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It’s just over ten years since the death of Elliott Smith. Rob Haynes celebrates his life in this interview

Elliott Smith was a greatly respected American singer-songwriter. He died in 2003 aged 34, from stab wounds ”“ a probable suicide, but the circumstances remain ambiguous (the coroner’s report leaves open the possibility of homicide). Here is a reproduction of an interview from 2000, done in the bar of Manchester University student’s union during Smith’s tour for his fifth album Figure 8, at the time of what was his greatest commercial success. It’s easy in retrospect to read significance into his state of mind or answers, but I’d make no claims for the interview offering anything new or insightful – it was just a simple promotional profile of a talent whose life was already tinted with tragedy.

After this time Smith’s life would take a downward turn, with apparent drugs and mental problems restricting his activities. What turned out to be his final album, From a Basement on a Hill, was eventually released a year after his death.

Elliott Smith interview (2000)

“I’m jet-lagged really bad,” groans Elliott Smith, his bleary eyes focusing on a point just beyond my left shoulder. A beanie hat is dragged down over his straggly hair and tufts of lengthy stubble form an intermittent beard and moustache.
The image created is a little unfortunate, as it reinforces a stereotype that the singer is keen to shake off. Since his debut album Roman Candle in 1994, Smith has been tagged as the world-weary poet of depression, a solo folk troubadour, a Slacker generation Simon and Garfunkel moping lyrically about life’s travails.

Born in Nebraska, raised in Texas, Smith grew up listening to traditional teenage American rock fare like The Scorpions and AC/DC before moving on to more formative influences which can still be detected in his work today. “A lot of Beatles,” he recalls, “Dylan. Then later the Clash, The Saints, Elvis Costello. I like people who are interested in words.”
He pauses. Then, mindful perhaps of his unwanted folkie image, adds “but I still like music like AC/DC. They really kick ass,” he nods.

His early solo work fitted easily into the bracket of depressive singer-songwriter, but later work became more ambitious, with his most recent album Figure 8 broadening his public persona in that it features a band (although Smith recorded a lot of the instrumentation himself). It has been widely received as his most cheerful record to date.
Smith muses over this: “To me there was only one record that was really dark, and that was the second one,” he observes. “It’s nice that people are seeing something other than the fact that there is some shadow in (Figure 8), because for a while all I got was ”Ëœintrospection, gloom’, and there’s a lot of other feeling in there.”

In many ways Smith seems unsuited to the fame slowly creeping up around him. Interviews have consistently portrayed him as someone frustrated with the trappings fame puts on a performer; the way lyrics can be misinterpreted and a whole persona ascribed to him which bears no resemblance to how he feels ”“ what he resignedly refers to as “the cartoon of a folk singer”.

The mainstream press is more scarily messianic ”“ The Times proclaimed “there is genius here”; Mojo hailed “the touch of a master”; and The Independent hurled restraint to the wind and acclaimed “the best song-writer on earth”.
“Oh”¦” he winces. “I don’t read my own press. It’s nice that someone thinks that,” he offers bravely. Another pause. Then, concluding limply: “It’s someone’s opinion I guess”¦”
It seems more than just a few people’s opinion, I press. Smith forces a tight-lipped smile. “I like doing it. I’d rather just do it than step back and assess it, y’know?”

I ask him about the added pressures success brings. “I’m not worried about it,” he replies. “It’s been gradual enough that there haven’t been very many points in the last few years where it jumped up and turned my head around. Any level of success is going to carry some weirdness in it, even the little amount that I’ve had, but all in all it’s a positive thing. I wouldn’t like to be as ever-present as ”“ I dunno ”“ Whitney Houston or Sting or someone.”

As remote as Smith’s world may be from the rock elite, success has a way of insinuating its ordinary madness. Who would have imagined, a few years ago, that Smith would have found his way onto the Good Will Hunting soundtrack in 1998, and then, in a crowning incongruity, performed the song Miss Misery at that year’s Oscar ceremony?
At the mention of this, the now-familiar expression of inner pain settles on his face. His jet-lagged monotone seems more weary than ever.
“For me it was something that came and went in the space of a few days,” he explains stoically. “But for the press it was something that never would go away.”
I offer a meek apology. “No, that’s alright,” he replies. “But it wasn’t that big a deal for me. It was a weird, short deal. Kinda fun, but totally bizarre. And mostly it’s over.”

Still, the collision of culture Smith must face on a regular basis seems compelling to the outsider. Gone, presumably forever, are the days when Smith could strap on his acoustic guitar and play to a small audience of the uninitiated. These days, for instance, he is signed to Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks label, although he is yet to meet the maestro.
“I met Mo Austin, who signed  Jimi Hendrix,” he offers with a shrug. “I’m not that big on meeting famous people in general” he apologises.
Not even if you saw AC/DC’s legendary guitarist Angus Young?
“Oh, if Angus was there, sure,” he brightens.
So is Smith an unusual person? Is he, as it would seem, a very private person?
“Aren’t we all?” he counters, fixing me with a weary smile.
Well, people who get up on stage and sing in front of crowds tend to be less so, I suggest.
“That’s true,” he nods. “Some people really enjoy all that. I don’t dislike it, it just doesn’t make me feel any different.”

Analysing lyrics is often a way to the heart of the artist, and Smith’s lyrics seem to offer especially rich material. Even those from the cheerful Figure 8 hint at the loneliness and self-loathing which allegedly lie in his past, and may linger into the present: “The enemy lies within / Don’t confuse me with him” from Stupidity, or “Wish you gave me your number / Wish I could call you today, just to hear a voice” from I Better Be Quiet Now.
Predictably Smith rejects any such simplistic path to understanding. “It’s more like a dream diary, y’know?” he tries to explain. “A record of imaginative situations. The lyrics do have some connection to my reality, or maybe someone’s reality that I know. It’s not meant to be a photograph of myself, a painting of me, but it’s not like total fiction either. It’s sort of inbetween.”

Politely elusive to the last, rescue arrives in the form of his tour manager.
Smith rises, still bleary, weakly shakes my hand and ambles off to sound-check. I want to wish him well but somehow not quite too well ”“ too much success doesn’t seem the appropriate thing to wish him.

Rob Haynes

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