Hunched over his acoustic guitar in a shabby Los Angeles nightclub, Elliott Smith hardly looks like Hollywood’s newest sensation. But tonight he’s playing his first gig since he received a best-song Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery” – one of the five delicate, folk-pop mood-setters he contributed to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack – and the industry is out in force. Make that industries, plural: Smith, 28, has just signed with DreamWorks records, and the VIP list at the door is equally laden with music-biz players and Miramax heavies. The high suit count inside Spaceland – more than half the club’s capacity – creates a long line of displaced normal fans out on the sidewalk. Minnie Driver, who’s also up for an Oscar for her role in Gus Van Sant’s janitor-savant blockbuster, is standing near the stage; Ben Stiller lingers farther back in the stylishly dressed crowd.
As soon as Smith begins his first song, 1995’s faintly twanging “Clementine,” the audience goes from schmoozing and glad-handing to rapt, neck-craning attention. As he does at most shows, Smith plays sitting in a small, hard-backed chair. He’s wearing a lived-in Willie Nelson T-shirt and blue jeans that look a size too small; a shaggy fringe of dyed black hair peeks out from under his dirty wool cap. Barely looking at the audience, Smith delivers the characteristically dark-hued ballad in a voice just above a whisper. “They’re waking you up to close the bar,” he sings. “The street’s wet, you can tell by the sound of the cars.” He strums the guitar with a quiet, deft restlessness. Smith’s shyness makes him an intriguing performer: Being onstage is clearly an ordeal for him; he’s not up there to bask in the spotlight.
For the next hour and a half, the audience remains dumbstruck, breaking its silence only to shout a request for one of his nuanced meditations on alienation, self-doubt, and heartbreak. Smith’s next L.A. show will be a one-song appearance during the Academy Awards ceremony, March 23. Also on the bill: Celine Dion, Trisha Yearwood, and Michael Bolton.
The day after the club date, Smith is standing in line at a Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard. He looks at the blonde woman in front of him, her sculpted body covered in Lycra. “This neighborhood,” he says drily, “is a little too athletic for me.” He’s substituted a pair of stainless-steel aviator shades for the stocking cap, but otherwise he’s wearing the same clothes he played in last night. (Six days later, performing “Miss Misery” – which he’s taken to calling “that Oscar song” – on MTV Live, he’s still in the same outfit.)
“I read in a newspaper the other day that Gus discovered me a year ago, playing in a coffee house,” Smith says, furrowing his brow in the midday sun. “Which is ridiculous.” Indeed, Smith wasn’t “discovered” – by Van Sant or anyone else. Born in Dallas, the taciturn singer spent several years on the aggressively indie Portland, Oregon, scene – releasing albums both as a solo artist and as a member of the now-defunct Heatmiser (a noisy post-punk band he refers to as “kind of a disaster”) – and earning a small, intense following. “I was a big chicken about playing the kind of music that I really liked for a really long time,” he admits, describing the years he spent hoarding his best songs on a tape recorder in his bedroom. “I was too uptight – just because other people weren’t doing it.”
Van Sant, who lives in Portland, started coming to Smith’s shows a couple of years ago, after a friend gave him a copy of the singer’s first album, Roman Candle. “My old boyfriend D.J. worked with Elliott’s girlfriend at the time,” says Van Sant, who himself is up for a best-director nod for the movie. “So I’d met him a couple of times. When I was filming Good Will Hunting I was listening to his music, and it occurred to me that it would be good in the film, so I asked him if I could use some of his songs.” (“Miss Misery” is the only song Smith composed specifically for the movie; the rest were culled from his three indie-label releases.) Driver is less reserved in her assessment of the music’s role in Good Will Hunting. “It’s literally the most important thing in the film,” she gushes. “Elliott is like a character you can’t see. I can only compare the way his music works in the movie to Simon & Garfunkel’s songs in The Graduate.”
Driver’s not the first person to make the observation. “I’m kind of sensitive about the Simon & Garfunkel comparison,” Smith says warily. “When I first started playing in the part of the country I was in, it was all grunge, or post-grunge, or whatever you want to call it. If you played acoustic music by yourself, then it was like, ‘Ah, you sound like Simon & Garfunkel!’”
“Elliott just hates this,” chuckles Van Sant, “but it does sound to me like Simon & Garfunkel. I don’t think he has that in mind – it just so happens, you know?”
But there’s a lot more of John Lennon’s pensive melodicism than Paul Simon’s simpering folkie affectation in Smith’s music. Even his guitar playing has a kind of orchestral sensibility, as if he’s hearing several different groups of musicians in his head, and letting listeners hear snatches of each in his strumming. “Nobody can escape it,” he says, acknowledging the Beatles’ influence. “But they are my favorite band.”
These days, Smith lives in Brooklyn. (“I don’t know,” he says, when asked what drew him to New York. “It just seemed like something to do.”) He’s been in L.A. for more than a month, recording his first album for DreamWorks, and he plans to stay there until the Oscars. His last record, Either/Or, shared a title – and some themes – with Søren Kierkegaard’s lengthy meditation on aesthetics and ethics. “I wasn’t trying to be pretentious,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was on my mind for the whole year I was writing the record, the idea about the responsible person versus the beautiful person.”
There’ll certainly be no shortage of beautiful people come Monday night. “I’m probably gonna do whatever they have in mind,” he says of his award-show performance. “I’ve decided to look at the whole Oscar thing as one big, happily freakish accident.”