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Revisiting Elliott Smith’s seminal Either/Or

As his breakthrough third album turns 20, we look back on a transitional period for the late singer-songwriter

For someone who created such straightforward music, Elliott Smith is too complicated to sum up. The singer, songwriter, and musician was born in Nebraska and raised in Texas, but quickly uprooted to Portland, Oregon where he found himself at home. Locations don’t always matter in music, but Smith’s work deeply captured the tone and aura of the Pacific Northwest. It’s present in his debut solo album, 1994’s Roman Candle, through to 2007’s posthumous LP New Moon. Smith offered up his heart without expecting much in return – perhaps that’s because he never expected anything to begin with.

Most people’s introduction to Elliott Smith came via Either/Or, his breakthrough third full-length. As a stepping stone between the lo-fi acoustics of his first albums and the production he dabbled in during later years, the record offers up a look at the somber, quiet, and content times of a musician beginning to solidify his role in a music community that would only later, following his death in October of 2003, fall for him on a national scale. After all, it’s the record that landed him an Oscar nomination because Gus Van Sant used some of its songs for Good Will Hunting’s soundtrack.

“Between the Bars” wallows into a dark corner to bite anxiously at its own nails. “No Name No. 5” sighs in the middle of a fight. “Rose Parade” let’s a guitar sing chipper melodies while a deadpan story unfolds. The sliding guitar intro of “Ballad of Big Nothing” encourages listeners to keep going, and it’s all topped off with the sweetest song he ever wrote, “Say Yes”, which finds an unexpected surge of hope in lovesick eyes. In many ways, it’s a quiet record, but Smith coloured each song with the breadth and spectrum of a person mesmerised by the stories they intersect. To honour its 20th anniversary, Kill Rock Stars are reissuing Either/Or as an expanded edition complete with demos, unreleased tracks, and live versions, all of which expand a narrative many wish they knew more of.

Co-producer Rob Schnapf and recording engineer Larry Crane spoke over the phone about the stories – heard and unheard – behind the album. At one point, Schnapf pauses for a long time as if he’s reliving his story in real time. “Being at Brownies in Portland and watching him destroy the room, totally quiet, everyone watching him while he killed it?” he says. “Those moments are connected to Either/Or for me because that’s the peak of his live time (before his battle with alcoholism).” Everyone speaks lovingly of Smith – producers grin at the thought of their days in the studio with him, while musicians that never actually met Smith talk about his music as if they broke down each measure in conversation with him years ago. With that much discussion, it seems unlikely for there to be facts left unturned, but Smith was too modest to brag about himself during the time he was alive. On his behalf, other point to the gems he left buried, revealing there’s plenty more to discover beyond the melancholic strums of Either/Or and the music that followed suit.

HE PROBABLY DEBUTED THE SONGS AS A BUSKER

A year before Elliott Smith began work on Either/Or, he travelled down south to Austin, Texas with a group of friends headed to South by Southwest. The majority of them weren’t scheduled to play, but they didn’t see that as an issue. Smith squashed into a car with Margaret Mittleman (who ended up managing Elliott later on), her husband and producer Rob Schnapf, and folk singer Mary Lou Lord, and they went on their way. “Margaret had a hotel room and like ten people crashed there,” says Rob Schnapf. “So we go downtown and Mary Lou and Elliott aren’t playing any of the SXSW events. They didn’t care. They just go to the other end of Congress Street and they post up in front of this bank and they just busk every night. I mean, constantly. I just hung out with them and they would go back and forth with the guitar, trading songs, playing covers. It was incredible.” There’s no official setlist from those nights, but given Smith’s constant rotation of material and Lord’s encouragement of him from early on, it’s more than likely he performed cuts off the soon-to-be-recorded Either/Or on the streets of Austin that week.

BECK PROMPTED A NEWFOUND APPRECIATION FOR PRODUCTION

Before Either/Or, Elliott Smith prefered to record his solo music essentially alone, generally singing sang at home into his four-track. After hearing Beck’s 1994 full-length Mellow Gold, Smith decided to go for a bigger sound – and who better to help him realise that than the duo who produced it, Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf? “He really liked ‘Pay No Mind’ on Mellow Gold,” says Schnapf. “That started the conversation about doing something, actually. We talked about recording at our house, like we did Mellow Gold, but our schedules wouldn’t line up. So we figured out an alternative to record. We just happened to be hanging out and he felt comfortable enough to ask.”

THANK THE BREAK-UP OF HEATMISER FOR HIS FAMED DOUBLE-TRACKING

Smith’s old band, Portland alt-rock act Heatmiser, drew to an end in 1996. Shortly before the release of their third and final album Mic City Sons, all four members – Smith, Neil Gust, Brandt Peterson, and Tony Lash – realised that major label agreements couldn’t work if any of them wanted to break apart to do solo work, primarily because of Smith. With Heatmiser, Smith said he “couldn’t really write anything pleasing to my (sic) lyrically,” which made his solo album all the more freeing. Cue the extra legwork. From the tentative brilliance of 1994’s Roman Candle and the fidgety guitarwork of 1995’s self-titled LP, Smith looked at the horizon with a curious eye, wondering how he could shape his solo work to maintain that intimacy but with the punch of a full-bodied band. He decided to record all the instruments himself on Either/Or. Smith became his own band. He double-tracked the vocal parts. He double-tracked the guitar. He created a rich sound full of life that stemmed from a single human. Heatmiser died, but a fuller version of Elliott Smith grew in its wake.

HE LEARNED POP ORCHESTRATION FROM THE BEATLES’ MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR

One of folk’s biggest records has pop to thank for its invention. Elliott Smith listened to Magical Mystery Tour “every day” because he “was on a big pop kick when (he) was recording.” The way he saw it, if you didn't catch the feeling he was writing about, then the music wouldn’t reel you in to begin with. Smith began studying The Beatles’ arrangements and the ornateness of that record. He listened to The Zombies and The Left Banke for vocal harmonies. Pop music of the past began revealing all the ways in which he could further his music, especially if he layered his own voice.

HE WORRIED ABOUT BEING TOO LO-FI

The charm of Either/Or lays in its transitional nature of Smith’s sound. The warm acoustic tones of his first two records stays present, but he pushes himself to do more – yet Smith couldn’t shake the fear that he should be glossing his sound more. That’s why Schnapf and Rothrock’s guidance was key. They kept spirits high and encouraged Smith to explore the studio as he pleased, but he wasn’t prepared for all that was at his disposal in a proper studio.

“We could have fleshed out the production with thicker harmonic and melodic possibilities, but you know what? He wasn’t ready to,” says Schnapf. “Even though it’s a fantastic record, creatively for him, it was a stepping stone for allowing himself to seek those melodic possibilities in the studio. It proves that great songwriting stands on its own, whether you do elaborate stuff in the studio or you keep it to guitar and vocal. He played ‘Speed Trials’ off his four-track cassette and there was a discussion about whether or not we should recut it or not. It was a technical thing where he worried it sounded too lo-fi. I said, ‘It’s not about lo-fi or hi-fi. It’s communicating so much on its own. You don’t want to tamper with that.’”

IT WASN’T MEANT TO BE A SAD ALBUM

No matter which album you put on, Elliott Smith’s music falls into the category of mopey folk music – but is it really? The minor chords are there, the pained lyrics stick to the forefront, and he slightly downturned eyes suggest a permanent state of sadness, but every close friend details the majority of Smith’s time alive, especially during this point of his life, as a period of normalcy. “It wasn’t a black cloud recording this stuff. He had fun making that record and so did we,” says Schnapf. “Inspiration is joy. That helps you mutate and document what’s important to you so that when you look back it gives you pleasure. That’s what he had. That’s what this album was.”

In interviews, Smith said he wanted to “show what it's like to be a person.” That’s what allows a song like “2:45am” to sit beside the simplistic optimism of “Say Yes”, which took him five minutes to write. “There’s parts of him in there but there’s also observations,” says Larry Crane. “My wife told me a while back that she was talking to a friend of hers at Satyricon, this local club, and she’s animated and jabbering away, and at some point during the conversation she looked to the side and noticed Elliott was just watching the two of them. He was always absorbing stuff. A lot of what you hear in his songs is observations. Part of that comes from his own life with a downcast angle, but it’s also a story about human experiences at large.”

“MISS MISERY” WASN’T ACTUALLY WRITTEN FOR GOOD WILL HUNTING

Dig through old Academy Award articles and it won’t take long to find a journalist who stated non-album track “Miss Misery” was written for Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film Good Will Hunting. “Between the Bars”, “Angeles”, “Say Yes”, and several older cuts were included in the film’s soundtrack, but here’s where the facts get twisted. Some say Van Sant caught wind of Smith’s music and dialed him up to ask for song rights, but the director and musician knew one another through Portland’s various creative scenes. Some say “Miss Misery” was a new song written just for the film, but Smith already recorded it long before he was asked to contribute. Some say the lyrics were altered to better fit the film, but he never changed a word – including a mistake.

“I came into the studio one day,” says Crane, “and Elliott says, ‘Oh, Gus Van Sant was here. I played him that one song we did,’ you know? Then they put it in the movie. People do that; they want a new song so they can get that Oscar nod. And that’s okay; it’s part of business. One time Rob said something like, ‘Oh I think we overdubbed on it,’ and I know we didn’t because I have the rough dubs. There’s no difference whatsoever in the lyrics or anything. In fact, there’s a vocal mistake in the mix that never got fixed and that’s in the film. They didn’t change that song at all. The way I see it, the song took on its own life and couldn’t be included on the album which, in its own way, screwed the song up as a piece of a larger body of work.”

HE WAS ANNOYED AT THE OSCARS BEFORE HE EVEN PERFORMED ON THEM

One of the most surreal music moments of 1998 remains equally surreal in 2017: Elliott Smith performing live at the 70th Academy Awards. In his own anti-glamourous way, Smith stood there centre stage in a blinding white suit – equally a bold outfit to refute his subdued self, and a tawdry mockery of the industry’s sex appeal standards – strumming a two-minute version of “Miss Misery” that felt entirely out of place. Though his ideals remained intact, the moment he was nominated for that Oscar, his life as a musician changed. “We started making XO at that point, and then all of a sudden he got nominated,” says Schnapf. “Every morning, he had phone interviews from 9am to 1pm. Then we would record. It turned into a grind. He had to sit there everyday talking to reporters and it wiped him out because he answered the same questions over and over and over. What’s it like to be invited? What’s it like to be a nobody who was brought on? Blah blah blah. It was this attention multiplied by a thousand.”

In fact, Smith had a bone to pick before even taking the stage. He was annoyed the award ceremony’s organisers declined to let him play the song by himself, nevertheless the song in full. When he asked what would happen if he refused to perform, they told him that someone else would play it in his place. “Every time someone goes, ‘I saw him in that white suit,’ I want to ask if they think he’s a singing fucking monkey,” sighs Crane, getting defensive on Smith’s behalf. “Do you think he’s one little blip of a guy and that’s all he ever did? It marginalizes people, that kind of thinking.”

FAME TROUBLED HIM LONG BEFORE HIS BIG BREAKTHROUGH

Some artists crave attention. Elliott Smith couldn’t have wanted less to do with it. Looking back, Either/Or is a precipice record. Songs like “Rose Parade”, “Pictures of Me”, and “Angeles” gave voice to worries about the recording industry, capitalism, and Hollywood. According to close friends, his disillusionment with fame bled into a part of him that felt conflicted with having to leave Heatmiser and other music friends behind, too. “He knew he couldn’t take them along for this ride he was about to go on and you could feel that on the record,” says Crane. “He wasn’t sure what to do, so it’s an amazing document of someone who spent a ton of time recording a sound and put aside so many songs, ones you later hear on New Moon, that nod to a specific theme of worry.”

IT WAS A LABOUR OF (ALMOST FREE) LOVE

Elliott Smith seemed to have effortless talent, but the bulk of his success stemmed from his unrelenting work ethic. Smith was gifted because he worked hard and cultivated the discipline to follow through. “Elliott worked at his craft, like he worked really, really hard,” says Schnapf. “When it was go time, that allowed him to make it happen and make it sound as effortless as it did.” That passion rubbed off on those involved in the album’s recording, production, and mastering. “Either/Or was probably made for next to nothing,” laughs Crane. “Rob and Tom were paid probably a percentage later on or a small fee. I know I was paid $10 an hour to record the vocals. That was probably $30 total. But that didn’t matter because it made sense to help him with this.”

On the following full-length, XO, Smith left Kill Rock Stars for DreamWorks and was given funds to hire sounds like a cornet player and string sections, and he began following the footsteps of his idols like Love or The Beatles by recording at Abbey Road and Sunset Studios. Smith created stripped-down pop the way his idols did, but without the ego that drove them to those industry pillars to begin with. Until funds were offered to him, he wrote and recorded because it poured out of him. The other work, the nitpicking and publicity, was a means to continue songwriting in the future. Perhaps that’s the closest he would ever come to embracing the singer-songwriter tag, his punk roots and gentle indifference keeping him on his own path with every year that followed.