he made is reputation as a melancholic lo-fi troubadour, but reluctant star-in-the-making elliott smith is fed up with being cast as mr misery.
three o'clock in the afternoon in austin, texas and elliott smith shambles into a mexican restaurant for lunch. he looks like he's just woken up, and you wonder if the front desk will ask if he's come to fix the plumbing. he's got his trademark woollen hat pulled tight over his ears, and he's so dressed down he makes bruce springsteen look like something out of a calvin klein ad. he's just come from a soundcheck and he'll be wearing exactly the same scuffed-up boots and crumpled, threadbare work-shirt when he takes the stage tonight. smith is the ultimate anti-star, so self-effacing and ordinary that if the venue was full, he'd probably get turned away from his own gig. "it feels very strange singing songs for a living and getting interviewed," he says. "but it was just as odd when i was spreading gravel." he takes a beer and drinks greedily. "there's such a pressure to be happy and sucessful and for everyone to be a winner in america," he reflects then. "that's such a joke. and you're meant to project that image at all times otherwise you're a loser. then if you complain about the cult of the winner, people assume you are espousing the cult of the outsider."
he might hate the notion of celebrity, but smith is going to have to get used to it. His new album, figure eight, is his most accomplished work to date, the one that could easily move him into the paul simon/james taylor league and find him singing at president gore's inauguration ball at the white house. except that the idea of smith in a tuxedo is too ludicrous to contemplate. his early albums were wonderfully unstructured lo-fi classics on which his whispering, gossamer voice and melancholic melodies meandered irresistibly but aimlessly in no perticular direction. then gus van sant used his songs on the soundtrack of good will hunting and an oscar nomination followed. he signed to dreamworks and for the first time had a proper budget to make records. xo, his first album for the major label in 1998, found the idiosyncratic wistfulness still largely intact. but the melodies were sharper, the songs more accessible. but if that was a transitional album, figure eight places him firmly in the arrivals hall with the chauffeur-driven limo awaiting to whisk him away to roped-off vip stardom, even if he would probably prefer to take the tube. it's a record that marks his emergence as a supreme pop craftsman. in place of the rambling lines and meandering phrases are memorably up-beat pop tunes with hooks and choruses that bring to mind nothing so much as white album/abbey road-era lennon and mccartney. more juke box than bed-sit. "i think it does feel different," he says, tentatively. "it's bigger sounding. before, i didn't have access to lots of tracks, orchestras and multiple instruments. it's fun to try stuff with all these situations which still feel novel."
born in texas 30 years ago, elliott smith lived in dallas with his mother until he was 14. then he moved to portland, oregon with his hippie dad. it established a nomadic pattern and since then he's lived in nyc and la and spent most of the last year without a home at all. "i gave up my apartment in brooklyn and i didn't have anywhere to live for about 12 months. when i wasn't on tour, i'd stay with friends. but it was a drag. i had to go to la to finish the record and so i took a place there. in a way it's the last place i'd ever move to - so i thought i'd check it out." he's perfectly frank about the beatles influence on the new album and was delighted to spend a week recording three songs on the album in the abbey road studio. "i grew up listening to a lot of country music and i remember hearing stevie wonder's songs in the key of life a lot in the back of the station wagon. but when i was five, i got into my dad's copy of the white album. i liked kiss as well, because they wore make-up. i thought that was awesome. but the beatles were pretty much it from an early age and i never thought i'd end up in that studio. it's still got the same piano they used on 'penny lane' and stuff." by the time he was 20, he was playing in the portland band, heatmiser, and his solo career happened almost by accident: "i'd been doing four-track home recordings for a long time before i was in a band. but i didn't think there would ever be any point in putting it out. when the band dissolved, my girlfriend thought i should send a tape to a record label. they wanted to put out an album and that's how it started. "a solo career was never something i wanted to pursue. i thought people would tear me apart. it was all nirvana and mudhoney and i was making this interior music which didn't even have drums. but at that point, i didn't care. i was going to play the music i liked and if people didn't like it then fine. it wasn't calculated and contrived to win anybody over."
two albums - 1994's roman candle and elliott smith the following year
- established his reputation as a dark, melancholic troubadour who traded
on the cargo of personal misery. it's an image which has subsequently
grown to be a source of mild irritation. "there's a humour and
a 'fuck you' insistence in those songs which is also a weird kind of
optimism," he insists. "but people only seem to hear the darker
tone." but although the songs were often oblique, their currency
was undeniably fractured relationships and dark nights of the soul.
and they were scattered with drug references. his second lp had a cover
which depicted a man jumping off a building and opened with the bleak
junkie references of "needle in the hay." "i wasn't surprised
at the reaction to that. but the next two albums had hardly any acoustic
songs, and people were calling me a whispery-voiced folk singer. i'm
not interested in trying to make depressing music for the sake of it.
there's a difference between depressing and real. you're not necessarily
depresed just because you don't agree with the contrived happiness of
tv culture. i was attracted to the dark side because i didn't hear it
on the radio. all i heard was false pop bullshit cult of the winner
crap and i reacted to that. but if i could come up with a joyous song
like smokey robinson or stevie wonder, i'd be really happy."
his third album - either/or - was less acoustic than it's predecessors, but it was only when he signed with dreamworks that he was fully able to explore a broader musical canvas. lo-fi acoustics, he says, were never a matter of choice. merely a necessity. "that's all i had at that time - four tracks and very few instruments - so i went with that. it wasn't deliberately lo-fi as a stylistic thing. it was just the tools at my disposal. and i never thought i was writing folk songs. to me they don't have anything to do with folk, because they don't really have a point. they're more impressionistic and folk music is usually based on a story. my songs aren't a journal or a diary. they're just moods."
in smith's parlance, he doesn't write or compose songs so much as "make them up": "if you call it writing, it sounds like some sort of concentrated effort, calculated and deliberate. some people can do it like that, but it isn't my way. i can't get anything done if i sit down and say i'm going to write a song. too much concentration makes my imagination shut down. i like distractions - which is why i make things up in bars or on the subway or walking around.
"all the impressions you get in a minute or an hour are countless. all that stuff people absorb but have no use for because they can't use it to make money or whatever. for me, that comes out in songs." musically, figure eight is the most up-beat record smith has ever made. "people tell me it sounds happier. but it seems you've got to be the angry punk guy, or the depressed interior person or the ebullient pop star. there are different cartoons and you're bound to end up in one of them. so on this record some part of my brain was trying to get out of the cartoon I'm in."
lyrically, songs such as "easy way out", "i'd better be quiet now" and "somebody i used to know" are as dark and brooding as ever. "for me, a good record has as many different feelings at once as possible. you can be worried about something, and happy about something else, and irritated by someone across the room who's talking too loud, and then somebody else you like walks in... there's a convergence of all kinds of different feelings. maybe the music sounds happier as i was trying to escape the little box i was being put in. but i suspect it's more that i've handled the conflicting elements in the same song better." just as the song "either/or" which wasn't included on the lp of the same name, the track which gave the new record it's title also failed to make the cut. "'figure eight' was like a children's song and it got replaced by something else," he explains. "but i liked the name. it's a twisted circle. like skaters going around. it's a perfectly self-contained thing that you can do forever. you're not going to get anywhere, but the thing is you don't need to." could it be the metaphor for the elliott smith philosophy of life? "yeah, maybe. always moving with no perticular direction. i must admit i rather like that."
thanks to tara