Elliott Smith is nearly finished recording his next album, which the distinguished songsmith has titled From the Basement on the Hill.
Unlike his previous major label records, 1998's XO and 2000's Figure 8, which were produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, the team behind Beck's Mellow Gold and Odelay albums, Smith is recording the new LP himself.
"I like the production on the last two, and I like the people I was working with, [but] I wanted to just do it alone again," Smith said backstage Friday at KCRW-FM's A Sounds Eclectic Evening, where he played all new material (see "Ozomatli Turn Singer/Songwriter Showcase Into Hip-Hop Salsa Party"). "There's this record, Either/Or, that came out [in 1997] before the last two, and this one I feel more like I felt then. It's just a different thing to do. I don't know if it's better or worse, but I feel freer, probably because I'm the only one calling the shots."
Smith may be on his own, but don't expect From the Basement on the Hill to be a toned-down singer/songwriter album. Several of the new songs he debuted Friday in acoustic form have taken on new lives in the studio.
"I try to sound like a band," Smith said. "I always hate it when people call me a singer/songwriter." The album's likely first single, "Shooting Star," illustrates the complexity Smith has worked into the record.
"It has this weird kind of Mitch Mitchell (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience) drumming ... [and] guitar leads, which I never do, which I why I did them," Smith said. "Then it turns into the song, and at the end when it seems like it should end it turns into a Motown kind of theme, and then it winds down into a kind of 'Black Angels Death Song' [by] Velvet Underground kind of ending. I didn't intend to do that. The record was recorded with very little reigning in of ideas."
Smith, who contributed vocals to the Go-Betweens' first album in more than a decade last year (see "Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney For Go-Betweens LP"), invited a few guests to collaborate on From the Basement on the Hill, most notably Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd and Beachwood Sparks' Aaron Sperske.
The two drummers actually play the same part on the same track. "They were in the same room facing each other, and I was in the room telling them when to crash by jumping up and down," Smith said.
An underground phenomenon until his tender "Miss Misery" from the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack earned him an Oscar nomination, Smith is considered one of the most compassionate songwriters today. His style is continuously evolving, especially since September 11, he said.
"Everything changes writing, and that changed it, but I don't know in what way, exactly," Smith explained. "I've been making up some things that are hardcore, sort of hard lyrically — maybe it's because of that. I can't believe it happened. It's unspeakable. But I'm not going to write a song about it. I'm not the person for that."
Since the terrorist attacks, Smith has pulled one song he had slated for the album, "Fond Farewell," and replaced it with a lighter tune called "Little One."
"It's more pretty," he said. "I don't think what people need right now is hardness. I think they might need some softness, something a little more comfortable. They don't need death imagery and masks. There's kind of some death imagery in my own music, but not on a mass level."
Smith has been recording From the Basement on the Hill in Los Angeles, and he plans to complete it at his own studio, which will be finished by the end of November. The album is scheduled for a spring release.