Smith is two albums beyond the song that should rightfully, if eerily, cling to Good Will Hunting actress and part-time rock star groupie Minnie Driver instead of him. Besides, as far as soundtrack contributions go, the one that better sums up Smith's gifts is on the American Beauty disc. Intrigued by the challenge of replicating the four vocal parts of The Beatles' "Because," Smith recorded his first Fab Four cover for the suburban allegory. His version suffers from the commendable curse of brilliant mimicry; it's just wonderful enough to make you want to pull out the original, but it's also compelling enough on its own to encourage you to check out Smith.
It was The Beatles' White Album that first captured Smith's ear as a child. The influence has become increasingly apparent, as Smith's sound has evolved from Nick Drake-style ruminations that carry a haunting bare-walls echo to carefully layered pastiches, mostly of Smith on Smith. (But for some bass and drum parts and, of course, an orchestra here and there, this year's Figure 8 is another solo affair -- all Smith all the time.) His double-tracked vocals are pure John Lennon. And for Smith's second big-label venture, he recorded some of the album at Abbey Road Studio in London.
"We recorded five songs there, three of which are on the album," Smith says by telephone from California. (Before and since the release of Figure 8, Smith has been on the road constantly.) "It wasn't a serious idea at first. But the label picked it up and organized it. For some bizarre reason, they took our idea seriously, and a week later, I was at Abbey Road."
Like the most famous Abbey Road patrons, Smith prefers to cut songs from start to finish. "I don't think doing one song at a time is the norm anymore," Smith says. "Usually people do all the drum and bass tracks first. But aside from making up songs, the recording process is my favorite thing to do, and I prefer that the album sound coherent by recording that way."
Smith minds Beatles comparisons -- or observations that the group's influence is plain -- less than talk about "Miss Misery." And in his way, he's better at sounding 1965 than, say, Oasis. "I like double-tracking quite a bit. It's artificial, but not as much as Pro Tools and pitch correction, which put such a high gloss on everything that it doesn't sound real." As with Lennon, Smith is attracted to the process that duplicates his vocal lead a split second apart because his voice holds little appeal to him. "I don't really like to listen to myself singing," he says. "But it's hard for me to imagine anyone digging their own voice." Elliott, Celine; Celine, Elliott.
In the studio, the multi-instrumentalist Smith might be more like Paul McCartney. "Definitely the drums are my favorite (nonguitar) part to play," he says enthusiastically. (Contrary to the mopey image he's been yoked with since his somber albums first charmed the music press, Smith is capable of expressing zeal.) "It's the prize position of a rock band, and really fun. I couldn't do it in someone else's band, and I'm no connoisseur, but I appreciate drummers who play inside the song and recognize that there is a song happening."
Also like McCartney, Smith is a mostly self-taught (one year of lessons as a boy) piano player who struggles to read music. "I can read one note at a time. I have to count up the lines, so I can't do a George Martin thing and read a score." Still, Smith is credited with the string arrangements that gird some of Figure 8's finest moments. "I play it on the piano or something and give it to an orchestrator," he says. "I was happy when it turned out like I pictured. I'm not too shy about asserting myself, though. String sessions are really short and very expensive. If I hear something that's not right, I get on the talkback right away and tell the conductor. Those players are used to last-minute changes. It's their job. So I don't think they sit there resenting some little smart-ass rock and roller."
Not that Smith has rocked out much since Heatmiser disbanded. Smith's writing, especially on his first two records, stands out sharply against the bracing attack of his old group. The only evidence of Smith's dark sense of whimsy was the band's name, taken from the singing anti-Christmas curmudgeon Heatmiser of Rankin/Bass' animated special The Year Without a Santa Claus. (Rankin/Bass was the studio behind the 1960s classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. "The Heatmiser Song," originally sung by Dick Shawn, has been covered by bands with tougher sensibilities than Smith's former band, but Smith's is the more enduring tribute.) "It's hard to come by a good band name," Smith explains. "It seemed amusing at the time, and it was my idea. We were sitting around watching one of those animated Christmas shows and it seemed like a good idea. But with any band name, eventually you're like, 'If I hear that one more time ...'"
Smith hears a lot of things more than he'd like. His distaste for being associated only with "Miss Misery" prevents him from playing it at most shows. His downcast songs, despite their sophistication, are usually assumed to be virtual diary entries, largely because of Smith's past drug addiction. And no matter how many layers of Smith he frosts his songs with, he hears himself referred to as a "singer/songwriter." (An old David Letterman bit involves something heavy falling on a fake guest who has been introduced as an "actor/singer." Paul Shaffer wails that such an accident is "like killing two people." Smith has seemingly taken that label to heart.)
"I have a big resistance to taking anything to heart," Smith says of critics, "good or bad. It kind of bothers me, but I don't read so much anymore about me. I don't want to do battle anymore with the idea that I am melancholy. That comes with the territory of being a 'singer/songwriter.' And no matter how much my albums sound like band albums, I'm not going to win that. Nobody likes to be put in a slot."
If Smith can't avoid being pigeonholed, he still trumps the major label modus operandi of keeping the public wanting more. In addition to providing movie songs (he also has a cut on the Keeping the Faith soundtrack from earlier this year), Smith is able to turn over some of the 20 or 25 songs he records at a time (each of his last three releases was initially conceived as a double-disc set) by putting them on little-publicized compilations or releasing them as 7-inch vinyl singles for small labels. Though no such issues are on the horizon, Smith would prefer to put out a disc "every six months or so," and he values the chance to avoid getting stale. "It's better to keep making up new things instead of trying to make old broken things work," Smith says -- which may be the smartest philosophy ever adopted by a singer or a songwriter.