An indie-rock controversy erupted Jan. 28 when former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty released what he termed “a collaboration” with the late Elliott Smith, adding EDM beats and manipulations to previously unreleased vocal tracks Smith recorded while working on “Miss Misery,” his Academy Award-nominated song for Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.”
Mary Lou Lord, who took the pre-fame Smith under her wing and toured with him in the ’90s, wrote on Facebook, “NO!!!” (Lord actually spelled “NO” with 166 O’s.) Many on the social network, as well as on Pitchfork and Twitter, accused Doughty of exploiting the fragile, soft-spoken Smith, who died in 2003, and travestying his low-tech esthetic. “To pitch them that it was a true ‘collaboration’ is so very wrong,” Lord wrote of Doughty’s press campaign. “Elliott put his very soul into every recording he ever did. Painstakingly even.”
Others criticized Doughty for saying it was a Smith-Doughty collaboration when the recording, at Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound Factory was done during the sessions for Soul Coughing’s 1998 album, “El Oso.” “I am angry because it’s shitty music,” former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg tells Billboard, “and Elliott trusted us not to make shitty music with what he recorded with us. I doubt Doughty knows if he’s telling the truth or not. I don’t really know what Elliott’s admirers think, except for the overwhelming howls of pain, bewilderment and disgust I have been hearing nonstop for the past 43 hours.” Others complained that Doughty didn’t release the unaltered version of Smith’s songs, so fans could compare them.
“I felt that it was right to utilize his voice the way he and I agreed to,” Doughty says, “but the naked sessions belong to his estate. I haven’t been contacted by them. I will send the complete session to them, of course, whenever they get in touch…I did send the full session — which altogether, every take, and all the talking between, is under 14 minutes — to Larry Crane, who worked with Elliott and maintains some of his archives.” Doughty says that Crane responded positively.
Previously, Doughty had sampled John Denver for a track on his 2012 album, “The Flip Is Another Honey.” “John Denver’s estate was over the moon about the sample of his voice in ‘Sunshine,'” Doughty says. “Elliott’s fans are hypersensitive only because Elliott moved them so powerfully. I was moved the same way, and I empathize deeply with their emotions.
“I think this was an adventurous lark for him — it took less than 14 minutes,” Doughty continues. “I don’t think he listened to dance music, so I don’t know what he would’ve envisioned. The idea that I explained to Elliott was to sample his voice and deploy it over beats.”
Doughty doubts Smith would be as offended as his defenders by the EDM-ized tracks. “This probably wouldn’t be Elliott’s favorite work, but the guy was down for a fun experiment, and I’d bet that’s what he’d hear it as.
“I saw there were reactions from other artists: I just can’t read them. I have to focus on the work. I have to make peace with the fact that anybody can say what they want to on the Internet. I don’t think I can convince anybody that my intentions are pure.”
Informed that Doughty refused to read his detractors’ words, Lord tells Billboard, “Of course he did.”