Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Needle in the Hay: Elliott Smith’s Self-Titled Album Turns 20

on July 31, 2015, 2:15pm

Elliott Smith chose to release his music under his own name starting with his debut, Roman Candle, in 1994. Portland, Oregon, was quick to fall in love with their local hero, but the rest of the world took years to catch on. By the time he went on to release four more albums, contribute to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, and perform at the 1998 Oscars, Smith was under the spotlight of mainstream media, and the intimacy of his self-titled album felt far away.

Only the guarded can stay immune to Smith’s songwriting. He knew how to write chords and inversions that tied together in uncommon patterns, getting renowned cellists and backyard folk artists to wonder in awe over his combination of words, melodies, and playing techniques. His music is the result of incredible thought, the kind of thought that only comes with fluency in the language of songwriting.

To many, Smith’s self-titled album is his depression record. “Needle in the Hay” opens up with whispered, shaky emotions that feel as if they’re on the brink of imploding. Paired with the album’s cover, two human silhouettes taped against a blue photograph of buildings to suggest they’ve just jumped to their death, it’s viewed as an indicator of Smith’s debilitating depression and addiction. There’s open-container alcoholism on “St. Ides Heaven” and the suicidal thoughts of a junkie in “Good to Go”. It’s his darkest work, no doubt, and was self-described as such in interviews, but Smith wasn’t under the influence of drugs or even heavy alcohol consumption during the album’s creation.

It’s been 20 years since Elliott Smith first dropped, and like its lead single suggests, it’s often the overlooked album of his catalog. The only proper way to revisit it is by turning to those involved in the album’s creation to speak about its subtle instrumentation, identity cast as fiction, and acoustic meanderings disguising the remarkable beauty of Smith’s songwriting.

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In the fall of 1994, Boston singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord met Elliott Smith for the very first time. Sitting there at the Velvet Elvis in Seattle, Washington, waiting to see Slim Moon’s band Witchy Poo perform, she had no idea who she was about to see or what a big role they would play in each other’s lives.

“I remember I really didn’t want to watch him play because I’d seen too many guys with acoustic guitars; I didn’t care,” she laughs. “The first thing I noticed is that he was playing a really shitty guitar, like a Domino or a Stella. I kept thinking to myself, ‘How is this guy making that piece of shit sound so good?’ I was a guitar snob. There were 40 people in the audience, but I felt like it was just him and me. I was in this tunnel of some awesome dimension, thinking, ‘What the fuck am I looking at and hearing?’ I was sucked in and left absolutely on the floor. It was literally life-changing.” After the set, she went backstage and immediately asked who he was and if he would go on tour with her. He, very nicely, said sure.

The two set off on a month-long tour after Lord’s 35th birthday. Smith was shy, humble, and occasionally grouchy, avoiding eye contact whenever he met someone new. Backstage with acts like Danielle Howle, The Softies, and John Doe, he and Lord would invariably pass around a guitar in the green room to play covers. Smith, out of everybody, knew the most. “He was incredibly kind, ridiculously talented, and he was really, really funny,” says Lord. “He wasn’t funny in a bitter sarcastic way; it was a beautiful humor. Elliott was always super nervous about people liking his songs, too. A lot of times when he played a show or something, he used humor to lift the mood or detract from how nervous he was.” The combination of his live sounds with the charm of his humor helped win over those unfamiliar with his work. In small circles, he was unstoppable. The rest of the world, however, had yet to catch on.

One day on tour, Smith turned to her in the car and asked if she wanted to hear a new tape. The first song, “Needle in the Hay”, left her floored. “I asked if he recorded it himself, and he casually was like, ‘Oh, yeah…’” she laughs. “I was so impressed with the sound. It was lo-fi, and he had done it, sure, but you could tell there was a lot of thought that went into the texture of the way these songs were sounding. Like, God damn. I knew there was something special in the production and the sonic capability of this very primitive way of recording. It was staggering.”

Soon after, Lord introduced him to Slim Moon. The founder of Portland, Oregon, record label Kill Rock Stars had just reached his mid-20s, but he had already released compilation records with Nirvana and Bikini Kill. Quiet singer-songwriter acts were practically nonexistent on his label. So when Moon joined a five-day tour with Sean Croghan from Crackerbash, Carrie Akre from Goodness, Tammy Watson from Kill Sybil, and Elliott Smith from Heatmiser, he was unfamiliar with the latter and missed his set on the first night. “Sean was up next, and the first thing he said was, ‘All you people who just came in to see me but missed Elliott really missed something special,’” Moon recalls. “So the next night, I watched his first set very intently, and I was really blown away. I actually left and went to the tour van to listen to his CD for the rest of the show. I didn’t listen to anybody else’s set besides doing mine and watching his; I just wanted quiet time to listen to his CD. I was that impressed.”

At this time, Smith was splitting his time between punk rock band Heatmiser and his own solo career. Tony Lash, the band’s drummer, met him in high school when Smith was a freshman and Lash was a sophomore. The two had played together for years. As such, the switch from noisy rock to bare acoustics wasn’t a drastic shift to Lash. “I was used to him changing,” he says. “It felt like a continuous thing where we were recording with Heatmiser and then working on his solo stuff. We had recorded together since high school, so it seemed like the normal course of things.”

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Smith came over to Lash’s home studio to record several songs for the self-titled album. Most of the rest he did at Leslie Uppinghouse’s house. “My basement studio was dark,” laughs Lash. “You know, wood paneling and low ceilings.” Nothing fancy was involved. Here, Smith could work through his material with assistance when needed.

“When he first walked in, I set him up with a mic with an acoustic guitar, I checked the sound, and I went upstairs to make lunch or something,” says Lash. “He sat down and started recording by himself. It was ‘Needle in the Hay’. I came back down and heard what he was doing. I was so impressed. It can be strange to think about the situation and recognize how matter of fact it was versus the ongoing resonance that song has had for so many people in the last 20 years. I remember standing there and being really struck by how incredible of a song it was, and now that means so much more.”

“Needle in the Hay”, the album’s only single, set the tone immediately: ominous, solemn, bare, but lush. Today, it’s taken on so many forms, from the dramatic twist in The Royal Tenenbaums to covers emphasizing the bitter acceptance of invisibility. It was the song that truly kicked off Smith’s journey as a solo artist and remains many listeners’ introduction to his work.

Smith released the track as a 7-inch in January of 1995 before he made any plans to put out a self-titled album. Initially, he set his eyes on K Records, Calvin Johnson’s DIY label, since it fostered the transition from punk to indie rock. “I actually volunteered to go tell Calvin how great Elliott was, tell him he should go see Elliott, and Calvin just didn’t react,” says Moon. “I wouldn’t say he heard it, paid attention, listened, and then decided against it. Part of the life of a label owner is that people are constantly telling you to check things out, and sometimes you don’t follow up.” Together, the two decided he could release the 7-inch through Kill Rock Stars, a process that went so smoothly that he chose to stick with them for his next full-length. It was official: Elliott Smith signed to Kill Rock Stars.

“The reason I tried to help him get signed to K [Records] at first was that I thought that his music deserved wider distribution and exposure than my label could give him at that time,” says Moon. “I thought maybe he was too good for us.” But Smith, whose previous label experiences revolved around dramatic exchanges with Virgin Records through Heatmiser, was enthralled. “It was a big deal back then before the internet to get signed,” recalls Lord. “He really felt like he found a home with Kill Rock Stars. Like any band that gets the opportunity to put out music, it’s the biggest thing in their life.”

At the time, Smith was going against the grain by entering the world of folk with a punk mindset. “I asked him once, ‘What do you think the difference between folk music and what you’re doing is? It’s acoustic, but it’s not really folk,’” says Lord. “He put his hands together like in prayer form, a bit like a steeple, and said, ‘Well, folk music generally has a point to it. What I’m doing doesn’t really have a point.’” Smith’s acoustic-based neutral mentality ditched pre-conceived writing in favor of delivering unassuming honesty. “He brought a youthful, rock ‘n’ roll, gritty, honest place into music,” says Lord. “The integrity behind those songs was amazing and uncompromising. It’s all about the honesty paired with the musical capabilities behind it. They were thought through because he cared, not because he wanted to make a big splash. He was the opposite.”

That rebuttal against straight-edged folk started at the drawing board and carried through to the recording room. “He had begun to get a bit weary of my recording clocks,” says Lash. “He trusted me in a lot of ways, but going back to those earlier recording days he was wary of me wanting things to be too polished.”

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The self-titled record flaunts its reduction by amping up anything other than acoustic guitar. Gentle drums on “Coming Up Roses” are greeted by electric guitar. That long, lonely harmonica intro in “Alphabet Town” drags the song’s heartbeat back until you’re barely floating in murky water, the very type of melancholic music that’s made to be swallowed up by. Smith knew when he wanted to have sparse additional instrumentation. That much is crystal clear, even without him here to say so.

“I do remember at one point having an idea for some drums, and he humored me,” recalls Lash. “He set them up, he played, and we tracked it. Pretty much right after, we chucked it. It wasn’t a huge conflict. Those things? It’s just part of the process. I know for ‘Needle in the Hay’, my friend Eric came over and tried some trumpet on it. It was kind of cool, but ultimately that wasn’t what he was going for. Those things happen. You try ideas and cut a lot of them.”

Throughout these interviews, it becomes apparent that Smith, although sweet at his core, kept quiet about what mattered most to him, especially his songs. No one is entirely sure of when he wrote them or where they came from, but they felt no need to pry. “Elliott was kind of coy,” says Moon. “I still felt kind of unsure of myself, so I didn’t ask him how many songs he had or ask to listen to all the songs or really do anything. He just sent it to us that day, like, ‘Here’s my songs.’ I think he turned in self-titled on reel-to-reel tape, too, like half-inch or quarter-inch reel-to-reel.” By the time Smith handed over the album, the only thing left to work on was the artwork, and even then, he wasn’t overly vocal.

“What was awesome about Elliott is that you could just hand him a guitar, and he could play the most emotionally gut-wrenching, affecting music you’ve ever heard all by himself, just voice and guitar, and there’s really actually not that many people in the world who can do that,” says Moon. That complete embrace of what it means to be a solo artist set Smith far apart from his peers. He didn’t just craft intricate melodies. He owned them by acting with both fragility and sturdiness. “If all your ammunition is an acoustic guitar, a voice, and no backing band, you really need to have something to say,” says Lord. “You have no bass, you have no drums, you have no big, electric sound. It’s just you. That is your ammo, and you need to have the same feel come out of you that would come out of a full band.”

This strength amidst brittleness defines a beautiful period of Smith’s catalog that, personally, I always wished there was more of. Yet for all that these bare songs highlight, there’s proof that he needed more in order to cross the state border. Either/Or songs wouldn’t have ended up in the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, “Miss Misery” wouldn’t have landed on the radio, and that Oscars performance in all white wouldn’t have been such a contrast if he hadn’t taken on bass and drums. To gain exposure, he needed to graduate from the stripped-down sound.

Then again, maybe he could have made it work. Quiet solo artists in the indie rock realm never took on their own names. Lou Barlow was Sebadoh, Bill Callahan was Smog, Beck Hansen was Beck. That marker distinguished indie rock from folk. “It was really, really, really, really, really uncool,” laughs Moon. “Anybody who had just an acoustic guitar and appeared on a poster or a stage under their own name was expected to sound like James Taylor. That’s completely changed now, but Elliott was sort of being gutsy by just putting records out under his own name and not giving it a band name. And I think that really actually hurt the sales of Roman Candle and the self-titled record.”

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The true talent and gift of Smith’s musicianship was likely overwhelmed by the rock format. “Elliott could write great rock songs, obviously, but it was when he started doing his solo stuff that it revealed a lot more about his true gift,” says Lash. “Working on Roman Candle and the self-titled record allowed me to hear and appreciate a lot more what Elliott was really capable of.”

As someone who plays music but not guitar, I’ve found it difficult to explain what makes Elliott Smith’s songwriting on this album so remarkable. To the average listener, the songs sound lush, warm, and full of multi-dimensional tonal qualities, but still simple. They’re acoustic without dramatic flair in the vocals or guitars. He may play quickly on one song or do a hiccup elsewhere, but his chords are strange, his tuning is uncommon, and he stuffs quick breakdowns in between measures. Smith’s talent comes from making intricacies sound simple. It’s best found on “Southern Belle”, one of the record’s richest songs. Fingerpicking and whole notes on the bass string dance around one another, sidestepping before the chorus for a quick breakdown and casual trill. Smith is more than his voice; he’s an incredible guitar player. On this album, he pretty much just plays acoustic, highlighting that skill more clearly than ever.

“There’s layers upon layers, like a quilt,” explains Lord. “You get up close and think, ‘Holy shit.’ Far away, it’s a collage of some sort, but the closer you get these details in the fabric make themselves known. He spins it together like a spider. That comes from really knowing what the fuck you’re doing. He could read music, he could write chords, he knew his way around the entire instrument.” Smith tended towards open tuning, the go-to setup of musicians praised for their guitar work: Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, John Fahey. “You can create wild inversions, and that’s what he was doing, like playing with an open C but tuning the entire guitar down a half step or whole step. It was a bass-heavy, resonate guitar sound that inherently we as music fans have heard a million times. It sounds familiar, yet we can tell there’s something different going on. Your ear hears that and thinks, ‘This is unusual. Why?’ His entire guitar was always tuned down at least a half step.”

Hand a guitar to a musician, and they will notice right away. “When given free rein to do minimal instrumentation or big instrumentation, they will look at the song — the chord progression, the arrangement, the dynamic progressed through the song, all his parts, the words, the melody — and see that all of these songs on the self-titled are just as good as the songs on Either/Or,” says Moon. “But a lot of people aren’t that sophisticated of listeners where they can hear the performance and also hear the underlying song separately from the recording. It’s not as accessible as the small band sound of Either/Or, but it’s more complicated. Some of the very best songs he ever wrote are on this self-titled record.”

Despite all that talent, Smith’s self-titled album failed to see significant critical acclaim. When revisited several years later, especially posthumously, it was renamed an iconic success. “We spent a little extra money promoting Elliott because I really believed in him, but the self-titled record just wasn’t that well received at the time it came out,” says Moon. “The album sold incredibly well in Portland, but rarely anywhere else.” Coming from the man who helped The Decemberists and Sleater-Kinney find their big breaks, that dedication pushed the album and its predecessor, Either/Or, into bigger markets through love alone.

As mature as the album is, even 20 years later, it was mostly written for kids. “There was total joy in watching him realize he was getting to put out a record and that lots of people would hear it, the younger people, the people he wanted to hear it,” explains Lord. The adolescent theme it expands upon — from unmanageable anxiety on “Clementine” to young adult heartbreak on “The Biggest Lie” — reaches far into the realm of punk rock, DIY, and the openness of confession. Some metaphors are too distanced to be outright understood, but most, especially to those struggling with depression or isolation, make total sense to younger crowds.

After Smith died in 2003, film director Nickolas Rossi made a tribute video in his honor. Several years later, he uploaded it to YouTube and was flooded with fan comments reflecting on the impact his music had. The outreach motivated him to create Heaven Adores You, a 2015 documentary looking at Elliott Smith’s life, music, and lasting impact.

Part of the documentary’s digging uncovered an alternate version of the second track, “Christian Brothers”, that dramatically changes the ruminations on suicide with nervous weight. “The first time I heard that version, we were interviewing Larry Crane at Jackpot! in Portland,” says Rossi. “I was always familiar with the acoustic version, so he played us the Heatmiser version, and I really loved it. It’s got a much different feeling with the bass line and the drums added, like a head-nodding feeling to it.”

Smith finished the solo version before Heatmiser tracked theirs, but it was arranged first for the band. Placed side by side, Heatmiser’s version steamrolls with an unforgivable burst at the chorus, flooding over the listener with extraordinary volume that turns his vocals into chilling falsettos. “The solo version is very good, but there’s a certain intensity to the rock version that I really like, especially hearing it 15 or so years later,” admits Lash. “I can see why he didn’t want two versions out there. He wanted the solo version to be the definitive version. We did go through the process of recording the whole thing, though. To me, that was the original version. His solo version was the inverse.”

In his time interviewing and reexamining work for the documentary, Rossi came across various stacks of memorabilia, lost tapes, and instrumentals. “I had heard the stories about him being a fan of pranks and prat falls and such, so I was sure that he wasn’t going to be just this constant morose, sad-sack guy,” he says. “Everyone I talked to who knew him could validate that. Elliott was incredibly funny, witty, well read, and extraordinarily generous. We found so much about him that was able to balance out the perceptions of him being such a downer. It was cool to find so many photographs of him having a good time.”

Throughout that time, the self-titled’s importance became clear, especially in the context of his full body of work. This is where he commits to being Elliott Smith, the solo artist, for the first time. “His evolution as a solo artist is incredible, and his confidence and ability to compose and really create complex bodies of music is fascinating,” explains Rossi. “Elliott Smith to me was the place where he was still working odd jobs and playing music. To me, it feels very intentional, like each song was crafted without knowing what the outcome was going to be or what the response would be to release it.”

Elliott Smith’s self-titled record is, like many self-titled records, his most intimate. Part of it comes from the lyrics’ emotional darkness. The other part comes from its lo-fi production, giving a soft yet harsh edge to the ends of his words so it feels like he’s whispering them in your ear. “It always felt to me like the album where he was the most intimately engaged with the listener,” explains Lash. “It still had the home-recording feel, but it had better sound quality. It was still mostly unadorned when you listened to it, though. This record ended up falling more in that slot of him feeling like he’s sitting right there, playing these songs close to you and for you.”

His music is personal, and Elliott Smith capitalizes on that more than any other album in his discography. That’s what Smith’s self-titled album was when it was released in 1995, and that’s what it is 20 years later: an album to the listener, for the listener, from someone willing to listen. Elliott Smith is the secret you came across and cling to your heart, sharing only with those whom you feel close, for every line feels like a friend breaking down in your arms, asking for comfort while giving it simultaneously. Despite their timeless, beautiful nature, his songs have yet to become overexposed. Smith has an immediately recognizable voice, a honed style of guitar playing, and a list of lyrics still able to bite. All of that makes him an extraordinary songwriter. What makes him so special, though, is that he’s yours.

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