His tragic death at age 34 has spun a mysterious web around Elliott Smith’s musical legacy and spawned a cult following that sometimes seems to miss the point of why his songs have such enduring appeal. As his 50th birthday approaches, let’s clear the air by focusing on what a damn fine musician, songwriter and arranger Smith was. PKM spoke with Larry Crane, recording engineer and archivist, who worked closely with Smith in their Portland studio.
When rock musicians, or any creative artists, die at the height of their fame, their lives become the stuff of legend. All work available before the suicide or overdose or car/plane crash is suddenly, and then exclusively, viewed through the lens of that final event. In the case of the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who would have been 50 years old this August had he not (reportedly) taken his life on Oct. 21, 2003, the endless reexamination of his recorded legacy, looking for clues to his death, has continued apace for 16 years—and driven many of his former friends and bandmates into a sort of bitter or resigned silence.
Smith’s music, like that of Nick Drake’s or Chet Baker’s, provides a large and complicated canvas for listeners. Those who want to find clues to Smith’s early death, or his darker demons, in his music will find them. Granted, it is true that on a certain superficial level, his songs appear to be nothing less than a career-long cry to help—if you’re into that sort of thing.
But, look at it this way: Very few of the great musical artists, those that we return to over the years, wrote nothing but sappy, happy songs. And that residue of sadness in Smith’s music may partially explain his music’s enduring appeal—we cling to music in those times when we need consolation, or just a kindred spirit to get us through the rougher waters of life. And Smith’s music had that sort of power, offering some comfort but no easy answers. Like Nick Drake’s black dog standing outside his door or Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, the lure of oblivion always seemed to beckon Smith.
But the truth is much more complicated. Smith was an intelligent, philosophical and clever guy, and he had a real gift for melody and lyrics that could convey multiple meanings. He also was a brilliant arranger of his deceptively complex compositions. So, as Smith’s 50th birthday approaches (on August 6), this is a good time to revisit his music as music (and not as a road map to despair) and accentuate the positive of his life rather than wallow in its darkness.
So, what is it about Elliott Smith’s music that makes it so intoxicating? Perhaps it’s the seeming fragility and softness of that voice—breathy, plaintive, so quietly intense that you almost have to lean forward to hear the words—set against perfectly crafted pop songs that contained echoes of the Beatles, Big Star, John Cale, the Velvet Underground, even Oasis, but were also deceptively complex in their arrangements, some flirting with waltz-time and classical motifs.
It’s hard to believe that the Elliott Smith who released albums like Either/Or, XO and Figure 8, and the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill, had roots in the post-grunge world. But it’s true. After graduating in 1991—with degrees in philosophy and political science—from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Smith moved back to his hometown of Portland, Oregon and revived Heatmiser, the band he’d formed with Hampshire classmate Neil Gust (the band’s name taken from the villain in the classic kids’ movie The Year Without a Santa Claus). Portland offered fertile ground for original music of the kind Heatmiser offered. Located just far enough away from Seattle to have a unique sound and club scene, the hope was always there that the attention given to its sister city to the North would eventually work its way down to Oregon.
Heatmiser, a loud guitar band with a far more hard-rock sound than Smith’s later solo work, attained some regional popularity and released two albums and an EP, with Gust and Smith writing most of the songs.
But even while in Heatmiser, Smith was already writing what Benjamin Nugent, in Elliott Smith and The Big Nothing (Da Capo), calls “catchy, traditional folk-rock songs with explicit personal content when grunge was at its peak.” By accident almost, Heatmiser manager (and then Smith girlfriend) JJ Gonson played the cassette demos of his solo acoustic stuff to the two owners of Cavity Search Records. They wanted the songs, exactly as they were—resulting in his first solo record, Roman Candle. Smith otherwise may not have released it and may have clung to second fiddle in a rock band likely destined for regional glory at best.
On the strength of his demos and Roman Candle, the painfully shy Smith got hooked in with the anti-corporate Kill Rock Stars label. Mary Lou Lord was enamored enough with his music to invite him to tour with her. And, once grunge began to fade, Smith was standing in the rubble alongside bands like Pavement, Magnetic Fields, Death Cab for Cutie, Belle & Sebastian, and Portland’s punk giants Crackerbash, led by his friend Sean Croghan.
Steven Paul Smith was born Aug. 6, 1969, in Omaha but his parents divorced when he was two and his mother moved with him to Dallas and remarried, while his father moved to Portland. As a kid in Texas, he played clarinet in the school band. His mother and stepfather were part of an evangelical sect, an offshoot of the Mormons, called Community of Christ, which instilled in him a fear of hell but no countervailing spiritual solace. (And what kind of a religion is that?). Some hard to believe facts about young Elliott Smith: he loved Kiss and played defensive guard on the football team.
Alas, his stepfather was a cold and psychologically (and perhaps physically) abusive man, according to some accounts. By his sophomore year in high school, Smith had had enough. He moved to Portland to live with his father, did well enough in high school there to get accepted to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, having applied there because his girlfriend was going there. At Hampshire, he took the name Elliott Smith, because—according to Nugent—he thought Steve Smith sounded too much like a jock (though, oddly, he never legally changed his name to Elliott Smith). He met a core group of lifelong friends at Hampshire and, after graduating, moved back to Portland, restarting Heatmiser with classmate Neil Gust.
In 1994, he released his first solo album, Roman Candle, while still in Heatmiser. It was lo-fi and homemade but showed flashes of songwriting ability. His next two solo albums, Elliott Smith (1995), and Either/Or (1997) were released by Kill Rock Stars. A fellow Portland native, film director Gus Van Zant, was so taken with Smith that he included three songs off Either/Or in the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting. And, lo and behold, the attention-averse Smith suddenly found himself nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song in a Feature Film, competing with the likes of Celine Dion.
No person has ever looked as out of place as Elliott Smith did when he performed “Miss Misery” live at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1997, accompanied by the swirling strings of the Academy’s orchestra. But…he pulled it off somehow.
His profile now dramatically raised, Smith signed a record deal with Dreamworks and released XO (1998) and Figure 8 (2000). His final solo album, on which he was working at his death, was From a Basement on the Hill (2004), which was released posthumously.
A documentary film, Heaven Adores You, directed by Nikolas Rossi, was released in 2014.
Larry Crane is now a leader in the field of sound recording, editor of Tape Op Magazine—a bimonthly bible for innovative recording engineers—and he was there at the beginning of Smith’s recording career in Portland. He also helped assemble Elliott Smith’s superb posthumous two-disc album, New Moon, many songs on which he recorded and mixed at his Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland.
PKM: How/when did you and Elliott Smith meet?
Larry Crane: I’m not sure. I’d seen him play in Heatmiser a few times. I knew Joanna Bolme through mutual friends and I think we met through her. Probably in 1995 or so. I’d only lived in PDX 2 years or so!
PKM: I didn’t realize, until I read the liner notes you wrote for New Moon, that Elliott was simultaneously recording with Heatmiser while he was also recording on his own the quieter tracks that would define his solo career. I also didn’t know that Heatmiser had signed a deal with Virgin Records. It seems an agonizing situation—for good and bad—that a creative musician could face. A major label signs your band but another label signs you to a solo record deal. Did he ever confide in you about the situation?
Larry Crane: No.
PKM: You spent a lot of time with Elliott Smith the year before Either/Or was released, both in the studio and interviewing him for Tape Op Magazine. What do you recall about his moods and methods from that time (this would be 1996)?
Larry Crane: I did not spend much time with him beyond several hours on “Pictures of Me” recording vocals and several hours interviewing him. Near the end of 1996, we drove around looking for a space to rent for what became Jackpot! His moods? He liked to get to work and get things done. He was very easy to communicate with for me.
PKM: Elliott Smith was there at the start of Jackpot! Recording Studio, wasn’t he?
Larry Crane: Yes. We found that each of us was building a studio so it seemed crazy to build two places!
PKM: Did you get a sense that he was free to be himself, outside of his role in the band Heatmiser?
Larry Crane: That was never discussed. He did say, “Sometimes I don’t work well with other engineers in the studio” before we started working together at Jackpot! but we never had any conflicts in that way. I was not trying to produce him in any way; I simply facilitated what he was trying to do.
PKM: If you don’t mind, could you describe the work the two of you did on the song “Miss Misery,” which was a stand-alone single that really vaulted him to international fame?
Larry Crane: Recording “Miss Misery” was simple. I’d bought a 2-inch, 16-track tape deck and a Mackie 32×8 console and I plugged in some mics and tracked his parts. He took a cassette of the instrumental mix and later he had me overdub vocals on it for him when he was back in PDX from touring. I made a rough mix and we were done! Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock mixed it in L.A. later, for the film. I did tell him to punch in and fix a vocal part that wasn’t doubled right, but he refused. I thought that was funny! Listen close!
PKM: Was it clear to you then that Either/Or was going to be a “breakthrough” album for him?
Larry Crane: I’ve said before: in a town where blatant, pandering crap like Everclear was big, or silly bands like Dandy Warhols were on a major label, that Elliott’s sublime writing and performances were out of place. But musicians and rock critics knew this record was special and Elliott was talented. I was honored to be involved and be his pal.
PKM: Even though it never charted, Either/Or has been the bestselling album in Elliott’s catalog. Does that surprise you?
Larry Crane: That’s good, because I assume that Universal comes up with a million ways to pretend the records they own (XO & Figure 8) don’t generate a profit. I don’t know this for sure, but it was true last time I asked about it. Kill Rock Stars are fair and take care of his legacy.
PKM: Did you sort of lose track with Elliott after he left for New York in late 1997?
Larry Crane: Not at all!
PKM: Or did he periodically check in with you?
Larry Crane: We did a few sessions when he wanted to get ideas down and was in Portland. I used to see him play shows and would hang out and check in. I even helped him bring guitars onstage at SXSW once! A lot of his recording gear was here for many years until he built New Monkey Studio. The initial idea for us pairing up was to have a place he could come record with little overhead and on his own terms in case the “major label thing” fell apart.
He worked harder at songwriting than most. And he learned several key instruments and arranged better than any band and most any writer. He was on a level with Rod Argent, Elvis Costello, Alex Chilton, or Paul McCartney.
PKM: In his liner notes to New Moon, Sean Croghan mentioned that the setting of Portland shaped Elliott Smith. How do you think that was? The working class vibe and the perpetual overcast skies?
Larry Crane: I’m sure it had some influence on Elliott. Look up Greg Sage’s Straight Ahead solo LP for an obvious precursor that we all dug. Many PDX streets and neighborhoods populate his sings and (of course) for the mentally feeble that notates a sort of authenticity. People that come here and “tour” what they think these songs are “based on” are probably missing the point completely.
PKM: The Portland music scene, in the post-grunge days, was really rich and vibrant. From your perspective, was there a sense that it was only a matter of time that a national audience would beat a path to its collective door?
Larry Crane: Did they? Some of the best bands were ignored and are now (generally) forgotten. New Bad Things, Richmond Fontaine, Smegma, Hellcows, Calamity Jane, Spinanes, Crackerbash, Sunset Valley, Dharma Bums, Hazel, etc. I’m grateful for any attention The Decemberists, Portugal. The Man, Summer Cannibals, Ages and Ages, Moon Duo, and many others can get nationally these days. They make real music. I’ve been around this scene since 1987, originally on tour with Vomit Launch.
PKM: What do you think it is about Elliott Smith’s music that gives it such an enduring appeal?
Larry Crane: He worked harder at songwriting than most. And he learned several key instruments and arranged better than any band and most any writer. He was on a level with Rod Argent, Elvis Costello, Alex Chilton, or Paul McCartney. I realized right away that most other sessions would pale next to this music. Oh well.
PKM: The fragility of his voice against those great pop arrangements?
Larry Crane: That’s secondary to the above.
PKM: I think the enduring appeal is also due to the arrangements of the songs, some of which are waltz-like, almost classically composed. He was seriously underappreciated as a guitarist and arranger, don’t you think?
Larry Crane: Some ARE waltzes, obviously! He had a classical piano background from lessons as a kid. Look for the little chord changes that don’t repeat in a song, or the careful use of voicings. Never unneeded filigree. Economy and effective use of all instruments. Plus his vision and control over the entire song. I’ve interviewed people that recorded Prince, and the experiences sound very similar!
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