Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith – perhaps the finest songwriter of his generation – shares with us his video tips for songwriting. An Elliot Smith songwriting technique combines equal parts lazing on the couch with being true to – and trusting – your gut, it’s a great resource to have, particularly as he is with us no more. Check it out.

Some other tips from Elliott Smith, mostly from various radio, magazine and TV interviews:

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Writing Process

Playing the guitar most days, and not paying too much attention to what your hands are doing, Elliott found to be a way to gain an almost unconscious connection with his writing. When not playing at home, Elliott was also known to write songs in bars. A bar is, after all, a halfway point between being alone and being in public. You can be social if you want, or you can be by yourself – discussion is optional. Bars also provided enough background noise for Elliott to turn off the internal critic – sometimes a songwriter’s worst enemy. ‘Playing safe is a popular way to fail’, as he said.

With melody, Elliot has said that he is less interested in technical chord structures and chord changes, and more as ‘shapes’, the shapes moves between different chords make. One particular ‘shape’ implies a melody, which I guess he heard. Many songs would hence start out instrumental, and gradually build up lyrics, and then more artful, imaginative lyrics – that nevertheless were tied to the particular melodic point of the song. Elliott never thought of his lyrics as working as stand-alone poetry.

Early lyric influences were Strawberry Fields, Blood on the Tracks, Highway ’61 – that nevertheless didn’t become too pretentious, or deeply into poetry.

The more conflicting emotions (between happy music, and sad lyrics, say – or between lines in a song), the better, Elliott has said. That’s what people are like, after all.

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Recording

Roman Candle was recorded on a bottom of the line 4 track, with a RadioShack and a Shure mike, and that’s it. His microphones are placed as close as possible to the voice or the instruments. So, Elliott always liked to control his recording process as much as possible – even if he was able to take advantage of – and enjoy – larger studios like Abbey Road.

Singing

Elliott liked to sing late at night, say 10 or 11pm… after a few beers. Being relaxed made it possible.

Career

Elliott’s career success he chiefly proscribed to luck, but elsewhere he implied that persistence and confidence to be himself played a big part, too. Many people worry about ‘not being able to make it’, with so many people making music out there – but Elliott never saw this as a problem. The fact that other people were making music (irrespective of financial success) was enough hope for him.

Similarly, Elliott Smith never worried about mixing his odd jobs, and his writing and recording. The latter wasn’t a chore, so there wasn’t a double drag on his time, or energy. The songwriting was what he wanted to do with any time that was his. And it was focused enough on music that it was enough. This alone is the persistence required for success.

Confidence, and confidence to be yourself, however was key. In Elliott’s mind, the biggest risk for a songwriter was worrying too much about what others wanted to hear. Time and time again you hear him say that he made music for the enjoyment of music – nothing more. If people liked or disliked it, that was their concern. The important thing was to have confidence to make music that you liked. If you took the things that you liked in music – put them in the blender, so to speak – something you like will come out. And if you like it, honestly, then it’s a good sign others will. And, paradoxically, if you make sure you like your music, you have at least one person on side – where it’s not clear if anyone likes a Top 10 song – even the people who made it.