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Los Angeles Times
Sunday, April 19, 1998
'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. 

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 thesinger 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."