Whenever an exceptionally gifted singer-songwriter like Elliott Smith crops up – which isn’t often – it’s always natural to want to trace back their talent. Where did he learn guitar? Who was his favourite musician, and was there one artist who inspired him more than any other? Was he a fan of Bob Dylan?
Fortunately, before a 34-year-old Smith was taken from the world in 2003, he had given us answers to most of these questions. During a webchat with NME in 2000, Smith was asked a host of questions about his musical tastes. While Smith was a soft-voiced folk-inspired solo artist in the latter and more successful part of his career, his roots were also grounded in the heavier rock of his Heatmiser days. Naturally, his taste is markedly eclectic.
When asked what his favourite late-night (or “2.45am”) album was, Smith explained that “There are several. I think Marquee Moon by Television and The Marble Index by Nico [laughs].” Smith mentioned Nico numerous times throughout his career.
He was later asked: “If you could find a secret passage to anyone’s head, Being John Malkovich-style, whose would it be?” Smith replied: “Probably Nico.” Confirming his love for The Velvet Underground collaborator, Smith later listed his favourite vocalists as “John Doe, Stevie Wonder, Sam Coomes, Nico.”
Later, Smith was asked what age he was when he decided that he wanted to be a musician. “Probably five, as soon as I heard [The Beatles’] The White Album. It was pretty much my inspiration, that and AC/DC.” Smith would often speak of his love for The Beatles, especially John Lennon and George Harrison. He was also famous for pulling some cracking covers out of the locker from time to time; one of his most memorable was a cover of Lennon’s Abbey Road track ‘Because’.
Smith’s latter spell as an acoustic singer-songwriter was influenced by some of the greats of the 1960s and ’70s, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Nick Drake. When asked by NME: “Who is better, Bob Dylan or Neil Young?” Smith seemed reluctant to draw comparisons. He saw that as an unfair practice in the arts. “There’s no real answer to that question. Why make a hierarchy of people? They’re both great. Neil Young is more oblique, but I like them both.”
Despite refraining from placing a hierarchy upon fellow musicians, Smith once highlighted Dylan’s 1963 second studio album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, as a personal favourite. He recalled Dylan being a dominating presence in his childhood. “My father taught me to play ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ [from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan],” Smith recalled. “I love Dylan’s lyrics, but more than that, I love the fact that he loves writing lyrics.”
Listen to Elliott Smith’s live cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ below.