From Portland, Oregon, to New York City to Los Angeles in the span of a decade, Elliott Smith is as restless a spirit at home as he is when making music. Smith’s muse is a slippery devil and stasis is his nemesis. Thus his moves are quiet, with the aftermath seeming to be all the more surprising. The louder sound of his early work with Heatmiser left few prepared for the three indie-albums that followed: Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or. Those albums showcased Smith’s inimitable (yet decidedly unshowy) picking, his frequently cryptic wordplay and his raspy, vulnerable voice, but they hardly hinted at the studio-hound that emerged with the layered soundscapes in 1998 on XO, his first release for Dreamworks.
With a gang of studio toys at his disposal, Smith further diversifies his musical catalog with Figure 8, a sixteen-track collection full of said touchstones painted with even broader studio-strokes. From the urgency of the piano-and-guitar-driven opener (“Son of Sam”) to the twinkling saloon-style piano that underscores the melody of “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)” Smith seems as comfortable as any nomad can be; with the album serving as a snapshot of a point in his recording career that will certainly be markedly different from the sonic territory he mines next.
As confident as Smith sounds on disc though, don’t expect him to take to the soapbox, or pipe up in a crowded room. His quiet way is all about gentle charm. Given the opportunity to take cracks at the machinery of the music industry or artistic peers whose music may well be forgotten within a year, he doesn’t bite. But despite his suggestions to the contrary, he speaks eloquently and with insight about his career. He just does so without the use of superlatives.
The new album has a number of references to both your current and previous home cities. Do you consider it something of a transitional album?
Well, a lot of it is just stuff that I kind of dream up that I could make interpretations of, but they wouldn’t necessarily be right or necessarily any truer than any other interpretation. There’s a few songs that are very direct and straight lyrically and that’s pretty obvious to me what they’re about. But most of them are pretty impressionistic, little movies where I might be one of the characters. It’s like a little house without too much decorative stuff, but enough so that your imagination can come in and check it out and make of it what you want. You don’t have to walk in and be like, “Oh this is clearly a Victorian house.”
You mentioned that you dream up songs. Does writing ever feel like work?
Not unless I’m busy making up a stilted, contrived song that I’m not going to like tomorrow. I make up a lot of things just to keep my imagination busy and some of them seem more like exercises, and they’re not particularly interesting in and of themselves. The ones that I like or that I think I like don’t feel like work. They feel like telling myself a dream that I had last night.
Are you more comfortable in the studio now than in the past?
I’ve been recording stuff on my own since I was in high school. By the time I was in a band, I lived in a part of the world where it was all grunge music. Which I liked, but it seemed like, why would anybody wanna hear this right now? But no, I feel pretty comfortable making music and putting it out. It’s harder for me to account for it through talking about it or to analyze it, but I feel quite comfortable making it.
Do you suffer from any release anxieties?
The only kind of release anxiety I get is the onslaught of talking about it [laughs] — not to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s a weird thing, just because somebody feels like it comes naturally to make these little structures doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any good at talking about them. Just like somebody who might be a really good violin player might not be a very good teacher. Not to say that I’m equating myself to a good violin player.
Did you ever worry that the label jump might mean less creative control?
No, I made sure that was built into the arrangement we have. And I knew they weren’t signing me to write No. 1 hit songs, you know? I don’t look the part. I don’t act the part. You’d have to be insane to think that I was gonna compete in that particular arena. I think despite the fact that sometimes people look at major labels as simply money-making machines, they’re actually composed of individuals who are real people, and there’s a part of them that needs to feel that part of their job is to put out good music. Maybe I’m just flattering myself. I guess you’d have to ask them more than me, why they wanted me.
The keyboard jumps out on the last two releases. Is that an instrumental rediscovery?
I took piano lessons for a year when I was ten. Only in the last few months have I had access to a piano on a regular basis. I have one now in the place where I live, but I don’t play it that much because I live in a little complex of houses. They’re tiny — they’re like micro-houses — and I don’t wanna bother the neighbors by playing the same half-finished song over and over. It’s a whole different way of thinking about chord changes and relationship of notes to each other because they’re all in a line whereas playing a guitar for me is more like a shape memory. For a long time I made up songs on acoustic guitar because that’s what I had. And I always lived with lots of roommates and I didn’t want to sit in my room playing loud electric guitar all the time when people were trying to do other shit. Keyboards are fun. It’s all organized in a way that makes it turn out purposeful sounding.
Despite the sound of your last two albums, the folk-punk label still seems stuck to you.
It doesn’t capture anything, but neither does any label. The only time a label might work is if someone keeps doing the same music over and over and over again. There’s bands that I like that do that. There’s bands that do define a style and they’re very cool in that style, like AC/DC. They play hard rock, you know? And it’s kick ass. But then there’s other bands that it’s harder to name what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s an evil thing. But, it’s a frustrating thing if you stop and think about it, but then again why stop and think about it when there’s so many other more interesting things to think about? [Laughs] I find it frustrating that no matter how many times I tear off my nametag, certain journalists keep slapping it back on me as though the only thing I ever did was play acoustic music — even though the last two records I’ve made have essentially been emulating a band.
Do you get tired of being tagged as “depressing”?
Yeah, it’s a superficial tag. Everybody gets a tag. If you listen to a Velvet Underground record you don’t think “Godfathers of Punk.” You just think, “Hey this is cool. It sounds great.” The tags are there in order to help try to sell something by giving it a name that’s going to stick in somebody’s memory, but it doesn’t describe it. So ‘depressing’ is not word I would use to describe my music, but there is some sadness in it — there has to be, so that the happiness in it will matter.
Is L.A. agreeing with you?
It’s OK. There’s good people there. So it’s just sort of like anywhere else; it closes at two and you have to drive home instead of closing at four and you can get home on the subway. I don’t go into Hollywood very much so the whole cliche of L.A. being kind of a plastic business and place, that’s not really true.
Do you miss New York?
Oh yeah. There’s something I like better about places staying open later. Seeing people around all the time.
It’s a fairly nomadic existence you’ve crafted.
I just like moving around, just because, you know, you only live once. I kinda wanna try out living in a bunch of different places and see if anything sticks.
So you’re not much of a pack rat.
No, I guess I’ve pared down my stuff to things I can easily move.