- 04 Aug 20
A singer-songwriter of rare guile, he was born in Nebraska on August 6, 1969
The year was 2000 and Elliott's emotive, entrancing performance of his Academy Award-nominated song 'Miss Misery' (from Good Will Hunting) at the 1997 Oscars was still on everybody's mind as he arrived in Ireland with new album Figure 8.
On the agenda during an intimate chat with HP's Kim Porcelli were the songwriter's deep love for The Beatles; his disorganised writing process; recording at Abbey Road; and how he got "scared" into performing at the Oscars – where he had a trailer across from Michael Bolton and ended up holding hands with Celine Dion.
On October 21, 2003 Elliott tragically died by suicide whilst working on his final album, From A Basement On The Hill, which was completed and released posthumously. He is still revered by the people who were privy to the real time blossoming of his songwriting skills, and those who've discovered his genius since. Here's how his meeting with Kim went down...
Talking to Elliott Smith – especially today, when he's just gotten off a plane and is trying to psyche himself up for a Red Box show – is like having a conversation with a J.D. Salinger character. His manner is quiet, flat and deliberate, and he possesses the awkwardness of one much younger than his thirty years. Implied italics litter his conversation.
Elliot Smith is speaking softly, chainsmoking backstage at the Box while bartenders sweep last night's broken glass away around him. He is talking about being nominated for an Academy award: for 'Miss Misery' featured on the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting which, in a moment of gorgeous incongruousness, thrust him onto the world stage on Oscars Night in 1997 alongside Trisha Yearwood and Michael Bolton, as tens of thousands of sensitive American uni students and indie bedsit inhabitants cheered him on.
He eventually lost to that year's execrable 'My Heart Will Go On'. But more about Celine Dion's heart, or other body parts, later.
"My manager called me up, and he was, like (excited manager's voice) 'you were nominated!' and I was like (bleary, just-out-of-bed voice) 'for what?'"
"You're supposed to play your song on the awards show," Smith continues in his flat drawl. "And at first I didn't wanna do it. Until they told me that if I didn't do it, they'd get someone else to play it," he says ominously. "Like Richard Marx."
"No," he says, quietly horrified. Then he laughs, and murmurs: "But I think they maybe just brought him up to scare me."
Since that fateful moment, Smith has been basking in a more appropriate spotlight: that earned by Figure 8, his fifth album, released earlier this year. Cerebral, broody and wryly bitter, it's blooming with rich, classic-pop arrangements recalling the Beatles circa Abbey Road or the quieter, bittersweet remonstrations of Elvis Costello. Perhaps most notably, his lyrics are tiny eloquent puzzles, painstakingly fitted together sharp, precise, almost elegant, and brimming with an obvious love of language. When you suggest this to him, he blushes.
How did you come to be a songwriter?
"I just wanted to be able to do it. I'd listen to the radio." He shakes his head. "I dunno, it was like... magic, and I wanted to be able to do it. So, I started trying to do it. At first it was..." He grins sheepishly, his expression one of embarrassed disgust. "It wouldn't sound like songs, now, but I thought that's what they were at the time."
What's your writing process like?
"Disorganised," he murmurs dolefully. "It's kind of pieces of things that over time coalesce into something. Sometimes. And then some songs happen, music and words, all in like five minutes. Those are usually the ones I like best."
Much of Figure 8 centres around pianos: cascading ('Everything Reminds Me of Her'), chiming ('In The Lost And Found') and bringing additional complexity and a kind of rainy-day optimism to some of his more tart observations. In writing with piano rather than his more usual guitar, was he deliberately trying on a new language, to see how it might affect what he came up with?
"Yeah. Exactly. I kind of like the gaps in whatever's happening like the kind of dead zones that people aren't really playing, and I don't really hear a lot of piano on things, so why not? I like to go in any direction that's opposite to what's going on."
Smith recorded a week's worth of Figure 8 at Abbey Road, a common enough choice of studio, but more significant when the artist in question is as clearly besotted with the Beatles as Smith is. Even if you had managed to miss Figure 8's distinctly Fab arrangements and guitar sound, you will have heard his cover of 'Because' on the American Beauty soundtrack. He has also been known to include 'Jealous Guy' in live sets, and his favourite record of all time is the White Album.
"That was a pretty big deal for me," he admits. "And it came up as sort of a joke. I was like, 'It'd be cool to record at Abbey Road', and the label just kind of picked it up and arranged it. I was pretty surprised. I like the Beatles a lot, but it's hard for me to feel super-nostalgic about it all. The 'star quality' of bands is not really my favourite part of them. It was definitely a kick to be there, though. It was a cool studio. It sounds good in there. I can see why they recorded there."
We talk again about the Academy Awards. As you do.
"It was pretty weird, you know? It was like..." He shakes his head in disbelief. "Holding hands with Celine Dion..."
"Yeah. Well, I didn't have to." He switches gears suddenly, and says rather unexpectedly: "She was nice. She was nice to meet. Michael Bolton had a trailer across from mine..." He searches for words that will explain the hallucinatory surreality of his presence among the designer hairdos and power balladeers. "I definitely didn't belong there. But that made it kind of fun, you know? Nobody knew who I was. It was bizarre. And fun because it was bizarre."
Talented, and unnecessarily gracious toward airbrushed pop luminaries as well. Bless.