INTERVIEW: Elliott Smith
Oscar-Nominee Speaks About Fame and Music (Dreamworks)
By: Alex Steininger
Following three brilliant indie releases and his Oscar nomination, Dreamworks recording artist Elliott Smith has released two critically acclaimed major label albums, XO and Figure 8. Both, of which, have made their way to the top of critics' top ten lists for their respective years of release, 1998 and 2000.
And in the three years since 1997's Oscar nomination, Elliott Smith has adhered to an extensive, exhausting tour schedule that has seen him tour the world several times over, playing to sold out houses all over the U.S. and beyond.
Also a first for him is the release of a music video. Adamantly against music videos, when Dreamworks wanted him to make some kind of video representation for the release of XO, Elliott compromised by agreeing to the production of Strange Parallels, a documentary loosely based around the reoccurring 'Robot Hand' dream he had been having.
With the release of Figure 8, though, Smith agreed to make a proper music video that the label could distribute to outlets like MTV. Bringing in his friend Autumn DeWilde, a video was created for the lead track, "Son of Sam".
"The person who did 'Son of Sam' is a friend of mine. I didn't want some hot shit Hollywood guy to make god knows what," Smith says on his decision to agree to the video. "My friend Autumn, who is a photographer, had never made a film before, but she was very interested in doing it, so she came up with an idea. It was fun because I knew her, and I liked and respected her pictures."
The down-to-earth, anything but corporate Smith seems out of place on a label like Dreamworks. His musical talents dictate otherwise though. Recording a portion of Figure 8 at the famed Abby Road Studios (where the Beatles recorded), Smith tries to act the part of a critically acclaimed musician who believes his own hype. But, he quickly admits that he's just a guy who has seen his wildest dreams come true.
"I didn't really care that I was recording at Abby Road Studios," Smith says with ease. "No... It was kind of a kick recording there. Just walking in the place was amazing. But when I was recording I was thinking of the songs and not that the Beatles were there. I never really thought about it all that much. There really wasn't any evidence that they were ever there."
He thinks about it for a few seconds and then casually offers, "I made up a song on the same piano [The Beatles] used on "Penny Lane". It was fun. It was a big deal to me, but I like to play it down."
The conversation quickly turns from an excited Smith talking about living his childhood dreams to a frustrated Smith disappointed at the pigeonhole the mainstream media has stuck him in.
"When people talk about how I'm all gloom, it makes me feel bad," Smith says with hurt. "Nobody wants to be described as depressing. Sometimes I'm depressed and sometimes I'm not, just like everyone else. Usually songs, and not just my songs, are true for certain times, but they're not true to what you're feeling all the time," Smith explains. "They're about how you feel sometimes.
"The mainstream keeps describing me as depressing and I don't need that anymore. I mean, you can go see a sad movie and find beauty in it. You don't walk away depressed, it can be inspiring."
Besides the gloom tag that follows Smith wherever he goes, despite five albums that have each found him growing on and extending his songwriting abilities, he still hasn't been able to shake the folkie tag either.
" XO and Figure 8 aren't folk," says a confused Smith. But then he realizes why the media has kept him pigeonholed and is quick to point out that, "the first thing you do that people notice, that gets slapped on you like a name tag and you can't get rid of it."
Though, with The Scorpions one of his favorite bands in high school and his power-rock outfit Heatmiser the band he cut his teeth on, Smith hasn't forgotten his roots. "I like playing [rock songs]," he says with excitement. "'Amity' and 'Cupid's Trick'... nobody ever mentions those songs. They always mention that I'm a folk singer."
I then ask Smith if fame is the double-edged sword so many proclaim it to be, along the lines of 'be careful for what you wish for, you just might get it'?
"Yeah, to the extent I have any fame," Smith says after pondering it for a few seconds. "I'm not famous like famous people are. But the little amount I've gotten can make you feel weird. I can't complain though because than I would sound like a whiner. I mean, it's great that people like what I do. That makes me feel good."
He pauses for a few more seconds and then continues.
"Too much exposure, it makes you feel like a cartoon character. I'm the gloomy folk cartoon figure. Nobody wants to feel like a cartoon, but at the same time I don't want to complain.
"It all depends on how much you buy into it, though. People Magazine called me a Beck imposter because I played the Oscars in a white suit. Great, both Beck and I wore white suits, so I must be a Beck imposter. Things like that... you can choose to buy into them or just ignore them. I choose not to read press about me anymore."
Figure 8 seems to pull away from the direct autobiographical approach Smith has taken in the past. Where Either/Or [his last indie release] was deeply personal, Figure 8 seems universal in subject matter and written specifically for a wider audience. Curious if this was a way to dodge the press' bullets, I ask Smith if he went into writing this album to finally shake the assumption that all his songs are autobiographical?
"I probably did," Smith says with disappointment, as if this was crossing his mind for the first time. "I could feel myself doing it and didn't want to. I don't want to do anything because of the media, but I couldn't help it. You have to change to keep from getting boring. I don't know, I probably did it."
Still struggling with this idea, he thinks about it and offers more. "I might have, I'm not really sure. I hope not. Some of it was bound to sound like that for me to make a change. And that is one way to go. But I hope it wasn't a reactionary record on how people perceived me. It probably was though to a certain extent."
He thinks about the question a bit more carefully and then gives another reason why the record came out the way it did. "Some of it is also the more I make up songs, the less I care if it has that much to do with me. I'm more interested in my imagination and what I can come up with regardless if it's autobiographical or not."
This sends the conversation into talks about where Smith's songs come from and how they take shape between the conception and putting them to tape.
"Some songs take on a... You use different instruments and think, 'would drums or bass be good?'," he informs me. "A lot of things don't work. I'll just mess around and keep things that matter. Some songs I'll imagine with various instruments and some I won't. 'Can't Make A Sound' was like that, whereas 'Pretty Marry K' was supposed to be acoustic."
The recording process seems to be one of Smith's favorite parts about writing a song. "The most exciting part of recording is not executing the plan, but taking everything in a new direction that sounds cool. Some songs I'll imagine that way but can't get the drums to sound the way I want, or I can't get the overall sound I want. 'Everything Means Nothing To Me' was supposed to be just piano. But now the ending gets loud.
"Usually half the songs I make up I don't like even a day after I've written them. I write a lot of songs and see if I like them later. If I make things too precise, it makes my imagination go and adds too much pressure. The songs I write and like later are the ones I keep.
"I recorded five to eight songs that didn't make figure 8. Though, they weren't all complete."
Has he ever considered a b-side album for all the songs that don't make records?
"There is a reason they're b-sides; I didn't want them released," Smith says with humor. "Though, some songs don't make it on the record because they just don't fit or they make the record too long, but they were meant to be released. Like 'Happiness' was originally recorded for XO but it just didn't work. It worked on Figure 8 though.
"I want to make the best record possible, not the best songs that I have to force together."
Elliott leaves us with one more look into his future recording plans. Does it include big-budget studios like Abby Road? No.
"The next thing I record will be more scaled down; recorded at home. I really like the eight-track. I talked to Sam [Coomes] about it and he wants to get back to more home recording, too. Get back to Either/Or."