Mr. Misery, he's not

Elliott Smith talks about sincerity, happiness and the pitfalls of trying to be a perpetual winner.

Published May 1, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Elliott Smith is not depressed. He is not feeling grim or dissatisfied or angry or filled
with a nameless ennui. His is, in his quiet, steady way, actually quite happy.

After his hit "Ms. Misery" (from the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack)
was nominated for an Academy Award, Smith was tossed without warning into the rough
seas of celebrity, where he floated, vaguely bewildered at first and gasping a bit for air.
Amid the bloated pomp-and-circumstance of the Oscars, Smith wandered onto the
stage with a perplexed smile, a clean white suit and an acoustic guitar. In the shadow
of a sprawling and monstrous set, he sang with a quiet intensity that managed to
silence a roomful of people more adept at speaking than listening. The Oscar, of
course, went to Celine Dion, but that beautiful moment won a new audience for Smith's
unique and gorgeous sound.

Now with the release of his newest album, "Figure Eight" (his second on DreamWorks),
Smith has no need of a blinding spotlight courtesy of the academy. Full of catchy
hooks and bittersweet choruses, his songs have entered the well-tread realm of pop,
but the vulnerability of his distinctive voice still comes through the layers of sound as
clearly as it did in his lo-fi past. Smith has, almost despite himself, become one of
those rare stars you root for simply because they have shown you a bit of their soul.

You've lived in Nebraska, Texas, Oregon, New York and now Los Angeles. Do you
think that these landscapes have integrated themselves into your music and lent
themselves to the way your music sounds and feels?

I think they must have some. But honestly, in a way, it's kind of unknown to me. I
only know what I'm talking about less than half the time when I'm making something
up. It's kind of like writing down a dream I had last night. It's only after a while that I
can get ideas of what, if anything, a song is about. I don't know. Sometimes things
pop up that seem like New York, sometimes things pop up that feel like Portland
[Ore.], where I also lived. On the new album there's even a song called "L.A.," so it
must have something to do with it.

Do you feel like you really need time and a certain amount of distance and
objectivity in order to fully understand what you write?

Definitely. In a year I'll have a much clearer idea of whether I even like this record or
not. It doesn't seem to help to police yourself too much when you're making
something. To be constantly thinking, Is this good or bad? It's better for me to just
do a bunch of stuff and then see if I like any of it later.

That seems a very honest, sort of "gut instinct" way to write. Where it's coming
from a place in you and you don't try to censor it. Do you feel if there's too much
analysis, it loses something?

It becomes sort of strategy. You begin to present some picture of yourself. There's a
part of songs that are always personal, but I'm not particularly interested in concocting
some picture of myself.

What are you interested in your songs doing, ideally?

I just like it better when the songs seem like little movies, maybe not even coherent
ones, but sometimes they can be pretty direct. Lately, I like them if they're not even
very storylike and if they are just more descriptive of some situation. I want them to
create a situation or a mood where you or I can add our imagination and it would have
some room to move around and see what's going on in the song. It doesn't matter
very much whether it's something about me or about some imaginary character. It's a
combination of feelings about things. I don't cannibalize my friends to make songs.
There's a part of it all that has to do with me, but it's more like I'm an actor in some
of the little movies, but not all of them.

Well, I think your music has an honesty that makes some people uncomfortable. I
think there's a tendency for artists to hide behind irony, which is not something that
you do.

Nobody wants to be pinned down and commit to somebody's interpretation of them.
Oftentimes people are doing lyrics, but there is so much irony involved that it makes
the whole thing so slippery I can't really feel anything in connection to it. There's
certainly a place for irony, but it seems like it's really moved up the priority list for a lot
of people and it's not one of my favorite parts of music. I'm not really into seeing a
jokey band or a particularly ironic one. Just because something is witty and ironic
doesn't mean it's necessarily good any more than something being a sickly sweet
confessional makes it any good either. That sort of contrived personality doesn't work
either way.

Do you find it hard not to use those protective devices?

It's become pretty apparent that no matter what I really do or say, there are certain
ways that people are going to perceive me. And it's just gotten to the point where I
can't do anything about it, so I don't worry about it that much. I just make up songs
that to me feel human. And they're bound to be seen by some people as confessional
or depressing, some sort of real one-way assessment that is not how they are to me. I
don't worry as much as I did before. There's no point in me trying to control stuff like

To be able to not worry about that must be incredibly liberating.

Yeah. And it's really easy not to worry about all that, except for the persistent
questions that come up. Maybe not in this interview, but in a lot of them. "Why are you
so sad?"

Well, I think that's also a result of sincerity making people uncomfortable. They
struggle for a way to label things, especially things that really maybe touch them.
There's a fear of someone who has allowed himself to convey feelings that may feel
too intimate to some people.

Some people are afraid that if they don't seem like some sort of perpetual winner all
the time, if they don't make a lot of money and wear expensive cologne and go to all the
right places, that then people are going to think that they're some sort of loser. But
just because people have a range of emotions and thoughts which can coexist at the
same time and at times sometimes they get ecstatically happy about something and
at others times ridiculously depressed, doesn't mean that there's something wrong with
them when they're sad and that they are only successful, good Americans when they're
happy, when everything's going right for them. The media is always telling people to
look better and go shopping more and present an image of prosperity and you can
only do that so much before you're presenting that even to yourself all the time. So if
you do go see a movie and the ending isn't happy, it may be a great movie, but you
end up feeling inordinately depressed because you've been blocking out your own
feelings. There must be some reason why I always get these questions, which to me
seem like totally surface things about my music. There's a lot in my music that I find
happy and optimistic, in both the melody and the lyrics.

I think it has elements of both happiness and sadness, which to me is part of that
honesty. If you were happy all the time or sad all the time --

It would be boring! There's a few bands that just do one thing all the time, that I like.
Like the Ramones. You know how they do that thing? And it's really cool. But for me
the more emotions you can put on a record, without making it such a weird roller
coaster that it's hard to listen to, the better.

You haven't filmed many videos at all, but you just completed one for the new
album. In your analogy you referred to your songs as films. How was it translating
music into image?

The first thing I noticed was that it's a lot more fun when there's not some big, pushy
production company getting in the director's way, trying to dumb it down so that it is as
much like already existing videos as possible. It was mainly just fun for me to run
around. And there was a tiny little aspect of acting in it that I really enjoyed. There's a
story in the video that Autumn De Wilde (the video's director) made up, that I really
like. It's almost like her interpretation of the song was better than mine. Sometimes it
seems like because I'm the one that made it up, it makes me kind of a bad person to
ask what the songs are about. But the video has some happiness and sadness and
some comical aspects, too. The only video that wasn't fun was "Ms. Misery," and that
was because there was a team of people who really couldn't give a shit that it was my
song. It was just kind of negative. It was being directed by a friend of mine and they
ended up just stepping on his toes all the way through it and the result was that it
satisfied no one. Videos can be pretty cool, but most of the time, it's just an ad.

Have you ever thought of making films yourself?

No, not really. I kind of feel like I'm doing pretty good to have whatever
get-up-and-go I have for music. I also have the energy to be interested in other
things beside music, but I don't know if I have enough energy on a day-to-day basis
to launch into a whole sort of complicated project. It seems like there's so many more
people involved. I can't marshal a whole group of people.

What are those other things you're interested in?

I like to read when there's windows of time that I can actually concentrate. Which
usually goes on for several months and then I find that I can't focus on anything for a
month or more. Those times usually coincide with the least interesting parts of my life,
when I'm feeling like time isn't moving, I'm not getting any new things to think about.
Like when I'm playing my songs over and over again on tour. I love playing music, but
it's not healthy to have what you're doing for months at a time revolve around ...
yourself. It gets really weird. People have different reactions to it. Some people really
like it. It feeds some sort of need in them to really get a lot of attention all the time.
They can become addicted to it and when it goes away they become all bummed out.
For some people the experience freaks them out so much, they get drug problems to
just dull everything out, so they don't feel anything. For me, it's kind of in between
those things. I get tired of hearing my voice all the time, I wish I could sing in different
ways. But in general I like it. At this point I have enough songs to choose from, so I
don't have to play the ones I'm sick of.

Do you think you'll ever get to the point where you may not want to play music

I feel like if it got to the point where I didn't want to play music anymore, or couldn't,
that would signify that something had just sort of gone irreparably wrong and I
probably wouldn't be able to do anything creative. But I don't see that happening.
There's a million songs to make up, even though people who don't write songs say,
"It's all been done before." They're so wrong! There's just millions of things to do,
particularly lyrically. For a long time there's been more people interested in the musical
side of things and less people who think it's fun and interesting to play around with
words and be imaginative with them. I think there's a lot of lyrical things that haven't
really been touched on.

When you tour, I imagine the best times are when you are connecting to the audience,
speaking to them not just lyrically, but through the music. But I'm not sure if there's
any way of making sure that happens.

There are certain things you can do to make that more likely to happen. Certain kinds
of bullshit you can avoid. That's what's so great about touring. Sometimes it's like,
"Tonight is going to be amazing and I'm going to remember how lucky I am to be
doing this." But it can also be, "Tonight is gonna suck and I'm going to wonder why I'm
doing this. I'm not cut out for this!" But I guess, like we said earlier, it would get boring
if it was one way all the time. I do think people can go a long way on the moments of
pure happiness in their lives. It's like getting a big shot of vitamins -- you don't get
sick again for weeks!

By Jessica Hundley

Jessica Hundley is a writer in Los Angeles.

MORE FROM Jessica Hundley

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