elliott smith’s blend of sad-sack folk and euphoric pop has won him dangerous fanatics and other improbable honors. he’s learned to cope.
elliott smith is standing on a small stage. inside the nightclub in the heart of san francisco’s warehouse district, the air is clogged and steamy with sandwiched bodies.
"the guitar isn’t working," smith calls to a technician in back.
silence. "is it working?" he tries again.
he strums a chord. "no, it’s not working." smith begins to look forlorn, something he does well. it accessorizes his baggy blue sweatshirt and worn jeans and the perpetually droopy hair – a natural auburn for the first time in years – draped damply across his forehead. pre-recorded music pipes through the speakers as bar chatter begins to fill the void. smith waits.
the minutes crawl. the music stops. smith tries his guitar again. a crashing power chord echoes through the club. his face falls farther. "now it’s too loud," he sighs.
it’s just the sort of tiny misery smith might write into one of his brave and woeful songs: winsomely ironic sad-sack attempts human contact and is thwarted. winsomely ironic sad-sack is left alone in the spotlight, waiting for someone to notice him.
except, of course, smith is anything but the small everyman in a big world so tellingly portrayed in his music. still, the past two years have tested both smith’s resiliency and his sense of humor. he was already an established underground musician with two solo albums to his credit when director gus van sant asked him to write a song for good will hunting. that song was the academy award-nominated "miss misery," which millions of television viewers and a houseful of celebrities witnessed smith, wearing a rumpled white prada suit, perform at the 1998 oscars ceremony. pop diva celine dion posed for a picture with him. life hasn’t been quite the same since.
but then, it hasn’t been that different, either. he’s kept his old friends and made a few new ones, but ms. dion isn’t one of them. he hasn’t indulged in much celebrity slumming, and he dismisses his moment in the oscar limelight as something akin to a one-chuckle joke.
on his new album, figure 8, smith still sounds the way he always has, and the way his fans love him to sound: like any messed-up, courageous soul who happens to have a genius for musical language. his wonderfully idiosyncratic guitar playing is given free rein to stroke counter-melodies while his gentle, raspy voice ruminates on issues of desire and survival. the effect is at once hopeful and hopeless, sweet and bitter.
two weeks before his unintentionally unplugged san francisco performance, smith is smoking on the on the covered patio behind the silver lake home of his manager, margaret mittleman. he moved to los angeles last summer, he says in part for the sunshine. right now it’s raining. smith shivers in his thin blue sweatshirt that tops a pair of worn beige corduroy pants. at 30, he still radiates a wounded teenage persona: there’s a pimple on his left cheek and his right eye is crusted with sleep dust. he speaks with a hesitance punctuated by the frequent "likes" and "you knows" of someone for whom the spoken language is an afterthought. but this only disguises an underlying clarity of content. smith may still talk like a kid, but he knows what he’s saying.
"personally, i like more diverse weather than l.a. usually gets," he insists, shakily lighting a damp cigarette. "i like wearing a coat. i like having pockets and somewhere to put my hands. i don’t like wearing shorts. when i moved here, i’d go out and be the only person in the bar with a coat on." his teeth begin to chatter softly. "i like wearing a coat," he repeats.
even in the midst of a monsoon, smith seems quietly content. his l.a. home is the first he hasn’t shared with roomates, and he’s enjoying the privacy. " i like spending time by myself. i’m pretty happy with a couple hours at the end of the day talking with people. that’s usually enough for me. i’m not that good at calling people."
he hasn’t had much time to socialize. he spent last year on the road, writing and recording. this month, he starts a u.s. tour to support figure 8. he’s been so busy making music that he hasn’t even had time to contemplate how and why he’s making it. the new album shimmers with a new stylistic range, from the moodily pop-poetic "son of sam" ("an impressionist-type song about destruction or something like that," according to smith) to the bright "lost and found" with its manic honky-tonk piano ("not really very sexy"). as far as he can tell, figure 8’s new artistic breadth just happened. "sometimes i like putting multiple stylistic things inside the so they can kind of rub with each other," he offers, "but it isn’t like war strategy, like ‘i’m going to put these units here and these units there, and they’re going to converge on the chorus.’ the songs happen or they don’t."
he figures his sweetly acerbic lyrics arise in the same organic fashion, imbued with their own intrinsic rules. songwriting to smith is more an external process of inspiration and interpretation than it is an internal catharsis. but though he doesn’t consider himself a confessional songwriter, he doesn’t deny that pieces of his personality weave themselves into his music. "you can’t sing about anything really real without accidentally revealing something of yourself," he says. "some people say that everyone in your dreams is just some version of you. sure. but it makes as much sense to say your dreams are reconstructions of things people told you, or how things seem to you, and you just internalize these external things. songs are the same way."
whatever their source, smith’s songs have inspired reams of analysis from critics and dogged identification from fans. many mistake his lyrical vulnerability as a statement of personal fragility, a correlation smith firmly rejects. "fragile," he mutters, watching a stream of rainwater cascade from the patio roof. "that’s such a bummer. It’s not true, not to me. some people who are used to listening to the radio equate acoustic songs with fragile songs, which i never did, but then my introduction to acoustic was mostly dylan. there’s a whole history of people who sometimes played alone and acoustic, sometimes with a band, who weren’t fragile. when i hear people sing about things that might reveal something about them, i take it as a sign of strength."
smith’s frequent collaborator, composer-musician jon brion, says that smith is more resilient than people think. "you don’t have this quality of writing without a certain amount of wherewithal and strength," says brion. "and going against the popular perception, which is that he’s kind of mopey, i think he’s one of the funnier people i know."
by his own definition, smith is a tough cookie. he’s managed to keep his musical equilibrium and emotional instincts intact through bouts of adolescent alienation, adult depression, heroin addiction, and alcoholic excess. that he’s done so is miraculous, and as much a credit to his own tenacity as to the panacea of artistic expression.
lighting up another cigarette, smith shifts uncomfortably in his chair. we’re getting into the personal stuff now, and he’d rather chew tin foil than discuss it. he retreats into metaphor and allusion, referring to his on-and-off depression as "the thing." "i don’t try to shut things out, because i don’t think that works very well. i prefer to let thing come on in and do whatever it’s going to do and then leave. if a big wave is coming at you, you’re gonna get wet. you can either withdraw into a little shell and pretend that you’re not getting wet, or you can just get wet and dry off. that’s a corny metaphor, i guess, but that’s how i deal with things that i don’t like. i outlive them. i haven’t drowned yet. you’ve just got to wait. if something gets on my nerves, i usually just wait until it tires itself out and goes to sleep."
the same water-off-a-duck approach has helped smith cope with the high expectations many attach to figure 8 as a successor to last year’s critically adored xo. the pressure’s on whether he likes it or not – and he doesn’t like it at all – but he’s adjusted to life under an aesthetic microscope. "i just let it disturb me for awhile and then it didn’t seen to matter as much anymore. i can’t do anything about it. that’s generally how i deal with almost everything."
smith grew up with his mother – his parents divorced when he was a year old – in the suburbs of south dallas, swilling weak beer with friends, playing rachmaninoff on the piano and football at school, getting into fights and trying to fit in, " taking the path of least resistance, trying not to get into trouble." for the record, the future songwriter’s football career encompassed two games, one pass, and a net yardage of 12 feet.
when he was 14, smith went to live with his father in the overcast city of portland, oregon. there, he discovered the pleasures of staying indoors on rainy days. he cut class whenever he could, but he did well enough to graduate from high school and attend hampshire college in massachusetts, where he studied political science and philosophy. "i was good a taking tests, because the answer is always imbedded in the question," he says with a trace of pride. "it’s just an accidental little skill. i liked the pressure. the daily boring disciplined stuff i couldn’t get a hold of too well."
smith doesn’t cope well with all forms of pressure, though. once his star began rising as a part of his first major band, portland’s heatmiser, he had to adjust to the contradiction of being and intensely private person in a public occupation. even the friendliest fans can be overwhelming.
"occasionally there are some unnerving circumstances," he sighs. "one person i’d never met thought i’d written certain songs specifically for them. i don’t know what to think about that stuff. it’s not really possible to feel like you deserve it. it seems blown out of proportion. to me it’s like if i told someone about a dream i had last night and they thought it helped them in some way. it’s like, well, ok. but it’s sort of an accident."
mittleman, smith’s manager since 1994, says her one and only client is getting better at dealing with fans and fame. "it still feels weird to him, but he understands that people are passionate about him and his songs. some fans are just obsessed, and he’s really great with them. but it’s still awkward for him to walk into an airport or restaurant and have people know who he is. he’s uncomfortable having a car sent for him. it definitely hasn’t gone to his head. he’s still elliott."
and smith seems content to remain so. he pauses now, listening to the bustle inside the house, where mittleman’s baby has just woken up, and the splatter of raindrops around him. then: "i seem to exist in a pretty quiet place as far as all the stuff that can happen to people on major labels. i don’t think people put a lot of unwieldy expectations on me. i can’t relate to people who organize everything in their lives according to getting ahead, who look at life as some kind of competition." he smiles, quickly, and shrugs. "i’m just kind of floating along, i guess, getting where i get."
thanks to jen