Writing, researching, public speaking
Continuum's 33 1/3 series is an ongoing collection of small books about big records. The series includes books by extraordinary writers such as Michaelangelo Matos, Carl Wilson and Douglas Wolk, as well as writer/musician Franklin Bruno, the Decemberists' Colin Meloy and the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle. These books range in nature from interview-laden studies to impressionistic works of short fiction, each one offering a unique take on a beloved album.
My "take" on Elliott Smith's major label debut XO took shape shape in mid-2006, when a series of conversations with friends and bandmates led me to the observation that XO not only defied the widely held perception of Smith as a weepy coffeehouse troubadour, but actually took up that defiance as a central theme. Already a fan of the 33 1/3 series, I decided that I would turn in a proposal the next time Continuum was accepting them.
Sure enough, an open call was announced in early 2007, and I submitted a summary of my thoughts on XO and a planned outline for the book. My pitch was one of 21 accepted from over 450 submissions.
My initial plan for this book was to write a fairly straightforward behind-the-scenes account of the making of XO. As I began to interview those who participated in the making of the record, it became clear that such an approach would not be particularly fruitful; Smith worked tirelessly, but rarely discussed his decision-making process. He did, however, leave a telling trail of demo and live recordings, each of which differed in provocative and interesting ways. Armed with as many such recordings as I could find, I set about decoding the creative process, focusing on the themes and gestures that Smith pursued in his work.
This quasi-archaeological process was aided greatly by interviews with Smith's friend, collaborator and estate archivist Larry Crane, and with XO producer Rob Schnapf. Many of the specific lyrical trends charted in my book were brought to my attention via an extended e-mail correspondence with self-proclaimed "besotted XO-phile" and unofficial XO media librarian Phil Fischer. The book is both a celebration of Smith's craft and a debunking of his cultural myth; a detailed map of the ideas and processes that went into his music, and an analysis of how his popular image is perpetually at odds with those ideas and processes.
After the release of Elliott Smith - XO, I embarked upon a brief book tour that included stops at Brooklyn's Barbes, Portland's Reading Frenzy, Durham's The Regulator, and a reading/discussion with fellow 33 1/3 author Carl Wilson at Toronto's Soundscapes.