As far as she can recall, folk singer/songwriter Mary Lou Lord's insight
into the complexity of Elliott Smith's talents began with a bag of music
and a casual meeting on the streets of New York.
She remembers running into her longtime friend several years
ago in the city and noticing that the scraggily looking songwriter was carrying a big sack under his arm.
While Smith has more recently earned accolades for his lush, major-label
debut, XO, and his contributions to the Good Will Hunting
soundtrack, at the time Lord bumped into him, he was known simply as the
punk-turned-folkie with an acoustic guitar.
"I said, 'What's in the bag, Elliott?' " Lord recalled recently. "And he
said, 'I'm writing some music.' And then he pulled out this orchestrated
piece that he was putting together with notes and everything, and I was
like, 'Holy sh--, Elliott!' That's when I first knew that he was onto
something. It was a lot more than what even I had anticipated."
Since then, of course, Smith has been heralded as one of the most important
emerging songwriters in America. While many fans got to know him through
his Academy Award-nominated cut from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, "Miss Misery" (RealAudio excerpt), with XO (his fourth solo album), they're discovering his affinity for intricate, textured musical arrangements.
In contrast, for example, to the raw, quiet folk strains he crafted for
last year's Either/Or, Smith now is conceiving songs with complex
yet inviting musicality that summon comparisons with pop masters such as
Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson or genre-hopping songwriter Elvis
Costello. The tracks "Baby Britain" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I Didn't
Understand," for example, display a clear appreciation for the Beatles'
legendary songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
In the eyes of producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Foo Fighters)
-- who have worked with Smith since his final album with the punk outfit
Heatmiser in 1994 -- XO was Smith's opportunity to mine his creative
ambitions while continuing to work with the lyrical assets that have marked
his material from the start.
"You can never underestimate that power of a good song," Schnapf said.
Over the course of nine weeks, he and Rothrock helped the prolific Smith
bring to fruition the 14 songs on XO, plus eight more unreleased
cuts that were left in various states of completion.
Rothrock said the recording came quite naturally, despite the fact that Smith
surprised his producers when he approached them with his plans for a richly
textured, traditional pop album.
"We asked him how the stuff was shaping up compared to what we had all
worked on in the past," Rothrock recalled. "And he said, 'Well, I've got a
couple of waltzes. And I think we're going to need some strings and horns.'
And it went from there. We just went right to it. 'Waltz No. 1' [RealAudio
excerpt] was recorded on the first day that everyone arrived."
The producer added that on XO, he and Schnapf served more as
facilitators of Smith's vision rather than directors of it. "We always try
to draw from the artist," Rothrock said. "Sometimes you're able to augment
and expand upon that. You try to keep it from getting too out of hand,
while at the same time pushing things. It's a series of events where you're
building up walls and tearing them down at the same time."
While some might recognize film as an ideal outlet for Smith's
compositional talents, Smith said that his work on the Academy Award-
winning flick "Good Will Hunting" stemmed from his personal friendship
with director Gus Van Sant and that he has little interest in further movie
"In general, pop songs in movies are kind-of a drag," the quiet and
reflective Smith, 29, said earlier this year. "Usually they come and go. A
lot of movies have a big rock song at the ending credits, and that's the
signal to the crowd that it's time to split. I guess there's a lot of
movies with good music in them -- but there's a lot more movies with
What collaborating on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack with musicians such as well-known film scorer Danny Elfman did do, however, was whet Smith's
appetite for expanding his sound on XO, according to Lord.
"When he started working with very big musical people, it really opened his
curiosity, and he felt like he had the chance to make this record that
maybe only a studio can provide," said Lord, whose most recent record, Got No Shadow (1998), also was produced by Rothrock and Schnapf. "He uses the resources that are around him very naturally. He had the resources to make
a record that shows a side of him that not a lot of people knew existed."
While she called Smith's new album "beautiful," what really thrills her is
the thought of albums that Smith has yet to make.
"It's just beginning," Lord said. "This was just his first time with a
budget. It's going to get very, very interesting in the future. This record
is just the tip of the iceberg."