aren’t complete without me finishing them in my head.

pc: such as...?
elliott: the beatles’ “strawberry fields” is like that. it’s kind of like a bunch of connected images, not a song that says, “ok, here’s what happened and why.” i’m trying to write more like that now, ‘cause the other way is very one-way and the only time you can really connect to a one-way song is when you feel exactly like i do, right now.

pc: “strawberry fields”... hmmm... “magical mystery tour.”
elliott: yeah. that’s also one of my favorites. i like that kind of record, with a lot of melody and a kind of cool, murky quality.

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 same lp].
elliott: oh really? cool.

pc: at what moment are you filled with inspiration while writing your own songs?
elliott: when i surprise myself. that’s the best, and it only happens when i don’t have a plan. that’s why i don’t sit down and try and write songs about specific things. by doing that, you end up with songs you already know you can write. they might be good songs or bad songs, but they’re definitely boring songs to me, ‘cause i already know i can write that. the most exciting thing for me is to accidentally think of something that surprises me and that i wouldn’t usually write.

pc: do you keep lyric notes?
elliott: more often i have a bunch of pieces of lyrics and music in my head all the time, usually like 20 or 30 things. over time some of them end up as songs, some i forget about and some hang around for several months. i’ll write stuff at bars on napkins and stuff but i don’t look at it later. if it’s memorable, i’ll probably remember it. [smith wrote the whole of “xo” in a bar near his brooklyn home, and at the luna lounge bar in manhattan’s east village, a mere two blocks from my home. i was dying to know why i’d spotted him in there so frequently, until he mentioned this in “alternative press” - ed.]

pc: where are you living now portland or new york?
elliott: brooklyn.

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?
elliott: yeah. [laughs] i mean, i’m only around for a week or two at a time anyway, so there’s no real point in thinking about where i’m living. and, i’ve been out touring this record.

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 rock!”
elliott: [laughs] thank you. thanks a lot!

thanks to helen