It’s been nearly 15 years since Elliott Smith — one of the most influential singer-songwriters to emerge from the 1990s indie-rock boom — passed away in an apparent although mysterious suicide. He released just five albums during his life but most of them are great, and these days every time one hears a hushed, haunting singer-songwriter performing beautiful and incisive songs as if they were embarrassed by them, it’s hard not to note Smith’s influence on that artist. (Anyone curious should start with his 1997 classic “Either/Or,” which inspired filmmaker Gus Van Sant to use three songs from it in his Academy Award-winning film “Good Will Hunting,” with Smith’s “Miss Misery” itself being nominated for Best Song Oscar; Smith performed the song on the 1998 Academy Awards).
Vanessa Carlton is a formidable artist herself — and a formidable person as well, as evidenced by her contribution to the harrowing recent New York Times accounts of victims of high-profile sexual harassers. After training as a ballet dancer, she pursued a career as a singer-songwriter and met mainstream success in the early 2000s, but has since embraced the indie route full force, releasing her most recent album “Liberman” in 2015. This year she’s been releasing a cover per month — others include Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams and Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” — and here she performs a stripped down version of Smith’s 1995 song “Needle in the Hay.”
“This is one of my favorite songs, period,” she tells Variety. “Elliott was a great poet and the metaphors in this lyric split me open. This song is a juxtaposition, because the song is about excruciating pain and the brutal moments of an addiction spiral, and yet it’s formed in this drone-y meditative manner. Such restraint… ”