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'Misery' Has Company

The life of Elliott Smith, whose song was nominated for an Oscar, has changed radically in just a year. Sometimes success can be a tough thing to take.

April 19, 1998|By Richard Cromelin
  • MIXED BLESSING: "It's not like 'Oh, this attention is terrible.' It's really nice in a way," Elliott Smith says of his newfound success. "But it doesn't help anybody to make up better songs."
MIXED BLESSING: "It's not like 'Oh, this attention is… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

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:

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