The accidental star

Elliott Smith on his new album, the Oscars, and why he needs a new favorite shirt

Inside Studio Three, a jowly, bulldog-faced musician saws out a few notes on the violin, then pauses to greet a colleague who, despite the day's post-rain warmth, enters wearing an enormous checkered scarf. They're here at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles to record string parts for Elliott Smith's new album, and the studio is growing thick with bodies: Producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock joke with an arranger, while the bespectacled conductor chats up the arriving members of two string quartets. Other busy-looking people hustle about with coffee and clipboards trying to get the session started. In the back of the control room, Elliott Smith stands quietly, hands stuffed in his pockets, nearly unnoticed in all the commotion.

"Wow," he says, eyeing the proceedings with slightly raised eyebrows. "I hope it sounds good."

For Smith, whose waltzing new song "I Wish" will get an ominous string arrangement today, things are sounding very good. Since the release of his album Either/Or last year on the Olympia, Washington-based indie Kill Rock Stars, the singer-songwriter, who spent his childhood in Dallas, has been garnering attention from outside the typically insular indie-rock realm for his beautifully melancholic songs. Not that he sounds particularly affected by it.

"I don't take compliments very well," he says. "I hear people say, 'I really like your record,' and I don't think they're lying, but at the same time it doesn't connect to a center in my brain that makes me feel any different. I just don't think about it."

While his albums and live shows have brought him much acclaim, the work has paid off in more concrete ways as well. He's just signed to a major label, DreamWorks, for whom he is recording this new album. He says he's planning to call it, for the moment anyway, Grand Mal, also the name of a particularly severe, blackout-inducing epileptic seizure. And then there is the thing that really started the phone ringing, the thing that caused his normally well-attended L.A. shows to start attracting music-industry and Young Hollywood types, the thing that Smith simply calls "a freak accident."

This highly talented but less-than-famous troubadour got nominated for an Academy Award.

His song, "Miss Misery," which appears over the end credits of Gus Van Sant's film Good Will Hunting, was one of this year's Best Original Song contenders. And there he was, onstage at the Shrine Auditorium, sandwiched between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion, looking shockingly human and out of place amid the Titanic proceedings, but delivering a warm, uncomfortable rendition of his song--itself a moving if unlikely nominee for an award that generally favors the mushy bombast of Ms. Dion, the eventual winner. Though obviously pleased with the nomination, Smith seems a little bewildered by it as well.

"It seems to have made my friends really happy. Other people in bands that I know in Portland seem to have the feeling of 'Yeah, we're winning! One of us made it into the little club!' and that's really cool." He stubs out a cigarette. "But it's also a little bit weird, because I don't know how much this really has to do with anything that I do."

Although he wasn't chosen out of the same pool of bankable film talents as the other nominees, Smith's involvement with the film's soundtrack wasn't entirely accidental either. Director Gus Van Sant knew Smith from his days in Portland, and used to go see him play occasionally.

"Somebody wrote that Gus discovered me playing in a coffeehouse last year. I don't know where that came from, but, like, we're friends," says Smith, bristling at the idea of being discovered Hollywood-style. "They're all songs I wrote before, except the one that was nominated, and they're all on previously released records. That's why it was so weird when someone was like, 'Oh, Gus discovered him last year playing in a coffee bar.' It's like, Right--since then I went back in time and recorded three records. It makes a good story, but it's not true."

Unlike the Hollywood glamourati with whom he strolled down the red carpet, Elliott Smith's lack of airs doesn't offer much hope that he'll be getting a slick post-Oscars makeover. He might have performed at the Oscars in a bright suit, but this is a man who wore a black Hank Williams Jr. shirt on his last album cover, as well as nearly every time he appeared in public in the past year. He's even got it on today, but has it hidden under a yellow oxford shirt.

"I really need to get some new clothes," he says sheepishly, especially since a photographer shooting promotional pictures for his next album caught him in it recently. "He brought some pictures by, and I realized that I was wearing the same shirt that was on the cover of my last record. I was like, Jesus, anybody that cares to notice is gonna be like, 'What, does this guy only have one fucking shirt? Does he ever bathe? He looks exactly the same as he did a year ago.'"

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