Photo by JJ Gonson
He's Gonna Make It All OK: An Oral History Of Elliott Smith's Darkly Beautiful Self-Titled Album
The longer Elliott Smith has been gone, the closer his listeners have felt to him. Since his untimely death at 34 years old in 2003, Smith's closest friends and family have seen his masterfully empathic songwriting give that intimate companionship to countless fans. The 25th anniversary reissue of his self-titled album, due Aug. 28th via Kill Rock Stars, aims to bridge that gap. The expanded release allows those closest to Smith to share intimate memories and experiences with fans, and for fans to understand the real person behind the music.
Released in 1995, Elliott Smith found the songwriter gaining an increasing profile in the Portland, Oregon, scene and far afield. Smith mined his darkness and exposed it for the world, redoubling Heatmiser’s cleverly twisted songwriting and Roman Candle's homemade flame.
The reissue is a document of Smith's heart and mind, but also of the tight-knit community surrounding him. The remastered take on the record itself was overseen by producer/engineer Larry Crane, a friend and collaborator of Smith's who has since become the official archivist for the Smith family. The reissue also includes Live at Umbra Penumbra, the earliest known live recording of Smith performing as a solo act. Not only does the bonus disc share an up close and personal account of Smith at his rawest, but Crane's experience at the venue and deft hand editing the original cassette tape bring the man behind the legend closer into focus. The package also includes a coffee table book full of handwritten lyrics, notes written by peers about the album's creation and a series of previously never-before-seen pictures by the artist behind the cover image—another close friend of Smith's, JJ Gonson. Her kinetic photographs have been beloved the world over for their ability to document an entire world; these are not pictures of an artist, but rather a life story of the emotions, experiences and memories of the moment.
To honor the duality of image and sound that comprises the 25th anniversary re-release of Elliott Smith, Crane and Gonson reflect on their relationships with the songwriter, the record’s origins, the process of assembling the anniversary edition and Smith’s impact on their lives—and ours.
"We were kids not doing our jobs"
JJ Gonson: We were all very tight. Elliott and Neil [Gust, Heatmiser guitarist/vocalist], when they first came from college, would come in and sit at the coffee bar where I was a baker, and we would just all hang out because we were kids not doing our jobs. There probably wasn't much to do. The muffins were made. And we'd sit there and talk about music and art.
Larry Crane: I wasn't even friends with Elliott at that point. I didn't know him, but I would see him around. I'd see JJ around, with her blue hair. Even when I first moved to town in ‘93, I remember being at parties with my roommates. We'd be at some party and they'd be like, "Oh, Neil Gust from Heatmiser is here." It used to be you’d go downtown or to a few places on the East side to see shows and there weren't even that many bars or pubs that weren't working class, blue collar, working dude bars. So we’d all end up in the same places, hanging out and the same venues, seeing the same kind of underground music.
I saw Heatmiser play a few times when I moved to town, but I’ve got to admit, I wasn't that interested. In fact, I think I even wrote a review of Yellow No. 5 for a little magazine called Snipe Hunt that was going then. But I remember seeing Heatmiser and thinking, "Oh gosh, another guitar band. Who cares?" When grunge hit and ruined Seattle, it didn't initially really affect Portland much and everyone would start bands here that were unique, like Crackerbash, Calamity Jane, Sprinkler, and the Spinanes.
Roman Candle came out on Cavity Search Records, which our friends Denny [Swofford] and Christopher [Cooper] ran. JJ is the one that instigated all that, of course. It got a fair amount of attention. I was working in a pub at that time, and we always had a budget to buy CDs to play at the pub. My manager bought Elliott's album, and I was like, "Oh, it kind of sounds like Nick Drake or something." It was cool and moody. But at that point, I don't think Elliott played any shows solo, or at least I don't have any record of it. So [the recordings on the bonus disc] are really the start of him playing out live, one of his earliest shows. But he had already written a lot of the stuff that would be the second album.
The two songs that people always react to are "Needle in the Hay" and "Christian Brothers." Technically, [Elliott Smith] is not the best-sounding thing. It's all self-recorded, basically, with a little bit of help from Tony Lash [Heatmiser drummer] and Leslie Uppinghouse. Leslie doesn't really get the proper credit. The record was tracked on 8-track, reel-to-reel, and then mixed. It started at Tony's with two songs and the rest in Leslie's spare room. Then it was taken back over to Tony's and mixed down through a pretty inexpensive Mackie console and a DAT machine, which if it's running well, pretty much what you put in is what you get back. But it's a little bit lossy, not the best sound quality. Tony assembled it, but he didn't really master it, apply much EQ, or do any limiting. He just kind of got the songs in the right levels and structured the album. Tony Lash is a fantastic guy and an amazing engineer and drummer. But back at that time when CDs first came out, especially for independent artists, it was really confusing what the mastering process was supposed to be. Finishing vinyl was a manufacturing process: you send the lacquer to a place that would make the negative, and then they would press the vinyl and you’d need to check it out to make sure it sounds right. With CDs, you’d basically send them a digital audio file and they’d make something. Small labels like this just weren't prepared for mastering CDs in a flattering way.
Gonson: I was just capturing what he was doing. It wasn't that I picked up the camera and he started goofing around. There’s a picture of him with the Mickey Mouse glasses, we were out with friends. I was just documenting the whole experience. The one where he's tuning his guitar in L.A. has been a really important photo in my life. That photo and then also the cover of Roman Candle are very popular. But that photo, it could be anybody sitting there tuning and I would still love that picture. The hair, the shape of the body—he really is listening. For years I saw that picture as a little bit dark and gloomy. But then a few years ago, I started seeing it as very positive because his body language is attentive, not depressed. And he's listening to this instrument. He loves the guitar and he's really in this moment of preparing. It just says, "I'm in a punk club getting ready to go on stage.”
I'm going to be really precocious at the moment, and I’m sure some people are going to be like, "I hate her," but one really big part of my reconciling sharing [my photos from that time] was that Elliott loved my photography. I took all of Heatmiser's promo photos and he used my pictures on the covers of two records, a single, and back covers. I feel that he would be okay with my showing my work because he really loved it. He made music and I made pictures, and that's why there are so many pictures...God, I hope he didn't write "Pictures of Me" about that. I don't think he did. I have given a lot of my memory, but the biggest thing about the photos really has to do with feeling like it was okay. And I actually did talk to his sister about it. She’s a dear friend, a wonderful human being, and a brilliant, amazing person.
"I want to make a thing that the people who love him want to have"
Crane: My role is to make sure everything's cataloged and stored properly and backed up digitally. And if any release or remaster is coming out, I supervise it and work on it. I'm not really a mastering engineer, so in cases like this I go through all the different sources and choose the best [recordings]. I went to different digital audio tapes it was mixed to and listened to them all back to back against each other. In some cases, even as these are digital tapes, they transferred differently and were recorded differently somehow. And you just have to find the one that sounds the clearest and the best. And then I would prep the files before mastering, cleaning up the subsonic information, removing tape hiss.
I always felt that it was a beautiful record, but that it sounded a little rough. If you really examine "Needle in the Hay," there were these huge low-end bumps, sub-sonic information on the master tapes. Tony and I have tried to figure out what it is, but it wasn't musical information. It was almost random sound. So being able to go in and surgically remove that with the tools that are available digitally opens up more room for the music to sound better. It takes away this incorrect information. Songs like "Satellite" were really buried in tape hiss at points. I would also clean up really loud guitar scrapes when he was going between chords or really popped P's or S's that were causing a bit of distortion. And then I would go attend sessions with Adam Gonsalves, who's the actual mastering engineer, and we'd spend a few days doing the mastering work as far as EQ'ing and limiting. We would go back and forth, listening to the original album, my raw files, and what he'd done and make little adjustments.
Gonson: Putting out a book is major, major, major for a photographer. I have been taking pictures since I was five, since I was old enough to point and think about what I'm doing. As much as that kid who picks up Rolling Stone magazine and wants to be a guitar player or a drummer, I read Aperture magazine and wanted to be a successful photographer. I shot punk rock and the second wave of hardcore from ‘85 to ‘90 in Boston and New York, so that could be another book. But this one is very much a gift to his fans from me and his label. When Portia [Sabin, Kill Rock Stars president] approached me about doing this project, she said, "I want to make a thing that the people who love him want to have." She was very clear that she wanted to make a beautiful thing and that it was going to be very special.
Crane: Every time you remaster or reapproach an album like this, some people just will not like any change whatsoever. So, some fans are going to say, "That's not what he intended. It just sounds louder and brighter," or something. Most people aren't really equipped to do incredibly deep, critical listening. Some people are going to say they don't like it as much, and to them I say: hang onto your original copy. But when a remaster of an album is done well, you open up just a little more detail and a little more depth. My goal is always to make it something where you're hearing a little bit more of what was intended. I studied filmmaking and I always equate it with a good transfer of a film, where you don't see the hairs caught in the frames, and there's not jumps where the reels change. You take all the garbage out that you don't need and clean it up so it's more emotionally involving. I hope that people will hear it and say, "It affected me more."
I try to keep everything that you're used to hearing. There are noises at the beginning of "Coming Up Roses," a bunch of rustling. I wouldn't take that out. And I would certainly never auto-tune or pitch correct his lead vocals. You couldn't really slick up this record or do too much to it. We don’t have multitracks for half of the record. There's a missing reel somehow. It's one of the few cases where we just don't have the masters. I just try to present it in a similar way to the way he was mixing his stuff. I go with certain panning schemes and certain affects usage that made sense to the way Elliott worked. He wasn't someone who was super communicative all the time, but I watched him work on XO and he would just be matter of fact and move forward.
Gonson: The [book] designer I worked with was so talented that I very easily downloaded from my brain into his what my dream was of how this would look. He totally nailed it immediately. I went to a very conventional fine arts school as a really fringy person and learned that photography is called bottom weighted. It's not quite in the center of the page; it's a little bit to the top. It has a black line around it, and it's on a white page.
This work has never been seen, and I'm not just someone who happened to be on the spot with a quick camera. I'm a trained photographer and photojournalist. So some of them are candid, but they're still photography. They're not just what I call happy snaps—though those do still have a lot of merit. But these are very satisfying to me because they're actually portraits. I have thousands and thousands of pictures and these are the ones that I selected out to share. Editing is the bugbear of the artist. It's hard to know when to stop. Gratefully, I did a lot of critique in art school, and I was taught to have a discerning eye. So, I can go from 200 pictures down to 40 pretty easily. But it's that last 40 that are painful. In this case, there were very, very strict criteria: no photos of Heatmiser, and only pictures from a certain couple of years.
Photo by JJ Gonson
"That picture is a story...a portrait of 1994 in Portland"
Gonson: There are always my favorite pictures, a lot of which have never been seen. There are ones that I find the most dear, like the photo of Elliott with blue hair and he's doing the devil horns and he's holding a cup of coffee. That photo is that it is a portrait of 1994 in Portland, Oregon. That picture is a story. You've got the wet streets. The cars give you the time period. And then his growing out, faded, dyed blue hair and the ironic cat's eye glasses, the ironic jacket—it was all about being ironic, because it was grunge. I look at that picture and I'm like, "That's ‘93, ‘94 Portland, Oregon." Another one that I find very satisfying as a picture is of Elliott playing guitar with our friend, Chris. That tells another story that's very important: everybody sitting around, playing constantly. I think they're in front of a shower curtain that we were using to divide a room because somebody was sleeping in the other part of the room. It was a house full of 20-year-olds, whatever we were, post-college youngsters with bad jobs or no jobs.
The thing that was the most difficult was not being able to lay a bunch of pictures out together on a table. You really can't in this process. That makes it very hard to do the color balance, because they all have to be contiguous. You can't have one be shockingly blue, and the next one be suddenly shockingly yellow or your brain will just go, "This looks like shit." So they all have to be color balanced and the blacks and whites had to be adjusted to suit each other. And that's probably the thing that the designer, Rob Jones, and I spent the most time doing. I actually went to Portland so we were looking at the same screen and I was like, "A little bluer..." And then we scrolled through them really fast before taking a day off and coming back to it with fresh eyes. Making this book was like mixing a record—mastering, mixing, all of it.
"There’s a whole person there"
Crane: The live album that comes with it was very difficult. I'd drive around town, borrowing four-track cassette players from different people and doing different passes with noise reduction on and noise reduction off. The masters for the album were easier to deal with than this cassette recording because with an analog master, like these cassettes, you can keep messing with it and pulling more information out of the ether, out of the tape hiss. If you get a slightly better tape head or a tape player, maybe the tape player plays the tape more steadily and there's less flutter. Or maybe the different brands of four-track cassette recorders have slightly different gaps between the tracks on the heads, so they follow it differently. There are a million things, so that was frustrating as heck.
I feel we always end up saying, "There's a whole person there. There's a whole breadth of emotion, personality behind this music. Don't take it at a shallow base value." And I think when something like this live concert comes out, people are able to hear he was very casual with his shows. He would stop and start songs and chat with the audience. He would sound nervous to some people, but honestly, I don't really think he was. He was just up there, like, "What do you want?" It's a tiny venue. I remember seeing him play here once. It was a little coffee shop. The tiny crowd is probably sitting on the floor. You can hear Sean Croghan and Neil Gust and Joanna Bolme and a few of our other friends talking in the background. He plays "Half Right" with Neil, which had just been written. And we're lucky that Casey Crynes made this little live cassette. I wasn't there for this show, but I saw shows there later, so I know what the space felt. It's important to understand those things.
"Everyone knew that what he was doing was pretty damn good"
Crane: I'm pretty sure I met Elliott in ‘96 through Joanna Bolme. They were dating at the time and she worked at a venue called La Luna as a bartender. If you listen to "New Monkey," it actually refers to that. My friend was the bar manager there, so when I went to La Luna to see shows, I usually got on the guest list and they'd give me free beers. That's how I met Joanna and how Elliott ended up hanging out at our house.
Summer of ‘96, we talked at a party, and then I recorded the vocals on "Pictures of Me" for him at my house. I remember saying, "Do you really have to double everything? Do you have to put so many vocals on here?" He did six tracks of vocals. I was kinda like, "That seems excessive, but this reminds me of the Left Banke." And he goes, "You like the Left Banke?" It sparked this conversation where we discovered we both liked a lot of the same stuff, more nuanced, older music and Baroque pop. In the winter of ‘96/’97, we went and found a space and opened up Jackpot. But when he was recording Either/Or, he did a lot of the recording at JJ's office space. I was working at a record distributor that was on the other side of the wall from where he was playing drums. We'd hear Elliott in there banging around and we knew he was making a new record. And then when we opened the studio, we spent weeks building the walls and wiring things up. It was my business, but I told him if he wanted to bring gear down and help me build the studio, he could work out of here for a small fee. It was really fun building the studio with him. We'd listened to CDs all day, lots of Beatles, Zombies, and the Kinks. There was always Dylan hovering in the background. I think I tortured him with Petula Clark one time. He went out one day and came back with a CD of Pat Boone's In a Metal Mood. It's pretty hilarious. Not really something you want to listen to.
I was not putting Elliott on any sort of pedestal at that point, just because he was in our friend group. Everyone knew that what he was doing was pretty damn good. But at the same time, everybody was falling all over themselves about Everclear and the Dandy Warhols. The Dandy Warhols are fun, but it's just lightweight, fluff music. And Everclear are just flat-out shitty. It's an old guy writing songs for teenagers. It's bullshit music. It's as bad as listening to Foreigner or something.
"It's my life"
Gonson: I didn't listen to his music at all [while making the book]. I don't need to. I watched it being written. I think he's brilliant, but I don't necessarily dig back into old favorites and that's what that would be. I don't need to be triggered into that. It's my life.
Crane: If you went to my mom and gave her a two-inch reel of my old band or something, she'd go, "What do I have to do with that?" I remember in the middle of working on New Moon, I met with Elliott’s dad, Gary, and he goes, "I got this box of stuff. Do you want to look at it?" And there was a whole bunch of digital audio tapes. We put it in the archive, but I don't think he even quite knew what they were. He was like, "Are these something?" I'm like, "Oh, majorly. Yes. But we need to get those backed up now." I'm really honored that they trust me and it really helps to be in a position to help them. I'm in a wonderful position because I know Rob Schnapf and Joanna [Bolme] and most of the guys that were in Heatmiser. I'm still in touch with Neil [Gust]. I can drop a line to anybody and say, "Hey, I've got a question" and they're happy to talk to me about it. They trust me. If I was some stranger that was just hired because he had the technical expertise, they might be nervous about this person. We can all confer and make sure that things feel okay.