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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Songs of Elliott Smith

An interview with Nickolas Rossi, director of new documentary ‘Heaven Adores You’


Elliot Smith

 

 

 

 

Elliott Smith (1969-2003) was an American songwriter and musician. Having played in rock band Heatmiser for several years, Smith switched to a solo career. His first albums were ‘lo-fi’ works, which gained a cult following and critical acclaim. In 1997, several of his songs were featured on the soundtrack to 'Good Will Hunting', culminating in his performance at the Oscars ceremony in 1998. This led to him being exposed to a much wider audience and the pressures of fame, with which he greatly struggled.

 

 

 


“He gave us the words that we couldn’t find when we were sad.”

- Autumn de Wilde


Smith suffered from depression and substance misuse and he dealt with these subjects in his lyrics, often quite explicitly. In 2003, aged 34, he died in Los Angeles from two stab wounds to the chest. Many believe he committed suicide, although the autopsy evidence was inconclusive. At the time of his death, Smith was working on his sixth studio album, From a Basement on the Hill, which was posthumously released in 2004. (Read a Guardian Interview from not long before Smith’s death in 2003).

 

Smith was a gifted musician and composer and there is considerable variation in the style of his songs, from melancholic and intense to whimsical and playful. His detractors sometimes pointed to an overly-confessional approach to song writing, but the frankness of his lyrics resonated with listeners worldwide and his fan base has continued to grow in the years since his death. His life has been the subject of several biographies, including ‘Tormented Saint’, ‘Keep The Things You Forgot’ and ‘Can’t Make A Sound’ and the documentary 'Searching for Elliott Smith' (2009).

 

This year sees the release of a further documentary, ‘Heaven Adores You’ (2014), with UK screenings from next month. In anticipation of its release, I spoke to the film’s director, Nickolas Rossi. Nickolas is an experienced cinematographer who has worked on a variety of projects. His website is here. ‘Heaven Adores You’ is his directorial debut.

Heaven Adores You

 

JT: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to know Elliott Smith, or about him?

 

NR: I didn't know Elliott personally. I met him once outside of a venue in London back in 1998 while he was on tour with his record, XO. I told him that I too had lived in Portland and that I admired his music. But that was the extent of it. We both lived in Portland at the same time, and probably had beers at the same bar, went to the same shows. I'd see him around Los Angeles before he died, as well. When it came time to explore this project, I relied on the people who actually knew him the best to help tell his story and his experience.

 

You have stated that his music has been very important to you- can you explain why? What about his songs are so distinctive or moving do you think?

 

 

I think a lot of people who discover Elliott’s music do so at a time that sort of makes the most sense for them. It’s likely that you come across his music when you need to have someone express some of those feelings for you, through lyrics and melody. As Autumn de Wilde says in the film, “He gave us the words that we couldn’t find when we were sad.”

                                                                                                                                                         

I definitely had my Portland experience with the music of Elliott Smith. And when I left Portland, I carried that experience with me, but seldom really felt like it was a shared experience with anyone else. He has a way to make songs very personal for those who listen to them. I think he’s important because regardless whether or not you ever knew him or ever met him, he feels like an old friend.

 

You are primarily a cinematographer. What drew you to this project? Was it just the music or did it tie in in some way with your interest in visual art?

 

I enjoy the relationship I've had with music and with cinematography. Sometimes, it's just great to put some music on and put on headphones and go for a walk through the city, or get on a train and watch the scenery pass by while you listen to the poetry of the songs. So, I think it's both. I always felt that Elliott's music was cinematic and that there were images and situations to explore through his songs. As a cinematographer, I wanted to explore that in the places where he made that music. There's a feeling to putting those songs to images. The three cities he recorded his records in are all very different in their aesthetics. It was a really fun process to delve into those places with his music as the soundtrack and see what came out in the process of editing the film.

 

Some people feel that his work is overly confessional or personal. My view is that while his material dealing with darker mental states is undoubtedly powerful, some of his best output was more playful and musically inventive songs, such as ‘Junk Bond Trader’, ‘Lost and Found’ and songs like ‘Bled White’ and ‘Baby Britain’, which deal with serious subjects, but in perhaps a more hopeful way. This suggests to me that if he was able to overcome his difficulties with depression and drug use, his output in the long run may have been somewhat broader in scope, as well as him creating more of it. Others may counter of course, with arguments about suffering being required for great music. What are your thoughts on this?

 

One of the things that kept on coming up in interviews with his friends was how a lot of people thought his songs were autobiographical, and how that wasn't the case all the time. Elliott was a great storyteller and was very adept in observing situations and then writing about them and being able to tie them into universal themes. It's probably why his music is so relatable for a lot of people. I'm sure there's probably a lot of personal stuff in there, too, but I wouldn't be able to confirm that. 

 

When I first started listening to Elliott's music, I found a lot of it really heavy and dramatic, but I have had a few years to really absorb a lot of it, and I think you're right--there's a lot of hopeful and optimistic poetry in his music. I guess it really has to do with what time in your life you discover his music. It's all very honest and raw, but also very witty and well constructed. I hope that the film can start to sort of shift that "sad sack musician" mythology that people quickly tag on songwriters like Elliott Smith.

Nickolas Rossi

 

Can you tell us a little about the making of the film? What themes have you chosen to focus on most and why?

 

We wanted to tell the story of Elliott Smith, from the stories of his friends and from his own interviews. It was really an organic process, with a focus being primarily on what we thought mattered most- which was the music.

 

Nickolas Rossi

 

Have you been surprised at the scale of reaction?

 

I'm glad the film is being well received with the fans. It means a lot to us that they have been so supportive of the film, and I can only hope that it stays available for the newer generation of fans of Elliott's music that will crop up in the years to come.

 

Can you pick a few personal favourites from Elliott’s catalogue?

 

There's so many! I think at the end of the film we counted approximately 47 tracks of music. I think there's a lot there to start with as favourites. Sometimes, it's a different song depending on the day, the weather, or the kind of day you've had. I think that's what’s great about Elliott's music. There's something there for everyone and every occasion. But a few personal favourites by Elliott would be: Waltz #1, Everything Means Nothing To Me, No Confidence Man, Satellite.

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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

 
     
  John Tully  
 

@MindsinMusic

Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.