From Elliott Smith to Ed Sheeran: how acoustic introverts became stars

The soundtrack to Elliott Smith’s Heaven Adores You is released today - illuminating an artist at odds with the new wave of confident singer-songwriters. Is it the end of the introspective male tradition that gave voice to our insecurities?

Since when did “singer-songwriter” become a derogatory term? Today, 5 February, the soundtrack to the 2014 documentary about the late Elliott Smith, Heaven Adores You, is released – a convenient reminder, perhaps, of a time when it was not considered a crime against music to wield an acoustic guitar.

In 2016, the phrase “singer-songwriter” is largely synonymous with being a bit boring, but it’s a certain strain of tedium – one that suggests the musician in question lacks the qualities of a True Artist. Singer-songwriters have seemingly gone from having to do what they do – or else they would suffer or society would lose out – to merely wanting to. I remember seeing Ed Sheeran at the Barfly in London just before he broke through, and there were people queueing round the block. But they weren’t there to witness a lost soul exorcising his demons; they came in their droves to enjoy his campfire singalongs as he charmed all comers with the bluff extroversion of a scout leader.

Watch video of Elliott Smith playing live

Solo acoustica was once a space for a certain type of idiosyncratic individual to relieve themselves of their emotional burdens – take the fragile vulnerability of Jeff Buckley, or Beck who, , for all his flamboyance circa Midnite Vultures, was always shy in person. . Now, it’s a job for the hard-grafting, relentlessly gigging careerist. Singer-songwriters once struggled to fit into conventional society. They’ve been replaced by the well-grounded Good Bloke – and for the purposes of this specific type of music, it’s probably easier to stick to the male species. I never interviewed Elliott Smith, but something about his music, his life and the way it ended forces the conclusion that he was never really going to succeed as a mainstream entertainer. In 2016 – in which the concept of advertising your “brand” is a key part of creative survival, not to mention the importance of playing tours – it is harder for those who shun the spotlight to prosper. The smooth-surfaced music of Ed Sheeran, George Ezra and James Bay et al is easier to sell, and it helps that they have the right self-assured personalities for all those thumbs-aloft photo opportunities with Fearne and Grimmy.

Watch video of David Gray’s Babylon

David Gray’s White Ladder album – which was issued in 1998 and dominated the charts throughout 2000 to 2003 – was surely one of the records that signalled the commercial viability of going it alone in the early part of the new century. There may have been tons of groups during these “indie landfill” years, but little did we realise the baton was being discreetly passed from the four-piece rock band to the solo balladeer. In fact, even bands in this period discovered that quiet was the new loud, heralding something briefly touted in the music press as the “new acoustic movement”. The Strokes and the White Stripes might have killed off the murmuring likes of Kings of Convenience, but the singer-songwriter survived; or at least the confident ones did. Look at this video of Jack Johnson for an example of today’s guitar slingers:

Watch video of Jack Johnson’s Upside Down

For a start – and fair enough, you can’t tell from this clip, although we know anyway – he’s a surfer. Acoustic singer-songwriters were once frail, enfeebled, with terrible postures – not sporty, grinning gormlessly and cavorting with cartoon monkeys in broad daylight. While there are still the likes of Keaton Henson or Ray LaMontagne, who bear the tendencies of the old-style singer-songwriter, the anxiety at self-promotion that one used to associate with the genre has now disappeared. This is a generation of creative men born into a world where YouTube and social media provide independent platforms for career elevation. Never has it been easier to perform and project music to thousands from the comfort of a bedroom, to learn how to perform from a young age in front of a digital audience. Perhaps Justin Bieber, discovered by Scooter Braun on YouTube in 2008, provided some of the blueprint for those with an acoustic inclination and similarly grand ambitions.

Watch an early Justin Bieber video

Back to the modern day. Sheeran, George Ezra, Bay – they seem unburdened by private grief, with a facility for public self-expression (you can’t imagine Nick Drake or Syd Barrett performing at Wookey Hole, let alone Wembley Stadium). But perhaps the introverted troubadour occupies a new genre. There are many interesting male solo artists today, but they are usually camouflaged by and allowed to hide behind banks of synths: see all the new James Blakes and Weeknds, from Dornik to Mura Masa. Anyone even remotely connected to the conventional singer-songwriter genre – step forward and take a tentative bow, Mercury prize nominee C Duncan – would appear to lack the bumptious jollity and brashness, the sheer oleaginous chumminess, necessary to make it big in the current climate. Nobody, of course, would want to wish or inflict upon any young musician the degree of anguish clearly endured in his lifetime by Elliott Smith. But surely a hint of the social disquiet that many of us feel wouldn’t go amiss?

Watch video of Ed Sheeran’s Sing


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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