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Smith was born in Portland but moved to Dallas when he was 4 years old; his parents were divorced, and his mother moved here with her new husband. He started taking piano lessons when he was 11, began playing guitar shortly after that, and then began writing and recording his own music on a four-track. When he was 14, Smith moved back to Portland, and after leaving to attend college in Massachusetts, returned there and joined Heatmiser, a hard-rocking band more in the vein of early '90s Seattle-sound bands than the introspective music that he was making on his own. It was an uneasy fit.
"I was in a band, and the band was in the Northwest, and at the time it was all, you know, like Mudhoney and Nirvana and stuff like that," says Smith. So he kept his own music under wraps. "Basically, I was too chicken."
He kept writing, however, and considered sending a tape to Cavity Search, the Portland indie that had released a single by Heatmiser. But the courtly songwriter worried that the label might feel unnecessarily obligated to release a single by him, so he almost let the idea drop. Finally, after the urging of friends, he mailed it off. He got a call back a few days later.
"They're like, 'Yeah, we wanna do it,' and I said, 'Which songs?' They're like, 'We wanna put it out as a record,'" he laughs. "I seem to have a way of backing into good situations." The album, Roman Candle, was a stripped-down collection of stark, tuneful songs, and it provided the blueprint for his next two records, Elliott Smith and Either/Or: spare instrumentation, downbeat lyrics, and haunting melodies. It's also notable for containing four songs with no names.
"That is kind of weird," he says. "I mean, it's good to have names of songs, but if no one else is going to play on them, then you don't really need names, because you don't have to be like, All right, let's play one of those that doesn't have a name. You just go, Ah, I think I'll play this one now. But then it ends up that you're playing somewhere and someone wants you to play one of them, and so they call out the name that's on the record. And so I've come to know which ones are which numbers, you know, but that wasn't supposed to be the name of the song. It was supposed to not have a name.
"But anyways," he smiles, "I dug my own trap there."
On his next record, the songs were even stronger, and they all had names, but that created a new set of complications for Smith. Offering such song titles as "Needle in the Hay," "The White Lady Loves You More," and "St. Ides Heaven," the album is littered with references to drugs, drink, and despair. Sung in a quiet, affecting voice and backed by his delicate guitar-playing, the record could easily be interpreted as a portrait of the artist on a downward spiral, or at least with a burgeoning collection of bad habits. Smith says people can attach whatever meaning they'd like to his songs.
"That's what happens when people hear songs: They make them literal to them--or ideally, they do," he says. "That's a good sign, not a bad one. But there's no particular connection between what someone else thinks a song is about and what I do.
"Like that song 'Angeles,'" he continues, referring to a track that appears on both Either/Or and Good Will Hunting. "Some people think it's about the city, some people think it's about the record industry, and some people think it's about a girl. And when I was making it up, I was making it up about a feeling, you know, that could be a feeling you get from a city or from a person or from a situation. For me, my big kick when I was writing the words was to not make it about any one of those things exclusively and to try to make it so that it was about that feeling. It didn't matter what was giving you that feeling. It's just sometimes people get that feeling. At least I do."
Despite the dark imagery--a junkie scrambling for a fix, a drunk passed out on the bar at closing time, an angry lover wandering the streets--and his often recriminating lyrics, Smith's sophisticated melodic sense and impressionistic storytelling somehow give the songs a beleaguered sense of hope.
"I'm not the giddiest person in the world, but it's not like I'm trying to make a symphony of one note for the rest of my life," he says. "I think that song 'Say Yes' was actually a pretty happy song, all in all." The song, about a man who realizes he loves a woman after he's broken up with her, is a perfect example of Smith's strengths as a songwriter: As melancholy as it sounds, the song's somber chords are played with a buoyancy that reflects the optimism inherent in asking for another chance. "Sometimes people say, 'Why do you write such sad songs?'" says Smith, repeating a line he's used before. "To me, they don't make me sad."