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'Misery' Has Company

MusicElliott SmithMusic IndustryGood Will Hunting (movie)Academy Awards

A few weeks ago, Elliott Smith performed his Oscar-nominated song "Miss Misery" for more than 55 million on the Academy Awards telecast. A month earlier, he was playing the tiny L.A. rock club Spaceland. A year ago he was trying to kill himself.

This is what you might call progress.

"I'm a lot happier now than I was a year ago," says Smith, 28. "I kind of got about as bummed out as I could get. I don't know. If you sort of bottom out, then there's only one way to go."

That's arguable, as Smith well knows. But indeed his path has been up, in a big way.

His songs were deployed prominently in a hit movie, "Good Will Hunting," capped by the Oscar nomination. He signed a contract with the prestigious DreamWorks Records, which will release his major-label debut album this summer. He's even patching things up with his girlfriend.

And he's getting used to the reviews.

"Smith's voice is nuanced and supple, as full of mystery and suggestion as an overheard conversation," David Gionfriddo wrote in Esquire, describing a recent performance. "And his gift for penning classic pop melodies and confessionally desperate lyrics makes the lilting, Beatles-esque verses of 'Say Yes' and the boozy, last-call seductiveness of 'Between the Bars' alternately hummable and harrowing."

Could things be going too well for someone who's always given the impression that he prefers obscurity, and whose art seems tied to hard times?

"Well, I think people tend to play better if they're not on a winning team," he says with a little smile. "I mean, it's not like 'Oh, this attention is terrible.' It's really nice in a way. But it doesn't help anybody to make up better songs.

"In fact it kind of gets in the way when other people pay attention to you and are constantly directing your attention to your outward self, which is not where songs come from. It's easier for me to make up stuff when I make my little circuit of bars in New York without being recognized or having my attention drawn away from what I'm thinking about."

Central casting couldn't deliver a better model of the tortured troubadour than the real-life Elliott Smith. Wearing a quilted jacket and lighting a succession of cigarettes, he looks every bit the street scuffler, or maybe the day laborer he was before music earned him a living. He sits on a couch in a lounge at the Selma Avenue recording studio in Hollywood where he's making his album, looking straight ahead as he speaks in soft tones.

Smith's manner is so modest and his outlook so tolerant--he sincerely insists that he still hasn't met any "bastards" in the music business--that you wonder whether he's fit to move into the big time as the great new hope of literate song-craft.

But Smith--who will play the Troubadour on May 19--did show some fight when it came to a key crossroads in his career last year.

Heatmiser, a rock band that Smith played in concurrently with his solo career, had signed with Virgin Records, and when the group broke up, the label claimed the rights to Smith as a solo artist. He balked and eventually reached a settlement that made him a free agent.

"The drive is there because he has so many songs he has to get out," says his manager, Margaret Mittleman. "His drive isn't obvious and he doesn't talk about it every day. He's not overly ambitious. But he's ambitious enough."

No one expects Smith to outdistance Hanson or "Titanic" on the charts. But many of his supporters see him as a potential pacesetter for a new breed of singer-songwriter, one that's tapping traditional forms while sorting through alienated, post-'60s upbringings in resonant, idiosyncratic music.

Smith's signing with DreamWorks earlier this year brought that potential into focus, because it linked the singer with label co-founder Lenny Waronker--an artist-friendly executive who has worked in the past with such individualistic talents as Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Dyke Parks and James Taylor.

"They all occupy their own space, and Elliott is the epitome of that," Waronker says. "I think that he is a major songwriter who has his own vocabulary. Most great writers do."

Smith--who moved to Brooklyn after Heatmiser and his last relationship both broke up--came to this threshold through a route usually associated with his harder-edged brethren--the Pacific Northwest indie-rock underground.

He recorded his first album, "Roman Candle," for the tiny Portland label Cavity Search, and his next two, "Elliott Smith" and "Either/Or," for a higher-profile independent, Olympia-based Kill Rock Stars.

Those records and Smith's regular solo tours seeded a growing audience, attracted to his quietly searing, subversively catchy music. His songs seem to come with a built-in tension and a melancholy backdrop as he spins demon-haunted scenarios describing suspicion, deceit and obsession.

In "Between the Bars," one of the four songs from "Either/Or" that director Gus Van Sant used in "Good Will Hunting," Smith turns alcohol into a taunting character:

Drink up with me now and forget all about the pressure of days . . .

The images stuck in your head

People you've been before that you don't want around anymore

That push and shove and won't bend to your will

I'll keep them still

In virtually every one of his miniatures, Smith balances his desperate content with rich melodies that carry the promise--or is it illusion?--of escape.

"There's something very fragile and almost eerie about [his style] that was attractive," says Waronker. "And then when you start to pay attention to what he's saying, and the melodic smarts, it all adds up to somebody who's quite special."

His label chief isn't the only one who's used "fragile" to describe Smith's music--and it's not a word the artist is thrilled with.

"I don't really have any goals as a songwriter, other than to show what it's like to be a person--just like everybody else who's ever played music does," Smith says. "I don't feel like my songs are particularly fragile or revealing. . . .

"They're songs. It's not like a diary, and they're not intended to be any sort of super intimate confessional singer-songwriterish thing. I like the Beatles. Dylan. The Saints and the Clash. All the good things about what they did or do is probably the same things that I'm trying to do."

Indeed, subtle production touches in his low-budget, homemade albums create haunting currents in the music, and suggest that he's a record-maker as well as a songwriter. Smith hasn't yet asserted the range of his role models, but what can you do?

"The fact that it seems like a lot of my songs are--what's the word, dark?--is definitely a problem to me. It's not like I want to carve out a little corner and stay there. . . . Happy songs are great when they come along. I mean, they haven't come along a lot. . . ."

Lighting another cigarette, he seems to tighten up a notch as he starts talking about his childhood, and as he proceeds he carefully skirts the details.

He grew up in Dallas with his mother and stepfather and his stepfather's children, and at 14 he moved in with his biological father and his family in Portland.

"It wasn't too good," he says of both situations. "But a lot of people's aren't too good, and there's probably plenty of people complaining about whatever time they had as kids without me piling on. . . . Yeah, the whole thing was a kind of bummer, to say the least. But it was a long time ago."

Smith graduated from Hampshire College in New Hampshire in the field of political philosophy, but he had no particular aims. Back in Portland he went through a period marked by unsuccessful relationships, artistic growth, serious drinking and sporadic depression. He hit bottom about a year ago.

"I freaked out for a little while and tried to bring things to a stop, but it didn't work." he says, speaking quietly and evenly. "Now I'm glad. I'm just happy right now. Drinking too much will really depress anybody. But sometimes people drink too much because they're really depressed. It's hard to say what the cause is."

The rising career fortunes have contributed to Smith's upbeat mood these days. So have his recent reconciliation with his girlfriend, and some recent gestures of rapprochement from family members.

"In the last year, Elliott has gotten so much more comfortable with who he is and what he's doing," says Mittleman, his manager. "It was tough in the beginning. The records weren't available, and people were unsure about the music because it was so quiet.

"He's definitely much happier, though there's an element of sadness to him, in general, which you can hear in the songwriting."

For Smith, that songwriting ultimately remains a mystery, and he wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, he sometimes likens his songs to dreams.

"I don't really care so much if I fully understand what I'm talking about, as long as it feels a certain way," he explains. "It's good if you can understand what your dream meant. But whether you do or not, it's having an effect on you. And on a certain level, you do understand what it's about. It's very important. People that can't fall asleep and dream go crazy."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MusicElliott SmithMusic IndustryGood Will Hunting (movie)Academy Awards
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