The accidental star
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.'"
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."
Unlike his previous records, which he wrote and recorded largely on his own in a variety of basements and friends' houses, the new one he's working on is his first to be recorded in a real recording studio. "It's got more instruments on it, because there's more instruments here. I've never been in a pro place before, and then usually I just play whatever instruments are around. And it's especially fun if I don't know how to play them yet," he laughs. "On the last record, there were a lot of limitations, because I didn't want to have to keep getting up and rewinding the machine, so like the way the drums sound and stuff like that is just a total accident. It's like, put the machine on record, sit on the drums and play them and make sure the meters were moving, and then walk over and turn it on and play it. Unless it sounded really bad, I'd just go with that."
A little more than a year later, he's gone from recording himself on a basement four-track to hiring string quartets for a major-label release. "Well, we'll see how that goes. They're supposed to be tension-creating strings, not like sentimental, let's-warm-this-up type of strings," he says. "It's something to try. I don't plan to make each record get bigger and wider and huger. In fact, the next one might be straight acoustic; I don't know."
What he does know is that, having survived the Oscars, he plans to keep things simple. "I'll go back to playing music and not being an Academy Award nominee," he says. "That'll be"--he pauses--"just fine.
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