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Elliott Smith
 by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Elliott Smith by Paul HeartfieldI've 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 he's just pushed himself and grown as a musician pretty intensely over the years and I've been able to watch it from close range and that's extremely instructive - musically - but it's 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, Smith's 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 'Hi, I'm Elliott' - Paul and I had been wisecracking in the Universal Records lavatory unaware that our subject was busy in the next cubicle. You probably didn't 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?
It's just another thing to do and if it disrupts the little definition, all the better.

You said you didn't want to make the same record twice and you clearly haven't. Will this be an ongoing philosophy?
If I can't do that then I'll probably have to quit. I don't know where I'm going but that's best, though.

You play piano on the record, any chance we'll see you play one on stage?
Very little. Most places don't have a piano and also, if you sit down at a piano, that calls up Billy Joel or Elton John. But that's a good reason to do it, just to try to blow that up. But, who knows?

So, you're major label property now. Was the Dreamworks deal the culmination of a bidding war, like your friend Mary Lou Lord?
No, there wasn't a bidding war. I didn't want there to be one. They get really ugly and people's 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 couldn't stay on the label I was on either way, so...

You'd 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 wasn't 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 didn't put any pressure on me at all.

There are no singles planned for the US, which is unusual.
I don't hear anything on it that's gonna sound appropriate next to stuff they play on the radio. I didn't think about it when I was making the record.

There are no 'No Name' songs on this album. Is it the end of a trend?
Well there's a couple of Waltzes on there, but I thought I'd give the little device a break.

I hear you've been listening to a lot of British music lately, The Kinks, The Beatles?
Yeah, I've 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 Didn't Understand. Any direct influence from them?
No, I didn't 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. It's a little too all-American for me. But they're 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 they're OK. I don't really know what the point of asking them that is because I can't do anything about it if they're 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 bit... more... normal. They were fun shows. I had no idea there'd be so many people as that. I thought there'd be like 10 or 20.

And no one asked for Miss Misery. We sense you're uncomfortable playing that song.
I don't really play it anymore. Right now it seems like it belongs to... it's associated with a weird parade of celebrity. I'm just gonna let it rest in peace at the Oscars.

Excuse the weak link, but the song Pictures of Me talks of 'flirting with the flicks.' 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 things... Somebody can do something good or bad and, of course, you can too. So it's just about it being a drag to be reminded constantly what assholes people can be to each other. It didn't come off sounding like that I guess. It sounds like I'm tired of having my picture taken.

You said after playing Needle in the Hay, upstairs at The Garage, 'this next song cancels that one out' before playing Say Yes. Discuss.
Well, Needle in the Hay is, for me, the darkest one and it's a big 'fuck you' 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.

It's a pretty hopeful way to end the album. Why are there no lyrics to Cupid's Trick on the sleeve?
Because they weren't very good! [laughs] I couldn't remember why I made them up after the fact. I made them up when I was in a state and they didn't make any sense later. They also weren't there because that song isn't about the words; it's about the way it sounds. I kept changing the words around, making 'em make more sense but it just killed it. I just left 'em.

What are you singing on the chorus?
That's why I didn't print the lyrics! [laughs]

It sounds like 'sugar lift me up', is it 'sugar' something?
Yeah, but I can't say because it's too stupid. I have no idea what I meant by it. At the time it made perfect sense but now I just don't want anybody to know.

Besides your own solo work and Heatmiser, you've 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 'community'?
Yeah, they're 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?
It's fun to make music with other people. Especially now I'm 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? You've spent time in Dallas, Portland and, now, New York.
I don't know. They're all different places and you can't live there without feeling different. New York's a lot more manic but I don't 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 wasn't to describe the Parade. It was supposed to be an allegory for any pompous parade or self-congratulatory venture, sort of like...

The Oscars.
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 wasn't bad but it wasn't something I'd 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 she'd blow in with her bodyguards and be a weird superstar to everybody. But she wasn't like that at all. She really disarmed me and won me over. But it's 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 'Miramax wants you to write a song for the movie because you can't be nominated for an Oscar if the song came out on a record before.' 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 'you'll be playing this on television'. It was a total shock.

Was there ever a time you thought you wouldn't do it?
Yeah, right at first. I thought 'I don't think that's a good idea.' But they said if I didn't sing the song they'd get someone else to sing it... like Richard Marx!

They might as well have put a gun to your head.
It was like, 'Well, then again... I could do it!'

I'm 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 it's 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 there's a lot of characters instead of just one or two main ones. In fact there can be so many that it's difficult to remember them all. It's 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.

What's the story behind the tattoos?
This one's Ferdinand The Bull [lifts sleeve to expose upper right arm] It's a children's 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, it's a map of Texas. I didn't get it because I like Texas, kinda the opposite. But I won't forget about it although I'm tempted to 'cause I don't 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 they're a colour I like and they're only about $3 or $4 I'll pick 'em up. I need some new ones.

Is this your first press-only trip?
Yeah, I've never gone anywhere just to do press... great; I'll talk about myself for four days straight. Put me in a fine mood.

CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue