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Elliott Smith keeps moving

Songwriter talks about relocation, labels, and guns

Contradictory Smith: Introverted singer-songwriter or gun-toting tough guy?  

May 17, 2000
Web posted at: 3:32 p.m. EST (1932 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- If you didn't know Elliott Smith, you might be slightly confused.

Here's this skinny guy with pale skin and greasy hair sitting at a table in his tour bus, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. Everything about him says, "I'm a singer-songwriter," even his quiet voice and shifting eyes.

Everything, that is, except his redneck outfit: a camouflage hunting cap and a faded T-shirt promoting Hank Williams Jr. Smith, in fact, claims to be a fan of the country legend -- "Bocephus" to those in the know.

"I really like some of his songs -- 'All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down,' not to be confused with 'All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,' which is a very different song," Smith says, and it's unclear whether he's deadpanning.

No guns, just pens

Then he mentions how, after moving from the New York area to Los Angeles recently, he almost bought a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window.

"Part of me wanted to get guns and put them in the rack, but I don't think I would have gone that far," he says. "I don't like guns and I think I wouldn't want to own one. It seems like a magnet for trouble."


"Son of Sam"

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"Easy Way Out"

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"Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?"

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(Sound courtesy Dreamworks Records)

Sanity returns to the moment. Of course he doesn't want a gun. He's Elliott Smith, introspective singer-songwriter. His pen is mightier than any sword.

But then Smith continues in a disturbingly calculated voice:

"As I've become an adult, I've slowly tried to reduce my anger at people who seem like they're being stupid, like tough guys at a bar," he says. "I think if I had a gun, it wouldn't encourage me to stay calm and just let it pass. It's better get better at letting that pass than to buy a weapon."

For a moment, it's easy to picture Smith in a Hollywood bar, lighting the place with muzzle flashes and the sick grin of revenge, screaming in twang, "This here's for all you tough guys!"

He'd never do something like that, but Smith has been pushing the envelope of perception and avoiding labels for most of his career. He might not be the gun type, but he's certainly not what you think he is.

Odd man at the Oscars

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, 30 years ago, raised in Dallas, Smith burst onto the mainstream scene in 1997. After recording three independent albums, he supplied a handful of songs to the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack.

Then came the Academy Awards in 1998. Smith's "Good Will Hunting" song "Miss Misery" was up for best song that year. He was one of many left in the Oscar wake of "Titanic," losing to "My Heart Will Go On," sung by Celine Dion.

But one of the memorable moments from that Oscar telecast -- aside from "Titanic" director James Cameron crowning himself king -- was Smith's live performance of his song. It was his moment to command the spotlight at this made-for-TV extravaganza. Instead, Smith, wearing black, ambled out on stage with just an acoustic guitar and mumbled the song into the microphone.

He was a study in contrast, an alter-ego to all the ego filling the moment. And he continues to remain true to himself.

'Pet Sounds' sound?'

Recently, Smith toured through Atlanta to promote his latest work, "Figure 8," which has taken his cloudy-day acoustic style and given it sonic layers of keyboards and string arrangements.

Smith says Los Angeles is "pretty much like any other place"  

Many critics consider the album to be a solid and level-headed progression from Smith's folk-based foundation to an ethereal-pop realm of introspective lyrics and melodic accompaniment.

One critic was even moved enough to liken the CD to "Pet Sounds," the Beach Boys 1966 masterpiece. Smith declines the flattering comparison.

"That seems very hyperbolic," he says. "I recorded -- alone -- most of the songs, with two producers. That's not the same situation as 'Pet Sounds,' and it's not as symphonic as 'Pet Sounds.' It's not 'Pet Sounds.'

"I like 'Pet Sounds' and that's a huge compliment to me, but there's no way I'm going to accept it."

Smith, in fact, claims that he never reads reviews. He fears they might interfere with his songwriting.

"That little interior landscape where you make stuff up starts getting more and more peopled with opinions," he says. "And even if the reviews are good, it starts to crowd up the room."

'Kind of fragmented'

"Figure 8" features enough personalities as it stands, from the off-kilter, poppy opener "Son of Sam" to the melancholy "Easy Way Out." In songs like "Somebody That I Used to Know," he returns to his "Good Will Hunting" days of acoustic strums and simple voice. Then he turns it up several notches for "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?"

Despite the varying sounds, Smith remains true to his lyrics. Like their creator, they paint an elusive picture. In the chorus of one song, Smith sings over and over, "Everything means nothing to me, everything means nothing to me."

"The songs don't have a real point," he says. "And if there's a story-like aspect, it's usually kind of fragmented and it's not fully complete in writing."

L.A., beyond the cartoon

Another Smith contradiction is his recent relocation. As he proved at the Oscars a few years back, he's anything but Hollywood.

So why did he move to L.A.?

"I never really considered living in L.A. because everybody's got that cartoon of it, you know?" he says. "So that seemed like a good reason to check it out. 'Let's get the cartoon out of the way and see what it's really like there.'

"It's pretty much like any other place," he said. "I don't go into Hollywood very much. I don't go to places where people network and talk about their careers all the time. By and large, famous people make me a little edgy."

Another reason for Smith not to own a gun.

Smith didn't buy that pickup, either. Needing transportation for California freeways, he settled on a black Volkswagen Passat -- a model of stability that really isn't representative of a poetic, enigmatic singer-songwriter. Or is it?

"I figured if I was going to buy a car, I just wanted to do it one time," he says. "So I didn't try to get a cool-looking car or a fancy-looking car."

But like many things in his life, the car-buying process reminded Smith of who he is, and isn't. And like always, he found a way to work around the perceptions.

"It's a drag buying a car," he says. "Sometimes you'll find somebody who's nice. But oftentimes, they judge people by how they look. I'd have to chase somebody down just to get them to talk to me at all. I wound up buying the car through an auto broker, because unless you look a certain way, you can't walk in and get any attention."

Smith, singer-songwriter, has never been one to do something for attention.

1998 Academy Awards


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