Elliott Smith sounded genuinely puzzled.
The critically acclaimed singer/songwriter couldn't seem to fathom why some
have pegged him as a depressed neo-folkie -- especially when his recently
released fourth solo album, XO, contains moments such as the short
intake of breath that precedes the loud, word-tripping track
"That cracks me up," said the 29-year-old singer with his patently quiet
demeanor Tuesday from a tour stop in North Carolina. "Often times it seems like
people try to tell me that I'm a morose folk-singer. I just don't understand that. To
me that breath is just hilarious."
The purposeful inclusion of the split-second moment is evidence of Smith's
keen attention to detail, which comes to the foreground both in his carefully
etched songwriting and in his lush, textured recording. Smith was co-producer
of the 14-song album with the studio team of Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf.
XO -- the major-label debut of the former member of punk's Heatmiser --
has been hailed by some as a welcome example of rock's swing back toward
Beatles- and Beach Boys-inspired production.
"The breath was just in there because I had to start singing on the first note of
the song, and then when it came time to sequence the record, the assumption
would usually be to cut the breath out," Smith said. "But me and Rob and Tom
were like, 'No, no, you gotta leave the breath in.' "
To Smith's ears, the taut guitar-rhythm on the second half of
Britain"(RealAudio excerpt) -- a crisp down-stroke that clearly echoes
the Beatles' pop classic "Getting Better" -- is a similarly misunderstood moment
"That was kind-of hilarious," said Smith, who has completed half of a U.S. tour
that lasts into October. "I wasn't trying to rip off anything about when the Beatles
did that; it's just fun to play like that."
Smith perked up at the notion that the "Baby Britain" riff points to a larger trend
of interpreting anything that uses elements of the past as a conscious comment
on that past. "People look at things so commercially now. If you do anything
that's referential, the assumption is that you're trying to cop that style. I'm not
looking to put on someone else's disguise. People constantly learn things by
figuring out what that cool thing [is] in some old song that somebody did."
Ex-Raincoats leader Gina Birch agrees. "There's always hand-me-downs from
other people," said Birch, who now heads up the Hangovers on Smith's former
label, Kill Rock Stars. "A lot of really good people take things from work that
already exists. You're kind-of stealing from here and borrowing from there, and
quoting from here. It would be strange not to, I think."
Smith said he, Rothrock and Schnapf worked hard to incorporate sounds of the
past, such as tack piano (a piano with thumbtacks on its hammers, often heard
on Zombies and Beatles records), as simple elements of enjoyable music.
"We always try to draw from the artist," Rothrock said of working with Smith.
"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."
While Smith is sometimes intrigued by others' interpretations of his work, he
said he believes that he is the best judge of what's in his best interest -- a
sentiment he conveys with venomous sarcasm in XO's "Everybody
Cares, Everybody Understands." Lyrics such as "Everybody cares about you,
whether or not you want them to/ It's a chemical embrace that kicks you in the
head, to a pure synthetic sympathy that infuriates you totally" have left some
wondering whether Smith was commenting on the myriad music-industry
handlers he's had to deal with since signing with DreamWorks Records last
"I wasn't thinking about the music business when I made it up, I was thinking
about more of a personal incident," he said. "It's just a song, as far as I can tell,
about how annoying it is to have people telling you what you ought to do with
yourself, in any way."
But, Smith added, if people have an inkling that he's referring to the industry,
that's fine with him.
"The thing that's fun for me is to describe things in a way that makes a parallel
between that and something else, so that a song could just as easily seem to be
about this as about that. Intervening with someone, supposedly on their behalf,
because you think they're destructive and need help, is very similar in a way to
having handlers in some business who are constantly telling you how you
ought to conduct yourself."