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by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield
Iíve known Elliott for a long time. And when I first met him I thought he was a talented musician - but I know a lot of talented musicians; I never thought he was the MOST talented or anything. But heís just pushed himself and grown as a musician pretty intensely over the years and Iíve been able to watch it from close range and thatís extremely instructive - musically - but itís also gratifying to see a friend and associate pick himself up like that and get a wider recognition.
That was Sam Coomes of Quasi reflecting on the success of his friend Elliott Smith. A man who, at the time of the following conversation, was awaiting the major label release of XO and was coming down from the adulation bestowed upon him following the Oscar nomination - and subsequent performance in front of millions - of his song Miss Misery from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Just as the CWAS star entered free-fall, Smithís was about to break through the stratosphere. The meeting was very low-key. Minutes before our formal introduction - Smith resplendent in figure-hugging Commodores sweatshirt offering a hand and a simple ĎHi, Iím Elliottí - Paul and I had been wisecracking in the Universal Records lavatory unaware that our subject was busy in the next cubicle. You probably didnít need to know that. A relocation to a local eaterie later, over coffee and cokes, we begin.
XO is, ultimately, a pop record. Do you think it will surprise people who have you tagged as an introverted singer-songwriter?
Itís just another thing to do and if it disrupts the little definition, all the better.
You said you didnít want to make the same record twice and you clearly havenít. Will this be an ongoing philosophy?
If I canít do that then Iíll probably have to quit. I donít know where Iím going but thatís best, though.
You play piano on the record, any chance weíll see you play one on stage?
Very little. Most places donít have a piano and also, if you sit down at a piano, that calls up Billy Joel or Elton John. But thatís a good reason to do it, just to try to blow that up. But, who knows?
So, youíre major label property now. Was the Dreamworks deal the culmination of a bidding war, like your friend Mary Lou Lord?
No, there wasnít a bidding war. I didnít want there to be one. They get really ugly and peopleís feelings get hurt. No, I was in a band that broke up [Heatmiser] and we were on Virgin and they had a claim to me after that. So Dreamworks bought me out of that. I couldnít stay on the label I was on either way, so...
Youíd already started on the follow-up to Either/Or before the deal was made?
I was making up songs for it but I thought it was going to be on Kill Rock Stars again, but that wasnít possible.
There was no pressure from the label to make this a hit? No interference?
They came by every week or so and seemed happy and went away. They didnít put any pressure on me at all.
There are no singles planned for the US, which is unusual.
I donít hear anything on it thatís gonna sound appropriate next to stuff they play on the radio. I didnít think about it when I was making the record.
There are no ĎNo Nameí songs on this album. Is it the end of a trend?
Well thereís a couple of Waltzes on there, but I thought Iíd give the little device a break.
I hear youíve been listening to a lot of British music lately, The Kinks, The Beatles?
Yeah, Iíve liked that since I was a kid. But trying to have more instruments like that than before.
There seems to be a hint of the Beach Boys on Bled White and I Didnít Understand. Any direct influence from them?
No, I didnít think about the Beach Boys. I liked some songs on Pet Sounds but it took me a while to come around to them because of all their songs about cars and surfing. Itís a little too all-American for me. But theyíre really musical. I like that.
Your first two London shows were both solo and acoustic. You seemed a little unsure of the response, asking if everyone was OK.
I almost always ask the audience if theyíre OK. I donít really know what the point of asking them that is because I canít do anything about it if theyíre not. I never used to talk, I used to be too uptight to talk at shows but now I do a little bit. It just makes things a little bitÖ moreÖ normal. They were fun shows. I had no idea thereíd be so many people as that. I thought thereíd be like 10 or 20.
And no one asked for Miss Misery. We sense youíre uncomfortable playing that song.
I donít really play it anymore. Right now it seems like it belongs toÖ itís associated with a weird parade of celebrity. Iím just gonna let it rest in peace at the Oscars.
Excuse the weak link, but the song Pictures of Me talks of Ďflirting with the flicks.í Was that a reference to your work on Good Will Hunting?
No, that song was more about seeing people on movies and TV do really shitty thingsÖ Somebody can do something good or bad and, of course, you can too. So itís just about it being a drag to be reminded constantly what assholes people can be to each other. It didnít come off sounding like that I guess. It sounds like Iím tired of having my picture taken.
You said after playing Needle in the Hay, upstairs at The Garage, Ďthis next song cancels that one outí before playing Say Yes. Discuss.
Well, Needle in the Hay is, for me, the darkest one and itís a big Ďfuck youí song to anybody and everybody. Whereas Say Yes is, like, a love song and my mood was completely reversed. Say Yes was written about someone particular and I almost never do that. I was really in love with someone.
Itís a pretty hopeful way to end the album. Why are there no lyrics to Cupidís Trick on the sleeve?
Because they werenít very good! [laughs] I couldnít remember why I made them up after the fact. I made them up when I was in a state and they didnít make any sense later. They also werenít there because that song isnít about the words; itís about the way it sounds. I kept changing the words around, making Ďem make more sense but it just killed it. I just left Ďem.
What are you singing on the chorus?
Thatís why I didnít print the lyrics! [laughs]
It sounds like Ďsugar lift me upí, is it Ďsugarí something?
Yeah, but I canít say because itís too stupid. I have no idea what I meant by it. At the time it made perfect sense but now I just donít want anybody to know.
Besides your own solo work and Heatmiser, youíve played and sang on records by Mary Lou Lord, Pete Krebs, Birddog and Lois. Do you consider these people your contemporaries and are they part of a Ďcommunityí?
Yeah, theyíre all friends of mine. We all lived in the same part of the country at the time. But none of the five of us live in the same place anymore.
Do you imagine continuing with similar collaborations?
Itís fun to make music with other people. Especially now Iím not in a band.
Are there any similar projects unreleased at this time?
Jon Brion [ex-Grays and collaborator of Aimee Mann, Eels, Jellyfish etc] sang on a song that will be on the next record and I might do something with Beck sometime, but no definite plans.
How would you gauge the influence of your environment on your writing? Youíve spent time in Dallas, Portland and, now, New York.
I donít know. Theyíre all different places and you canít live there without feeling different. New Yorkís a lot more manic but I donít feel more wound-up there.
Tell us about Rose Parade.
The Rose Parade is in Portland and I was supposed to describe it accurately but the point of it wasnít to describe the Parade. It was supposed to be an allegory for any pompous parade or self-congratulatory venture, sort of likeÖ
Yeah, for example.
Was the Oscars performance a very long two and a half minutes for you?
It seemed like it was happening in slow motion. It was really weird. It wasnít bad but it wasnít something Iíd want to do again. But it was kind of fun in its way. I was prepared to keep a lot of distance from Celine Dion. I thought sheíd blow in with her bodyguards and be a weird superstar to everybody. But she wasnít like that at all. She really disarmed me and won me over. But itís a weird situation.
Did you ever consider the likelihood of that situation when you were writing Miss Misery?
A couple of people, joking around, were like ĎMiramax wants you to write a song for the movie because you canít be nominated for an Oscar if the song came out on a record before.í And maybe that was their motivation, but Gus [van Sant] wanted me to write a song for the movie because he thought it would be nice. People were joking Ďyouíll be playing this on televisioní. It was a total shock.
Was there ever a time you thought you wouldnít do it?
Yeah, right at first. I thought ĎI donít think thatís a good idea.í But they said if I didnít sing the song theyíd get someone else to sing itÖ like Richard Marx!
They might as well have put a gun to your head.
It was like, ĎWell, then againÖ I could do it!í
Iím no big reader of Russian literature but does it have as much of an influence on your style as more obvious sources like environment and personal experience?
Yeah. My life is kinda boring so itís good to read. It makes my imagination grow.
One writer compared your lyrical style to Chekov.
Chekov?! That seems a little grand. I can be kinda redundant like Dostoyevsky! [laughs] I dunno. The thing that I like about Russian novels is thereís a lot of characters instead of just one or two main ones. In fact there can be so many that itís difficult to remember them all. Itís like a kaleidoscope of people and it makes me feel how I feel when I can write a song. If I get stuck or get bored I usually go read for a couple of weeks and then try again. A bunch of new pictures.
Whatís the story behind the tattoos?
This oneís Ferdinand The Bull [lifts sleeve to expose upper right arm] Itís a childrenís story about a bull that loves to smell flowers.
The significance being?
Mainly I just wanted a bull on my arm [laughs]. It was between this and the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull, which I almost got at the time. Thank god I got this one. And the other arm, itís a map of Texas. I didnít get it because I like Texas, kinda the opposite. But I wonít forget about it although Iím tempted to Ďcause I donít like it there.
And where do you get your eclectic assortment of T-shirts?
I got this one [the Commodores Tour design] on Canal Street in New York. I dunno, if theyíre a colour I like and theyíre only about $3 or $4 Iíll pick Ďem up. I need some new ones.
Is this your first press-only trip?
Yeah, Iíve never gone anywhere just to do pressÖ great; Iíll talk about myself for four days straight. Put me in a fine mood.
CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue