In Conversation: Kevin Moyer on Elliott Smith and ‘Heaven Adores You’

Elliott Smith

The soundtrack to Heaven Adores You, the acclaimed film about Elliott Smith, is soon to be released on vinyl. The project itself relied on the strong support and participation of Smith’s friends and the people closest to him; on direct fan support via Kickstarter; on the determination of a small coterie of enthusiastic filmmakers to create a testament to the excitement they felt for Smith’s work.

The coming together of so many sources of affection wreathes the results — both film and soundtrack — in a feeling of enduring warmth toward a loved one lost too young. Producer and Music Supervisor for the project, Kevin Moyer, kindly shares his personal experience of the film’s making; of the creation of the soundtrack; and how he came to play a role in the releases.

Words & Guitars: Before we get onto the film, I’ve been really impressed with your musical projects and how they benefited the Outside In homeless charity — did your relationship with them start with the ‘Live From Nowhere Near You’ charity albums?

Kevin Moyer: Outside In is a great charity organization that was just down the street from the high school that Elliott and I both attended in Portland. The Live From Nowhere Near You albums were a series of charity compilations I recorded with professional artists collaborating with street musicians — with all of the profits going to homeless and street youth programs. The idea came to me when I was outside after a show and sat down with an amazing street musician. He was better than the band we had just seen! All of these ‘music fans’ were leaving the show with their $20 t-shirt merch purchases and not paying any attention to this guy playing at their feet for free. It made me wonder how people would react to hearing something and not knowing the source, not having skewed social stigmas influencing them. Like, would a Keith Richards’ guitar riff be perceived as garbage if a guy on the street was playing it while asking for your change? What about the other way around, if Keith was up on stage next to a dancing Jagger playing the song written by the shoeless guy I was sharing a smoke with? The guy had shared a stage with Jimi Hendrix so, no, it really wasn’t about skill level.

I decided to see if I could blur the lines. The idea was to give everyone the same social status, no preferential treatment, to blend them all together in song and sequence so that the listener couldn’t discern who were the people they might hear on the radio and who they might hear on the corner.

The entire series was recorded live on the streets, or in my attic and basement, or in donated spaces. Volume One was self-released but for Volume Two we had three full discs of music and I started talking to labels to help release it — one day I was on a call with this big label corporate team and they said to me “This is great and we love it, but we want to cut out all the street musician parts and just release the songs by Pearl Jam and The Shins and Modest Mouse” and the other big name artists who had been gracious enough to contribute. I had to tell a room full of label execs that was the exact opposite of what the album was about, that they were missing the whole point.

The very next day, I met the owner of GreyDay Records, Todd Berry, for the first time in a little crepe shop in NW Portland thinking, “Well, from creeps to crepes, let’s see how this goes…” Well, he’s super interested for all the right reasons, he has this great passion and he says he won’t even keep any profit. His offer was to just get paid back any minimal costs incurred and the rest would go to the charity. After, before I even drove home, I texted; “If you want it, it’s yours.” GreyDay has been really awesome and much credit should go to Todd and his whole team. It’s not everyone that wants to put out an album of street musicians and not make any money. 100% of the profits went to the homeless and street youth programs of Outside In. Some profits from the Heaven Adores You soundtrack are also going to Outside In.

W&G: Speaking of that, I noted there’s a track by Elliott on the second compilation?

KM: When I was working on Volume One of Live From Nowhere Near You, I tried reaching out to Elliott knowing that he was a big supporter of Outside In. I couldn’t get a hold of him, other friends couldn’t, his own people were out of contact. If we had connected, I know that he would have contributed because Elliott never said no to charity, so I just figured we would just try again for the next one. Sadly, a few months after Volume One was released, we got the news that Elliott had tragically passed away.

So when I started putting together Volume Two, I reached out again and got all the proper blessings to include an unreleased Elliott track. I go hang out with Larry Crane, who was friends with Elliott and is his estate’s archivist. He also owns Jackpot! Recording studio that Elliott recorded at and even helped to build. Larry had just finished mixing New Moon. As we sat there listening to various unreleased songs, there was one that Larry had found that was a surprise. At the time it was a mystery track — no labeling or associated notes —just sitting there between two known songs on a DAT tape. No one knew what it was and it was never played live or demo’d, and it seemed that this song was recorded completely, once, and then just forgotten. I will never forget sitting at the mixing board in a place Elliott practically called his second home, listening to a track that seemed to have mysteriously appeared, his much-missed voice swirling beautifully around us.

This was the song I decided to include. We debated what to call it and settled on ‘Untitled (Mailman Thinks Me Dumb)’; a line Elliott repeated in the song. A good while later, Larry contacted me telling me that he had run across some old cassette tapes that Elliott had made with his band, Stranger Than Fiction, while in high school. An earlier version of the song was on one and called ‘The Real Estate’ so now we knew what to properly call it. But more importantly, we realized that this was Elliott going back into the studio for who knows what reason and recording it solo, probably in the middle of the night when no one else was there and then just leaving it on a tape.

I also included another song that had a contribution from Elliott, a song he did with Neil Gust recorded on one of the last times they would see one another. This was Neil’s band after Heatmiser, appropriately called “No. 2”, and the song is ‘Who’s Behind The Door’. It came from a session in LA that happened when Neil was passing through town. Elliott added a guitar and keyboard freak out to it, then they worked on it awhile before Neil left, and before it had been properly mixed.

With that track with his old best friend Neil, with Elliott’s reworking of an old high school song, with us doing it for a charity down the street from the school we both went to, and with the help of his friend Larry Crane at the studio Elliott helped build — it all really felt full circle.

W&G: Did that Elliott connection lead to the film?

KM: No, all of that came way before I ever started working on Heaven Adores You. But that was the very next project I did and so when it came time to choose music for the film, I had already been in the studio listening to things — I was able to see into the Universal vault too so I was in the rare position of knowing what music was in the archives of both of Elliott’s labels — I was already very familiar with what we might try to use, how we could use it to tell his story.

W&G: So where did ‘Heaven Adores You’ enter your life?

KM: Probably about a year later, I got involved after the Kickstarter campaign that Nickolas Rossi (director) and JT Gurzi (producer) successfully orchestrated. Those guys handled all of that and did a whole lot of work to get to that point. And the Kickstarter was successful thanks to Elliott’s huge fan base stepping forward to support. The Kickstarter raised money for the original idea which was intended to be an exploration of Elliott’s posthumous influence, and the music that would be heard was going to be other artists who had been inspired by him. Once I joined the project, I was able to bring in Elliott’s friends and get the conversations going about using his music too, so we adjusted the idea to make it directly about Elliott. But in doing that, then the scale of project and what we needed to be able to do it changed and that Kickstarter budget was no longer going to cover it.

We made the Kickstarter money go surprisingly far because we were sleeping on floors and using borrowed equipment and calling in favors to friends. But the big expense that came with the new direction was that we obviously needed to use footage of Elliott because we wanted to let him speak for himself — and while we did get some good stuff from his friends, there was still a good amount that we had to get from entities who charge to use it. And we wanted his music to be the focus, we really wanted to immerse you in it and all that needed to be licensed from the labels too. Another producer named Marc Smolowitz came on board and he really began to drive the car at that point, helping us to cross the finish line. Other friends stepped up too and became investors, writing us checks, providing us with facilities and so on. People like Chuck Akin, Noah Lang, Wesley Hirni, Haroula Rose, Erick Paulson who we made Executive Producers, and of course all the fans. So many people stepped up to help us do it! A real testament is the film’s closing credits where we do our best to thank every single one of them, and we needed a six minute song for that part! The song is a young Elliott singing about his room and almost comedically it just goes on and on and on, and it was perfect because so does our list of thank you’s.

W&G: Simple respect seems to be at the heart of what you’ve tried to do here…

KM: I think that’s important. Not just for Elliott, but for the people who were around him and directly affected, the people who were helping us — we wanted to be respectful and do right by them. The priority was always to pay proper respect to Elliott and his legacy, but you also have to be gentle with the people who are still here too, especially when they are trusting you with such a sensitive subject and might not have closure themselves.

W&G: And for you personally, being the only person on the team from that circle of friends…?

KM: Well yeah, besides it being a sensitive subject, it was also a weight for me personally because I was bringing these two strangers into Elliott’s inner circle and our mutual friends and asking these people to go on record. It’s a big favor to ask that these people put their trust in us — and then, you know, later after all the shooting was done, then it was an anxiety attack working to ensure that we kept our word to do right. I mean I was very involved anyhow as a Producer and also Music Supervisor, but it was a bit weightier for me than perhaps the others because I was the one managing all of the sensitive relationships and navigating all of the obstacles to get approval.

It was also self-preservation too. I live here, this is my home — so these are the people around me; people I drink beer with; work on other projects with; buy pizza from. While the other guys could go back home to New York or California, I would have had to stay and endure any mess we made. And it was about someone very important to so many people, and I convinced them to take part. Because of that, I know for a fact that I was more vocal about some things during the production, but that discomfort was necessary and worth it. The whole team was working out of a genuine love for Elliott, working very hard and with integrity too, but when this thing got so personal and so big all at the same time, it felt really scary real quick. You’re basically putting a loaded gun out there with a hair trigger and asking four different guys to all keep a hand on it while aiming it at an apple on your friend’s head — doing a million other things at the same time too — all the while making sure that it hits bull’s-eye and doesn’t misfire or hurt anyone in the process.

W&G: I assume there’s a lot of emotion still circulating around the topic, among Elliott’s friends?

KM: Well, I don’t want to speak for everyone since everyone is different, but yeah, most people around Elliott are generally pretty closed to talking about him with anyone, even sometimes among ourselves, so that goes especially for strangers with cameras and microphones. Many were hesitant… There was so much unfinished business.

There’s a few things at play, part of it is that outsiders and the media can sometimes forget that this is someone that was real and someone connected to real people. Not some made up character or Byronic Hero to joyfully argue theories about. He was someone’s friend or brother or ex band mate or ex-boyfriend, so not only is it a hard thing to talk about, but it’s even weirder when everything can be so loaded too. Not to mention that speaking to the media immediately makes them appear as some kind of self-appointed authority on someone as nuanced, layered, complex as Elliott. And then it’s the myth of Elliott too, one that he himself would play into, and how do you remain true to his wishes but not play that game either? It becomes a struggle of “Well, what is my right to say? What is best for myself and him too? “What is important and what is not? What memories are reserved just for myself and not to be shared with the general public?”

The people who contributed camera interviews, we really owe them a lot. They trusted us and it wasn’t an easy thing. The easy thing would have been to continue putting up that wall, but then the problem is that others who didn’t know him do the talking instead, potentially get it wrong, and it becomes public record anyways. It was a tough and brave decision to agree to talk and to do it when they knew we were going to put it on such a big platform for all to see.

I spent weeks talking to almost every one of them at different points — depending on what our past relationship had been, and what their relationship with Elliott might have been, and depending on how that relationship was when all was said and done too. Lots of heavy conversations, late night phone calls and long emails with emotionally loaded sentiments, lots of commiserating. This wasn’t something that any of us took lightly, from both sides. But I think at the end of the day people wanted to share their memories as long as it was from a place of respect for the right reasons.

Once they agreed to go on camera, it still wasn’t easy. It got harder. I think every contributor showed up with some kind of baggage or bruise — one had been up all night thinking about it, another was having an anxiety attack on camera. So many people cried, each and every session ended up being very emotionally heavy. Stuff like that made me so very appreciative of them putting themselves through that to help us, and to do it for Elliott. And our crew, we did that for so long too — for me at least, it sometimes felt like being at a funeral wake for three straight years.

Afterward, I think all of the contributors said that they were glad they did it and that’s important to us. Hopefully there was a degree of catharsis in discussing this with, and among, others who felt the same.

Really, this project owes its success to all of the people who were part of it, whether in front of or behind the camera, who sacrificed their own personal comfort to do this for Elliott. I don’t think it was easy for anyone involved.

W&G: I’m guessing it wasn’t easy to create a film that didn’t veer into sensitive territory…

KM: Especially when everything is sensitive. He wasn’t always the best with ending things or smooth transitions, you know. So we just had to figure out the right ways to do it, which is something we had many hard conversations about. We didn’t want to inflict new wounds, or rub the scabs off old ones just beginning to heal. But then again we didn’t want to cover up any of the blemishes with rainbow smiley face bandages either. It was an important balance to maintain; we just stuck to the facts and presented it evenly and hopefully with love.

We had so much output to cover too, we are talking about a guy who had 34 years of life with over half of it making music; in a 107 minute film you’re never going to be able to fit in everything… but all the major touch-points are there, even the sensitive stuff too, we just didn’t go too far down the rabbit hole on some of it. Because we’ve all known people who have been in bands that have broken up, we all have known someone who battled personal demons, we’ve all seen enough ‘behind the music’ stories to know what goes down in situations like that. And I just really feel like Elliott didn’t like talking about that stuff when he was alive, so who were we to do the opposite on his behalf just because he wasn’t here to object?

W&G: What did you aim for instead, what’s most crucial to you about what you created?

KM: From the start we said we wanted to focus on Elliott’s evolution as an artist and the music he made while he was alive, rather than on the short time leading up to his death. And so we told his story via the music, you can literally see that with the way the film is broken up into tent poles or chapters based around his music career and his album releases.

It was also a meditative look at an artist and an attempt to immerse the viewer in his music. The whole film is a moment put to music really, isn’t it? There’s barely a point in the film that you don’t hear one of the thirty-plus songs by Elliott we used, or, if not that, then the score that I put together. Even under the talking heads, there’s music at almost every spot. I can think of only one very purposeful moment of silence.

If you want to focus on the music, then you have to use the music — lots of it. We wanted the music to be all around you with the great cinematography those guys captured helping to pull you in. It wasn’t treated like a typical documentary with shaky hand-cams chasing people down a sidewalk. It’s very cinematic; long, reflective panning shots of beautiful scenery, relevant locations or motifs, all paired with the music. We went out of our way to let the music have its own moments, where it could speak for Elliott, whole scenes where you just listen to a song. The music cues were longer than might usually be used — we used as much as we could to better make the point, or rather the feeling. It was never intended to be an investigation, it was never intended to be a full education either — rather I feel our aim was to make the audience FEEL. That’s what Elliott’s music did so well, I think.

Heaven Adores You packshot

W&G: Is there any one moment you recall where your work with the music and the images chosen really paired up perfectly?

KM: I think the movie is like sitting in the back seat of a car on a long road trip, or maybe a cross country train trip, and just listening to music on your headphones while looking out the window and being fully immersed in the music and mesmerized by the visuals flying by. One really nice moment is near the end coming out of footage of Elliott’s appearance on an attempted TV show. The song ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’ is being performed live by Elliott and Jon Brion and we segue into the studio version, those drums hit and the scene shifts up, Up, UP to this floating overhead shot that we captured in a helicopter flying over downtown Portland. It’s at this moment in the film where it feels like Elliott is rising up, into Heaven perhaps…I think it feels really good the way it all plays together, a really lovely moment.

W&G: What’s come next for you?

KM: I just finished work on another music documentary with friend and director Marq Evans called The Glamor and the Squalor which examines the rise and fall of Hall of Fame radio DJ Marco Collins who was the first to play Nirvana and a bunch of others on the radio, helping to usher in the grunge era. That’s a good one for music fans and I think it has a few subtle parallels to the Elliott film too. That film just got distribution and is coming soon, and I’m working on a soundtrack for that film right now too.

I’m also working on another documentary with Marq about another Portland icon and artist, and I’m working on another film in partnership with the Willie Nelson family too. I’m finishing up a Pearl Jam charity album also — and on top of those, there are a couple of other films and albums that I am working on that I can’t talk about yet, but am really excited and honored to be a part of.

But you know, the Heaven Adores You project keeps going. The soundtrack comes out on vinyl and I do really hope that it keeps going too. It’s a testament to Elliott and the art that he made, it is so far reaching and touching and his music still stands up, even so long after his death. I hope that the film and the soundtrack continues to keep his legacy and his music alive and helps to find new fans for many more years to come too.

The ‘Heaven Adores You’ soundtrack album is released on 18 March via UMC. Order your copy here.

About Nick Soulsby (46 Articles)
Nick is the author of 'I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana' (St Martins Griffin) and 'Cobain On Cobain: Interviews and Encounters' (Chicago Review Press - February 2016). He lives in Bristol.
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