Volume 92, Issue 89
Wednesday, March 18, 1999
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Smith redefines strong silent type
© Nick Burdan/Gazette
By Mark Pytlik
"I don't know what I'm getting at... "
Elliott Smith's timid voice trails off mid sentence and he resignedly concludes with a plaintive sigh. He's holed up in a New York hotel room conducting another in a seemingly endless line of phone interviews and is currently trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about most songwriters which irks him. After a couple of false starts, he gathers himself and tries again. "You know the whole thing about... I don't know. I don't know."
In an odd way, this small exchange perfectly encapsulates the most remarkable thing about Elliott Smith's rise to fame. The notoriously shy and soft-spoken songwriter has somehow managed to wriggle his way into the collective mainstream without pandering to the image conscious media.
He appears to be blissfully unaware of the mounting pressures being placed on him by over-enthusiastic critics (some have called him a Bob Dylan for the '90s) and shrugs earnestly at the mention of his rampant fanbase. Smith's reticence is oddly endearing you get the feeling he's infinitely more comfortable in a recording studio than at a photo shoot.
Smith's career has been on a gradual ascent since director Gus Van Sant chose to use some of his songs on the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting. The movie was a surprise smash and Smith suddenly found himself riding a wave of media exposure which culminated with an appearance at the Academy Awards. His major label debut X/O was subsequently met with tremendous critical response and Smith has spent the last eight months dutifully touring behind the record.
Although he's not entirely accustomed to the pitfalls of fame, Smith is quick to diffuse certain myths about his songs, many of which appear to be intensely personal. "They're about me as much as someone's dreams are about them," he reasons. "Some people think that every figure in a dream is representative of some side of themselves I don't know about that. There's no way I could make up four records that were all just about myself. That would be really really boring."
Smith is also wary of over analysing his stream of consciousness songwriting style, preferring instead to savour the enigmatic quality of his work. "I like talking about music but I don't really know what songs are about," he muses. "I just like how songs sound and I like the little internal movie they make. I don't know what 'Strawberry Fields' is about, but I like it. A lot."
This non-analytical approach to music is mirrored in the way Smith nonchalantly handles the lavish praise constantly thrown in his direction. "Everybody thinks about themselves quite a bit as it is. As soon as people start talking a lot about somebody, it encourages them to think about themselves more and more and more. I just can't do that."
In addition to his quiet exasperation with publicity and promotion, Smith says he is also starting to feel the effects of his ambitious tour schedule. "It gets kinda weird to do the same songs over and over, " he sighs. "[Starting to hate your own songs] is a bad feeling and I've had it."
In order to keep himself interested, Smith has started to routinely include a batch of new songs on tour, many of which have already been recorded at the legendary Abbey Road studios in England for an album slated for release early next January.
Until then, Smith will enjoy a well deserved rest which he'll undoubtedly spend doing what he does best making music.
Elliott Smith plays The Embassy on April 2.
Copyright © The Gazette 1999