The Well Rounded Interview
When his Grammy-nominated song, "Miss Misery," leapt off the Good Will Hunting Soundtrack, that was the first most people had heard of Elliott Smith. In fact though, Smith had been around for quite some time, when director Gus Van Zandt asked Smith to write a song for Matt Damon and Minnie Driver to smooch to. He had released several albums with the aggressive indie-rock band Heatmiser, and three more downbeat efforts on his own. XO is his first album for a major label, and his first where he knows there'll be some eyes on him. Smith took time out recently to talk about the new album
Mr. Misery reveals his thoughts on increased exposure and divulges what he and Celine Dion talked about at the Oscars.
In the last year the mainstream has really started paying more attention to you, every major music magazine has done a story on you in conjunction with the new album but you've actually been around for quite awhile. Has that fact helped you deal with all the attention?
I guess. I don't know. I don't know what to say about that. I kind of don't think about attention a whole lot.
But the attention is there whether you think about it or not. How have you dealt with it thus far?
I don't really deal with it. It exists more in other people's minds.
Is that to say it doesn't bother you?
It hasn't really bothered me so far.
Has it come as a shock?
It's surprising. But that's kind of the extent of my feelings about it. Surprising and temporary.
Because God only knows why people like what they like and don't like something else. I have lots of friends who don't get any attention, and I don't know.
I take it you probably didn't have any idea when you agreed to some songs for Good Will Hunting that it could spiral into this?
"I think my songs reveal whatever they reveal, they say certain things about who I am, whereas Will Smith singing `Gettin' Jiggy With It' reveals certain things about how he is."
Yeah. I didn't think I was gonna be playing on the Oscars or anything.
I had heard that you had a hard time making your last album, Either/Or, due largely to the fact that you knew for the first time that people would be listening to it.
I didn't have a hard time making it, I had a hard time letting it go. I had a hard time deciding what songs to put on it. I had a hard time after the fact but it was easy to record. It's always easy to record. But I got turned around by getting concerned about what someone else's perception was gonna be and that's just a total waste of time. But yeah that was a difficult time. This record was a lot easier to let it go. I only hated this one for a couple weeks. Now I think it's okay.
Did having gone through that whole thing with Either/Or make it easier this time around?
Yeah. After that thing with Either/Or I told myself I wouldn't get like that again. And also with this record, me and the producers kind of thought about the order of songs really early on. So it wasn't like Either/Or where there were like millions of songs and no way to decide which ones to put on. We didn't record that many extra songs for this record.
For Either/Or it was largely your gig and your gig alone. Was it helpful this time to have more people involved?
In a way. I didn't have to wear all the hats, and get up and keep rewinding the tape machine all the time. Yeah, it was kind of easier like that. But in a way it's easier to do stuff on your own because you really just have to sort of--if you like it than you're done. But Rob and Tom are like that with me anyway. They don't put any pressure on me to do anything in particular and Dreamworks didn't either so this was a really easy record to make.
So you didn't feel any of the pressures from either the label or just from the general public who were obviously now aware that Elliott Smith was coming out with a new album?
Yeah. Well, I try not to think about the general public since I have no idea what the general public is and I don't think anybody does. I was trying to do the same thing that I always do which is make an interesting record. I mean, I didn't expect anybody to put pressure on me and nobody did. I don't think that Dreamworks would have signed me expecting to really mess around with whatever it is I do. Because it's the kind of thing where if somebody threw too many wrenches in the works, it just wouldn't work at all. But they're really good to me.
I know you've never thought of yourself as a guy who's gonna go out and sell a lot of records.
(Laughs) That's for sure.
But in light of all that's happened in the past year has that view skewed a bit?
I actually don't think that I'm gonna sell a lot of records. I hope that Dreamworks can sell enough records that they're happy--so I don't get dropped. I want to keep making records as long as I can and that's the beginning and end of my concern about selling records. I don't what to think about that.
But was there a time when you were even less comfortable with the idea of selling records in general? That if you were putting out something that everyone was buying than it couldn't be that good?
Well, yeah. There's always that argument to make--that you're in better company historically if people don't understand what you're doing. And it was bizarre to be playing on the Oscars for that reason. But I don't know. I used to think about that stuff and try to analyze my situation more but it didn't get me anywhere and it doesn't have anything to do with the fundamental reason why I play music which is cuz I love it. So nowadays I don't really think about all that stuff unless there's a problem to be solved. As long as I'm making up new songs than I kind of just let the little machine do its work without taking it apart.
On the new album there seems to be an attempt to be a little more upbeat particularly in the arrangements. Was that something that you did consciously?
Well, up was the only way to go from that self-titled record that I made. I mean, I personally can't get more dark than that. I want to write about as many things as possible and I don't try to write about anything in particular but if there was one kind of song I wish I could write it would be more like "I Second That Emotion," by Smokey Robinson than like some really dark, depressing song. It's also like I have to do what seems new to me. Even if it doesn't seem new to other people. That's what I have to do in order to not get bored and stagnate and stuck.
Is XO more reflective of how you're feeling in general now?
Yeah, I mean. I feel quite a bit better than I did then. I think that record gave me a reputation for being a really dark, depressed person but I think I'm just about as happy as all the other people I know. Which is occasionally.
The new album also sounds a lot bigger with the orchestral arrangements and all that stuff. Was that just a function of having Dreamworks money to play with?
Well, I wanted it to sound different from the last one. And it was a good coincidence for me to go to Dreamworks because I wanted to try to write stuff for strings and I wanted to try and make sort of a more complicated record sonically. Like a more varied one. I like home recordings and studio recordings just as much as each other--I don't think one is better--but for this record I wanted to see what I could do in a real studio with real producers.
"I think I'm just about as happy as all the other people I know. Which is occasionally."
Do you think at any point you'll go back to doing the home stuff again?
Yeah. Definitely. But I don't know when. There's something to that that really unique to that, that's really fun. So I'll always do that. I don't know how much of it I'll release but I do that anyway.
Despite the album's more upbeat feel, like you said, you got a reputation after the self-titled album as being this depressive, downer, and it's likely that it's going to be the kind of reputation that's hard to shake. Is that something that frustrates you?
Not really because if it wasn't this reputation I'd be some other real one-dimensional little cliche. I mean people just have a way of--y'know they'll review your record in two sentences and put you in this little stupid box that you don't want to be in. If you play acoustic guitar you're the depressed, sensitive guy. But y'know when I was in a post-punk band I was the angry, screamer guy.
So at least you've had the chance to be both of them for a little while.
(Laughs) Yeah, but they're both a drag but the best thing is just to remember how silly it all is and not worry about it.
It also gives you the chance to defy people's expectations of you.
Oh yeah. Yeah, that's a big part of it. And if I couldn't sort of surprise myself and try to surprise other people than that would take some of the fun out of it.
It must be frustrating that people often listen to your songs and assume that you are in fact the downer, depressive personality described in them.
Yeah, they're songs. It's not a diary. Not a diary at all.
People seem to have real personal reactions to your songs, is that something that's satisfying to you or is it, in another way, a little bit scary?
Yeah, I guess so. Sometimes people seem to think that my songs are more personal than somebody else's and I don't really think that's true. Y'know, I think my songs reveal whatever they reveal, they say certain things about who I am, whereas Will Smith singing "Gettin' Jiggy With It" reveals certain things about how he is. Like for one thing that he doesn't mind singing a senseless song but I don't know, it's just--I don't know it's sort of like if no one is playing--if people who are by and large on the radio and television really don't give a shit what words they're singing then someone comes along who actually sings about things that matter to them, than everybody thinks that they're lyrics are really personal. But it's just situational.
Along those same lines, I read where Gus Van Sant and a few of the cast members had said that you're songs seemed to fit Good Will Hunting perfectly even though only one of them was actually written for it. Did you feel like their was a real connection between the music and the story, and was that just a coincidence?
It was Gus's doing. I wrote the one song for the movie but he picked out all the songs put them into the movie. By the way I shouldn't be going around saying mean things about Will Smith because I like him as an actor and he seems like a nice guy. My point wasn't to make an example out of him. It's just that a lot of songs that are popular right now, they don't have any meaning. So if somebody writes a song that appears to have some meaning then everybody thinks that it's a really heavy song. And I'm not trying to write heavy songs. I'm just writing songs about how I feel or about how people I know feel. So I shouldn't make an example out of poor old Will Smith.
Well, I don't know if Will Smith is an avid reader so you might not have to worry about it.
You mentioned the Oscars and I didn't want to dwell on it, but it was such a bizarre moment that really stuck out in my mind immediately when I saw it. The whole thing seemed really surreal. Needless to say you didn't exactly fit in with that crowd. What was the experience like from your perspective?
It was really surreal and four hours long.
Did you feel out of place?
Yeah, of course. I think most everyone there felt out of place. But I don't know for sure. I know I felt out of place.
You didn't ask Celine if she felt out of place?
No. I talked to her a little bit and she was really, really nice. I think she was nervous. It's an awards show. It's a really really strange thing.
You're living in New York now?
What do you like about New York?
I don't know. I just wanted to move out of Portland to do something. I don't really like New York better than Portland. It's just a different place.
Does it sort of allow you to be more anonymous?
Yeah. It's good that way. There's a lot of people.