3 weeks ago, we released a special feature in memory of SPARKLEHORSE’s Mark Linkous and tackled a tough subject of an artist’s suicide, that haunted the world of rock music earlier this week, when we found out SOUNDGARDEN’s Chris Cornell was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Detroit hotel room, hours after his iconic band played a show in Detroit. Unfortunately, grieving an influential lyricist and musician that embodied a defining moment of freedom and creativity feels too familiar after 3 decades in which we lost dozens of not hundreds of worthy artists of all kinds. “A Brief Smile – A Tribute to Elliott Smith” collects 20 artists grappling with the exceptional art of singer-songwriter and poet Elliott Smith (aged 34), who died in Los Angeles back in 2013 from stab wounds to his chest. We caught up with some of them to learn more about the project, their understanding of Elliott’s uncommon take on songwriting and performance, and the idea of tribute compilations. Felix Willikonsky of the Flix Agency, who helps Funk Turry Funk label with the release provided an extra commentary, as well. Launch the compilation below and scroll down to see the full feature.
“A Brief Smile” – A Tribute To Elliott Smith features exclusive and unreleased songs from 20 artists: Smoking Popes, Andrew Paley, Goldenboy, Last Days of April, Sundressed, Secret Space, Elder Brother, Rob Moir, Carter Hulsey, Daria, Dan Webb and the Spiders, Jo Bergeron, Sea + Air, Stocksmile, Adam Rubenstein, Chris T-T, Ducking Punches, Ghost Of A Chance, John Allen & Franz Nicolay. Benefits from the sales go to the Elliott Smith memorial fund. You can grab it via Cargo Records, iTunes, Spotify and Funk Turry Funk‘s Bandcamp (below).
Felix Willikonsky of the Flix Agency:
How did you get involved in this compilation?
Felix Willikonsky (Flix Agency): Funk Turry Funk wanted to release a cover sampler to raise money for a good cause and asked me to help finding bands for an Elliott Smith project. I loved the idea and so we asked friends and bands that we love if they want to be part of it. Some acts that we really admire, like Austin Lucas and Mike Park for example, said they want to contribute something but couldn’t deliver the tracks in time unfortunately.
What originally made you interested in Elliott’s work?
Felix Willikonsky (Flix Agency): I heard about the tragic story behind it at first and discovered his records through friends years later.
To me, projects like this seem like an organic extensions of one’s past work. How do you like the idea of tribute undertakings in general? Could you share some great examples of similar tributes worth checking out?
Felix Willikonsky (Flix Agency): There are good and bad covers out there. Some make sense and others don’t. There is a THE REPLACEMENTS cover album featuring AGAINST ME! that I really liked. It features interesting bands and versions. You might find it online somewhere.
Anyway, this new Elliott Smith compilation is our main focus now. I really hope people will check out the sampler and the acts behind it.
An interview with Andrew Paley, Jo Bergeron, SECRET SPACE, STOCKSMILE, SEA+AIR, Adam Rubenstein, and Chris T-T:
How did you get involved in this compilation?
Secret Space: My manager brought the opportunity to me a little while ago, and I was very excited to take this on. Elliott Smith has always been one of my all time favorite songwriters and I have recorded covers of his music before, so to be able to contribute to something that will directly benefit the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund is an honor.
Adam Rubenstein: Felix at Flix Agency has booked a few tours of mine. When he invited me to contribute, I didn’t think twice. I’m a huge fan. I’ve played a cover version of “I Better Be Quiet Now” at shows for a very long time.
SEA + AIR: Felix, who intended the compilation, remembered that we love Eliott’ s music. We never met Elliott but we were on tour with a close friend of his when the news arrived that he had died. The rest of the tour was a very emotional combination of sad and beautiful. Ever since we had an even deeper connection to his music.
Chris T-T: Felix from Flix mentioned it was happening and I love Elliott Smith so straight away I asked to chuck in a track.
Andrew Paley: I’ve actually been covering Waltz #2 here and there for a long time. It’s wound up in sets across a few different tours now. The Funk Turry Funk guys approached me about recording a studio version of it for this compilation, and I jumped at the chance.
”Waltz #2″ cover by Andrew Paley, Shon Sullivan and Ian Smith, live in Oberhausen, Germany, 2014:
Stocksmile: Our awesome manager Ross Robey found us the opportunity. I’ve had many friends who have worked with Flix Agency so we were already familiar with them a bit and were stoked to be a part of something like this.
Jo Bergeron: My friend Felix at Flix Agency did the casting. I have a few songs of mine that are melancholic and mellow that I’ve played during my last tour in Europe. I guess it’s because of that similitude with Elliott Smith that I was chosen to sing one of his songs on the tribute.
What originally made you interested in Elliott’s work?
Jo Bergeron: I really digged into his work in the last years since Joey Cape himself led me to rediscover Elliot Smith’s work while we were working in the studio. Elliott Smith was a great storyteller. He had a unique voice and a unique way of singing at whispering volumes. As a guitar player, I really dig his way of playing with chords progression, adding out of scale chords here and there. One has to be a great songwriter to do this.
Andrew Paley: The quiet intesity of songs like “Needle in the Hay” grabbed me immediately when I first heard them somewhere back in high school, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I love the way he puts songs together — the harmonies he uses and the orchestration he creates with, often, very few elements.
Photo: Andrew Paley
Adam Rubenstein: I was playing in bands when Elliott was still alive and active. He was one of the few people playing quiet folk within the confines of a largely loud punk community. I think we all needed that occasional refuge from the bombast of the scene.
Chris T-T: I saw Elliott Smith a couple of times, first at ULU in London when he first broke through. He was bewitching – and at the time I’d not seen a songwriter like that. I’ve done a gig or two with Quasi as well over the years, who were his backing band for a bit.
Stocksmile: I downloaded what was labeled an “acoustic playlist” on Limewire back when I was in high school. Although it’s not the track we chose to record, “Say Yes” was the first Elliott Smith song I had ever heard. It quickly became my favorite.
Secret Space: My now wife actually first turned my on to his music when we first started dating so his music represents a pretty pure time in my life. That’s probably the best way to describe his music, pure. He was never trying to copy anyone else, he just made brutally honest music that people still can’t put in one neat box to describe it. I’ve always felt my songwriting emulated those same qualities.
Photo: SECRET SPACE
SEA + AIR: We heard he was playing his stuff in the Hardcore/Punk scene. Back then “Singer/Songwriter” was a really odd and outdated genre and here was this guy supporting HC bands with an acoustic guitar. He must’ve been the real punk those nights. We got curious. Didn’ t expect his music to be great, but it was.
How did you pick this particular track and how did you decide what it was going to sound like compared to the original?
SEA + AIR: We thought we’ d honour him by going as far away from the original as possible. I somehow believe that’ s what he would’ve done too. We picked the track cause it’s a great song.
Adam Rubenstein: I figured most artists were going to record sleepy Elliott songs. I wanted to do more of a rock song just to add some diversity. XO and Figure 8 are loaded full of amazing Beatles-y rock arrangements. “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” has always been a favorite.
Photo: Adam Rubenstein
Chris T-T: We decided on ‘Cupid’s Trick’ quite democratically as a band, it’s a couple of people’s favourite ES song – even though it’s on the compilation under my name, it’s really a band jam. Then we just learnt it in the practice room as a song, as if we were going to perform it live, kind of ignoring how the original studio version sounds, just playing it as a band.
Andrew Paley: Well, I’ve been covering it for a while, so it seemed like a natural choice for the compilation. When it came time to actually record it, I wanted to give it a little more space and lilt than the original, and so that’s what I was going for.
Jo Bergeron: Going Nowhere is a song I can easily rely to. I love the raw feeling of that song, making us feel like the scene is happening at present tense. I wanted to keep it as simple and natural as possible. Moreover, I recorded it at home, as my first experience as a “producer”. Elliott Smith was one of the hardest artists to cover I feel. I don’t have the pretention of saying I’ve improved his work, but at least I tried to make it sound like mine as much as possible.
Photo: Joe Bergeron
Secret Space: I have actually covered this track many times before. “Fond Farewell” is one of his poppier tracks, but that’s what I love about it, his ability to take on a common place verse/chorus form and make it his own. I love more lo-fi production when I record my own solo music or cover someone else’s, I feel it cuts to the quick of what the song is really about. A cover should only really showcase your raw emotion and spirit/personality. Too hi-fi and you lose the raw emotion that makes it uniquely yours. That’s also why I made the 3rd verse a capella, I really wanted to have an intimate experience with the music.
Stocksmile: I was really excited to pick this track because I always had my own ideas for the song. I love how acoustic it is but I always seemed to hear a bigger chorus each time I would listen to it, and I would always invent my own harmonies for select parts, harmonies similar to other works from Elliott. So in the studio, Alex Higgins (engineer) and myself were experimenting with what would make the choruses bigger and it ended up being simple piano chords played behind the guitar. It filled it out very well and we were stoked on the way it turned out. It’s such an emotional song, I feel we added to it really well and it was an easy choice for us.
Are there any particular pieces of Elliott’s work that have had a particularly strong influence on your work or personal life?
Stocksmile: I think Elliott’s vocal style had a big influence on my music. I do lots of vocal layering and harmonies because of him. And I don’t scream or sing loud very well either, haha.
Andrew Paley: Well, I can say that he’s one of a cache of musicians who have influenced my approach to songwriting, for sure. On a more personal note, I mentioned that I’ve played Waltz #2 for a long time — in fact, it was the the cover I played at my first solo show ever, way back in Burlington, VT. I suppose it’ll always have a special place in my heart for that reason.
Jo Bergeron: Waltz #2 (Xo) has always been another song meaningful to me.
Adam Rubenstein: Either Or is a close second, but Figure 8 is easily my favorite record. Mostly because I think Elliott was wildly innovative and underrated as a producer (with Rob Schnapf at the helm of course). I drove to Kentucky to see him on that tour in 2000. An unforgettable night. In fact Shon who played guitar on that tour participates on this comp with Goldenboy. Funny how life perpetually comes full circle.
Chris T-T: For me it’s Either/Or. It came out of the blue. Back in the 1990s I was an editor in a press room where we got a lot of free CDs and this just showed up and blew my mind, it was so compositionally confident, yet still so lo-fi and understated. Also I was in New York for the first time (for CMJ) just after he died and found that a bit overwhelming. Finally, when I went to L.A. my friend took me to see the Figure 8 graffiti wall before it was ruined and I remember just feeling so sad at all the messages.
SEA + AIR: Each one of his records has a couple of songs that are incredibly good. We always loved that he took the Lo-Fi attitude of his earlier records and turned it Hi-Fi in the end. Evolving.
Secret Space: “Needle In The Hay” was the only other song I thought about covering for this, and is still probably the most raw song I’ve ever listened to. I’ve had countless road trips listening to “From a Basement on the Hill” in its entirety, that record will always hold a special place in my heart.
How do you like the idea of tribute undertakings in general? Could you share some great examples of similar tributes worth checking out?
Adam Rubenstein: Tributes are great if they’re motivated by deep artistic appreciation—not by nostalgia. Not a particular record, but I curate a bi-monthy tribute night called Under Your Influence in New York (the title is a tribute in itself to the great Dag Nasty). All my favorite NYC musicians come out. We’ve done ones for Big Star, Nick Lowe, The Replacements, Elvis Costello…to name a few.
Chris T-T: I love the Sweet Relief projects because they helped musicians in trouble – in particular discovering Vic Chesnutt through that Sweet Relief tribute was important for me, he became a big influence on my songwriting. Oh there’s that great album Sonic Youth made in tribute to the Carpenters, right?
Andrew Paley: I think, to be honest, tribute albums in general can be hit or miss. That said, I think they work best when people take a bit of liberty with the original songs and see where they can go with them (see: Kate Bush’s take on Rocket Man for the most extreme example I can think of). Sometimes they work really well, sometimes not — but the experimentation can make for an interesting listen, especially for those who are fans of both the source material and the artist playing around with it.
Stocksmile: I think this compilation is a badass idea, I really do. I respect the way it has turned out and we were stoked to be on a comp with many great artists.
SEA + AIR: Honestly we are usually suspicious when it comes to tribute records. They can be good, if people try playing a song different from the original. But other than that it’ s difficult cause it’ s very hard to make a good song better.
Secret Space: Often times tributes turn people on to the original artist if they are unfamiliar, I think that’s pretty important. Even if it’s just a one off cover, I’ve been introduced to so many great artists that way. In a similar vein, I remember hearing “Needle In The Hay” while watching “The Royal Tenenbaums” for the first time, and then realizing years later it was Elliott Smith. That kind of visual association is pretty powerful and leaves a lasting impact.
Jo Bergeron: Any tribute that makes the songs of a great songwriter and human live on is a great idea. Another one worth checking : The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute.
Ok, so lastly, let’s wrap it up with some final words on yourself. What do you plan on working this year? What shall we expect from you guys in the coming months?
Andrew Paley: Well, I released my new album “Sirens” a few months ago, and have just wrapped a couple of months of touring in Japan, Europe and a few dates in the midwest US (I got home from Germany just three days ago). Now that I’m home, I’m going to be working on two albums — The Static Age’s upcoming LP as well as my next solo effort. That’s my summer plan. Once those are done, I’ll be back on the road — including with the band — in the Fall and into next year.
Jo Bergeron: I have an entire record written on sheets of paper asking impatiently to be recorded. I am going to enter the studio shortly for an expected release around Fall 2017. Then, I’ll hit the road again. Hopefully Europe again. … Oh, and I might have a surprise video coming out on May 19th !
Secret Space: Writing songs for our 2nd LP, have some tour dates in the works for the summer/fall, in the meantime just relaxing! I also work as a publicist and have taken on directing music videos and making some visual art/album covers for bands, so keeping busy with that as well!
SEA + AIR: SEA + AIR is working on a new record for the rest of the year. For the fun of travelling we will play some shows in remote countries like Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, France and the Netherlands this year. The main thing will be the reunion of our teenage Noise/Punk combo JUMBO JET. If you like fresh noise and true energy, check it out! Besides that we’ve just joined GORDON RAPHAEL’s new band (producer of THE STROKES and REGINA SPEKTOR) on bass and keyboards. And Eleni joined THE DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN’ s Liam’s new Speed Metal band as singer.
Chris T-T: I’m giving up music this year. So after 20 years, 10 albums and 2,300 shows from a singer you’ve almost certainly never heard of, Xtra Mile is releasing my double album ‘Best Of’ then it’s goodbye! :)
Adam Rubenstein: I’ve been busy scoring a bunch of films…The most recent being “Night School” which hits theaters in the US in June. I’m also slowly writing my 4th solo album. Hope to come back to Europe late this year or early 2018 for another tour.
Stocksmile: Stocksmile is actually releasing an LP this year that we’re pretty stoked on. It’s entitled “I Think I Learned the Most From You”. There’s no set release date yet but it’s done being tracked and in the mixing process right now. We’re currently on tour in Canada and we finish this tour April 1st and the band relocated from Las Vegas, NV to Rutland, VT. We’re all going to be living in the same house and writing new music in our basement! Pretty stoked on that. And thanks for having us on board for this comp!