Elliott Smith Finds Humor And Misunderstood Moments In XO

For the acclaimed singer/songwriter, perceptions of him and his music as morose seem misguided.

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


(RealAudio excerpt).

"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

of whimsy.

"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."