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50 years of Elliott Smith: the tender songwriter’s greatest tracks, as nominated by his close friends and fans

A special night of live music is being held in London next week in tribute to Smith's memory

August 6, 2019, marks what would’ve been the late Elliott Smith’s 50th birthday. While the widely adored singer-songwriter has touched countless lives with his compelling musicianship and lyricism, the tragic circumstances of his death have left a sense of melancholy and mystery behind the musician.

A podcast dedicated to keeping Smith’s legacy alive, My Favourite Elliott Smith Song, is hosting a celebration of his life in north London next week to mark Smith’s 50th birthday, with this special night of live music set to bring together a host of well-known artists and emerging talent. Organiser Robert Comba says the idea “was a natural opportunity to celebrate [Smith’s] life and legacy here in London. We’re going to celebrate his life with some great artists, including former podcast guest Max Bloom from Yuck and lots of other very talented musicians.”

The podcast itself invites musicians and close friends of Elliott to help explore their favourite songs of his. “I feel like he’s meant so much to me and other fans so it feels good to give back to him now and well into the future,” Comba explains. “Before I started doing it, I thought I knew a lot about him but it turns out I didn’t know very much at all. It’s been fascinating doing it and learning so much more about this talented and unique musician.”

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With this in mind, Comba takes us through ten prominent My Favourite Elliott Smith Song guests and looks into their song selections.

Louis Theroux

Track chosen: ‘Independence Day’

Louis: “I don’t do a lot of publicity that isn’t related to my own work, but for this I made an exception because I think [Smith] deserves more exposure and he was a special person.”

Robert Comba: “I think he was the reason why I started the podcast, really, because Louis actually met Elliott Smith and I thought that was such an incredible story. I love the idea of those two people meeting and it was great to get the chance to speak to Louis about it. His meeting with Elliott was in the year 2000, and it was insightful that he found Elliott to be a bit standoffish and slightly difficult, as well as funny. What Louis saw was very different compared to what some of Elliott’s friends from the early days saw. I’m hugely appreciative that he took the time to do it.”

Phoebe Bridgers

Track chosen: ‘Whatever (Folk Song in C)’

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Phoebe: “A lot of people listen to my music and they’re like, ‘Obviously, you listen to a lot of Elliott Smith’ and I can’t argue. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do.’”

Robert: “Phoebe was an artist that I first heard after listening to her track ‘Motion Sickness’, and then I just got so into her album ‘Stranger In The Alps’. I thought it sounded so much like Elliott Smith and so I was thrilled she agreed to do [the podcast]. Her song choice isn’t one of the more traditional picks so it was great hearing her thoughts on it. It was also interesting to hear how she first got into Smith, and she was talking about how she used to get iTunes credit vouchers and spend them on downloading Elliott Smith records. She’s covered ‘Whatever (Folk Song in C)’ in the past as well, so I think it’s been on top of her list for quite a while.”

Lindsey Jordan (Snail Mail)

Track chosen: ‘Dancing On The Highway’

Lindsey: “Really putting everything out there for other people to take is just huge, and it’s so difficult. I think that’s the mark of someone who truly cares about music and the art that they’re making.”

Robert: “It was fascinating to speak to Lindsey as she’s such a talented artist. One of the things that I took away from that conversation was just how big of a fan she was [of Smith’s]. She always tries to find old Elliott Smith videos on YouTube and dig new things out. Even her song pick, ‘Dancing on the Highway’, was quite leftfield, and was recorded in the time that ‘Figure 8’ was being made. It’s a really niche choice, and it was great to see how Elliott Smith is still influencing these great artists.”

Jason Lytle (Grandaddy)

Track chosen: ‘Waltz #1’

Jason: “We were very much of the same ilk. We had similar upbringings, really influenced by punk rock… I consider myself to have a very healthy sense of humour and he had a really healthy, dark but hilarious sense of humour as well.”

Robert: “Having Jason was incredible because Grandaddy are a hugely loved band. He was a really good friend of Elliott, but also a massive fan of his. Jason talks about this time when he was doing a promo tour with Grandaddy and he was at the airport and heard ‘Figure 8’ for the first time — the way that he explains hearing it for the first time is crazy; he insisted that they had to play with Elliott Smith. It’s amazing to hear that from someone who is held in such high regard themselves. It was really interesting to hear some of Jason’s stories of touring with Elliott and hanging out with him in L.A. back in the early 2000s.”

Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield

Tracks chosen: ‘A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free’ and ‘A Passing Feeling’

Jessica: “I remember when the Elliott Smith tour was over, I was like, ‘Ah man, I’ve got to go back to playing my own songs again. I just want to play his songs with my friend.’”

Seth: “We felt the pressure of playing his songs. But that was balanced out by the joy of playing them because they’re so good.”

Robert: “This was a funny one because I was interested in speaking to these two individually. They released an Elliott Smith covers album together a few years ago, but I didn’t think they would be with each other. I set up a time with Jessica, and as she picked up the phone Seth was there as well. It caught me off guard really, but it was fantastic having them there together. It was interesting to hear how they went about covering his music and how they decided what songs to select. They’ve got great chemistry, so it was great to have them bouncing off one another.”

Mary Lou Lord

Track chosen: ‘I Figured You Out’

Mary: “I was staying with Elliott to try and do some songwriting. He played me this song: I thought it was great, but he didn’t really like it. We went to lunch or dinner, and I looked at the lyrics that were there on the table and said, ‘Would you please play that song one more time?’ He did. I said, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ And he said, ‘It sounds too much like the Eagles.’ It sounded nothing like the Eagles to me.”

Robert: “It was brilliant to have Mary Lou Lord do it because she and Elliott were really close friends. They met when he was moving to Portland and Mary Lou was living in Seattle and Washington. They were introduced by Slim Moon, who founded the label Kill Rock Stars which Elliott released a few albums on. Having an insight into their time together was so valuable and interesting to hear. The song she picked was so relevant because she was with Elliott when he wrote it, and she had a very interesting take on what the song meant. She thought it was him railing against the music industry and his anger towards record executives. Her feeling was maybe that he was talking about her because at that point she was having a certain amount of success. So it was interesting having her perspective on it.”

Aaron Embry

Track chosen: ‘Strung Out Again’

Aaron: “We were playing a show in Barcelona and we ate lunch at the venue. Then Elliott came a while before soundcheck was about to begin and said he had written a new song. We went up to the roof and Elliott taught us this song. I was playing a little Casio SK1 keyboard, Sam Coomes was on bass and Scott McPherson, the drummer, was tapping with sticks.”

Robert: “Aaron is a musician from L.A. who mainly plays piano and he played with Elliott Smith during the ‘Figure 8’ tour in 2000. He talked about the song ‘Strung Out Again’ and how that song was developed while he was touring with Elliott, so I really enjoyed hearing the process. Aaron talks about the first time they started playing it it was called ‘Struck Down Again’, and then it eventually ended up as ‘Strung Out Again’ by the time it ended up on Elliott’s posthumous album ‘From A Basement On A Hill’. It was cool to hear how that song had changed throughout time, but Aaron also had some fantastic anecdotes about how that tour was and what they got up to.”

Andy Hull

Track chosen: ‘I Didn’t Understand’

Andy: “I remember going to Robert McDowell’s, my collaborator in Manchester Orchestra, house when we were like 14 and us playing it and trying to recreate something like that. It was all awful and was never great, but this song was influential.”

Robert: “I picked Andy because I’m a big fan of Manchester Orchestra and it was interesting to chat with him. He picked one of my favourite Elliott Smith songs. The one that appears on the album is just incredible because it doesn’t have any instrumentation on it — it’s just people’s voices. I think the first time you listen to it you don’t consider that and then it just shows his ability and his confidence in himself. I think it’s incredible that he decided to do it just a Capella, it’s such a brave decision and I think it really pays off.”

Ross Harris

Track chosen: ‘No Name #3’

Ross: “To me, when I want to remember Elliott and remember him on the level of a friend, I go and listen to this Hank Williams Jr. cover he did (‘All My Rowdy Friends’). Not only is it a really fun cover, it perfectly expresses his dry, fun sense of humour and just gives you that feeling of what it was like to be with Elliott when he was fooling around on the guitar.”

Robert: “Ross directed three of Elliott’s music videos: ’Coming Up Roses’, ‘Plainclothes Man’ and ‘Miss Misery’, which was the one he was nominated at the Oscars for in 1997. He was a really good friend of Elliott and it was really emotional speaking to him about their friendship and the time they spent together. I got the impression that he had reconnected with Elliott shortly before he died back in 2003. He seemed so cut up about it still, and sad and upset. Ross had seen improvements in how Elliott was doing at the time, so I think that made it harder for him to take when he sadly passed away. So it was emotional speaking to Ross about that and I was very grateful that he was so open and candid about it. He’s also so keen to spread the message that even though he died in such sad circumstances, he contributed so much to music. Ross also has some great stories about having nights out with Elliott and it shows that he’s a much more rounded character than this stereotypical sad story.”

Max Bloom (Yuck)

Track chosen: ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’

Max: “For some reason with Elliott Smith there’s always something I can come back to, and there are very few bands where I have that. There’s only one other thing in my life where I have that and that’s with Alan Partridge. I can watch those thousands of times and never get bored and it’s the same thing: I can listen to Elliott Smith again and again, and not get bored.”

Robert: “Max was one of our guests on the podcast last year. He’s playing at our 50th birthday tribute show on August 6 so we’re really keen to have him. He’s also taken part in an Elliott Smith tribute album called ‘Say Yes’. Max picked the song ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’ and gave some very interesting philosophical insights around that song. He also strangely compared Elliott Smith to Alan Partridge — I never thought the podcast would throw up a comparison like that, but it’s rather amusing that it did.”

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