This particular Q&A brings with it a cavalcade of anniversaries: it’s been 15 years since Elliott Smith’s fourth studio album, XO, was released in 1998; ten years since Smith died in his home in Los Angeles; and, now that it’s 2014 (how’d that happen, by the way?), five years since the release of Matt LeMay’s 33 1/3 series title delving into XO, Smith’s misunderstood legacy, and his abbreviated life. LeMay, a writer, musician, and tech consultant, as well as senior contributor at Pitchfork, put considerable thought into his take on Smith’s work. For the first author Q&A of 2014, here’s LeMay on the difficulties and the rewards of “interrogat[ing] the cultural mythology of Elliott as a sad, perpetually drug-addicted folk singer.”
For more of LeMay’s writing, visit his website A Question of Frequency, or follow him on Twitter.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
ML: I spent nearly a decade missing the point of Elliott Smith’s music for reasons that I really wanted to interrogate. When I first heard about Elliott’s music, it was in the context of, “Here’s this guy who was basically a homeless junkie and did tons of drugs and now he makes this sad folk music about it.” When I finally started paying attention to XO–really paying attention–I was pretty shocked to realize that Elliott was not only avoiding those clichés, he was actively taking them apart. Here was a record where a guy was actually saying, “Look, pain isn’t beautiful, creativity isn’t borne of suffering,” and he’s saying it through these impossibly precise Beatlesque pop songs. Yet it still gets pretty consistently described as sad folk music.
I find the romanticized connection between suffering and creativity hugely troubling. I’ve seen it used to justify awful, self-destructive behavior. I wanted to write about Elliott’s music in a way that sheds some light on all the actual work that went into his creative output; it’s not like he just put down a syringe, picked up an acoustic guitar, and channeled his deep existential suffering into beautiful words and melodies. I also wanted to dig a bit into why we find the romanticization of suffering so compelling, why we assume that an artist’s most compelling work must have roots in their darkest personal histories.
Who did you reach out to during the writing process? Why?
ML: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many people for talking to me about XO, but the book really could not have existed at all without the help of Larry Crane and Philip Fischer. Larry worked with Elliott at Jackpot! Recording in Portland, and had a lot of really amazing insight into Elliott’s creative process. He also put me in touch with Philip, who has done an absolutely incredible job archiving and analyzing Elliott’s body of work.
It was hard to find a good balance between approaching the right people and respecting everyone’s privacy; many of those close to Elliott feared, understandably, that their words might be taken out of context or used in the service of something ghoulish or disrespectful. Most of the introductory emails I sent actually included my 33 ⅓ pitch, so that folks could see where I was coming from and why I wanted to write about Elliott’s music. Honestly, I probably should have reached out to more people than I did, but I feel like I did right by everybody who was kind enough to speak with me.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
ML: I actually remember having a conversation about Elliott’s music with my friend and mentor Chad Clark, and saying something to the effect of, “If there’s ever another call for 33 ⅓ pitches, I’m going to pitch one on XO.” Both Chad and my friend and former bandmate Raf Splieman–now of Portland’s excellent Woolen Men–played a huge part in my (re)discovery of XO. In two independent and unrelated conversations, they both made statements about how sharp and incisive the writing is on XO, which forced me to think about the album in a way other than “druggy sad sack folk singer-songwriter music.”
Those conversations also helped me feel like I wasn’t just drawing huge, baseless conclusions from my own narrow experience. Looking back over things that had been written about XO at the time of its release went a ways towards helping me crystallize and articulate some of the dominant narratives around Elliott and his music. Really thinking through what it means to be invested in those narratives — and, frankly, thinking though my own self-interest in attempting to deconstruct those narratives — is more challenging.
“I wanted to dig a bit into why we find the romanticization of suffering so compelling, why we assume that an artist’s most compelling work must have roots in their darkest personal histories.”
What did you want to explore about this artist that you feel hadn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing? Do you feel you achieved it?
ML: My goal with the book was twofold: to bring more attention to Elliott’s talent as a songwriter by tracing his creative process, and to interrogate the cultural mythology of Elliott as a sad, perpetually drug-addicted folk singer. In retrospect, that’s as much an agenda as it is a goal, and I was doubtless at least somewhat myopic and/or unfairly selective in the materials I cited. I actually got a really thoughtful email from somebody who read the book and suggested, quite fairly, that I got so deeply entrenched in my point of view that I wound up “protest[ing] too much” about some of Elliott’s lyrics regarding drug use. But, at the very least, I think I succeeded in putting forth a viewpoint that’s different from many of those currently out there about Elliott’s music.
Has any new information about the record or the process of creating it come to light since you wrote the book?
ML: One of the album outtakes I wrote about, “Cecilia/Amanda,” got officially released by Kill Rock Stars in 2010. It’s higher quality than the bootleg version I was working from, and it’s great to hear!
Name a lyric from the album you wrote about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
ML: The lyric “they took your life apart / they called your failures art / they were wrong, though” was huge for me when I started reevaluating my own relationship with the record, because it seemed like Elliott was calling out the very kind of biography-based concern trolling that I had initially fallen into.
Elliott Smith’s XO is available on Amazon or wherever 33 1/3s are sold.