Steven Paul "Elliott" Smith (August 6, 1969 – October 21, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, raised primarily in Texas, and resided for a significant portion of his life in Portland, Oregon, where he first gained popularity. His primary instrument was the guitar, but he was also proficient at piano, clarinet, bass, drums and harmonica. Smith had a distinctive vocal style characterized by his "whispery, spiderweb-thin delivery and use of multi-tracking to create vocal layers, textures, and harmonies.
After playing in the rock band Heatmiser for several years, Smith began his solo career in 1994 with releases on the independent record labels Cavity Search and Kill Rock Stars. In 1997 he signed a contract with DreamWorks Records, for which he recorded two albums. Smith rose to mainstream prominence when his song "Miss Misery", included in the soundtrack for the film Good Will Hunting, was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category in 1997.
Smith battled with depression, alcoholism and drug addiction for years, and these topics often appeared in his lyrics. At age 34, he died in Los Angeles, California from two stab wounds to the chest. The autopsy evidence was inconclusive as to whether the wounds were self-inflicted. At the time of his death, Smith was working on his sixth studio album, From a Basement on the Hill, which was released posthumously on October 19, 2004.
Steven Paul Smith was born at Clarkson Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Bunny Welch (née Bunny Kay Berryman), was a music teacher at an elementary school, and his father, Gary Smith, was a University of Nebraska medical student at the time. His parents divorced about a year later, and Smith moved with his mother to live in Duncanville, Texas. Much later in his life, Smith got a tattoo of a map of Texas on his upper arm and said "I didn't get it because I like Texas, kinda the opposite. But I won't forget about it although I'm tempted to 'cause I don't like it there."
Smith endured a difficult childhood and a troubled relationship with his stepfather Charlie. Smith reflected the impact of this part of his life in the lyrics of "Some Song": "Charlie beat you up week after week, and when you grow up you're going to be a freak." The name "Charlie" also appeared in the lyrics for "Flowers for Charlie" and "No Confidence Man". The family was a part of the Community of Christ through much of Smith's childhood, but eventually began attending services at a local Methodist Church. Smith felt that going to church did little for him, except make him "really scared of hell". In a 2001 interview, he stated, "I don't necessarily buy into any officially structured version of spirituality. But I have my own version of it".
At the age of nine, Smith began playing the piano, and at ten began learning guitar on a small acoustic guitar bought for him by his father. At this age he also composed an original piano piece, "Fantasy," which won him a prize at an arts festival. Many of the people on his mother's side of the family were non-professional musicians; his grandfather was a Dixieland drummer and his grandmother sang in a glee club.
At 14, Smith moved from Texas to Portland, Oregon, to live with his father, who was then working as a psychiatrist. It was around this time that Smith first began trying drugs and alcohol with friends as well as experimenting with recording for the first time, borrowing a four-track recorder. During high school, Smith played clarinet in the school band and also played guitar, piano and sang in the bands Stranger Than Fiction and A Murder of Crows billed as either Steven Smith or "Johnny Panic". He graduated from Lincoln High School as a National Merit Scholar.
After graduation, Steven Smith began calling himself "Elliott", saying that he thought "Steve" sounded too much like a "jock" name, and that "Steven" sounded "too bookish". Biographer S. R. Shutt speculates that it was either inspired by Elliott Avenue, a street that Smith had lived on in Portland, or that it was suggested by his then-girlfriend. A junior high acquaintance of Smith speculates that it was so as not to be confused with Steve Smith, the drummer of Journey.
Smith graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1991 with a degree in philosophy and political science. "Went straight through in four years," he explained to Under the Radar in 2003. "I guess it proved to myself that I could do something I really didn't want to for four years. Except I did like what I was studying. At the time it seemed like, 'This is your one and only chance to go to college and you had just better do it because some day you might wish that you did.' Plus, the whole reason I applied in the first place was because of my girlfriend, and I had gotten accepted already even though we had broken up before the first day." After he graduated he "worked in a bakery back in Portland with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and legal theory."
While at Hampshire, Smith formed the band Heatmiser with classmate Neil Gust. After graduating from Hampshire, the band added drummer Tony Lash and bassist Brandt Peterson and began performing around Portland in 1992. The group released the albums Dead Air (1993) and Cop and Speeder (1994) as well as the Yellow No. 5 EP (1994) on Frontier Records, and were then signed to Virgin Records to release what became their final album, Mic City Sons (1996).
Smith had begun his solo career while still in Heatmiser, and the success of his first two releases created distance and tension with his band. Heatmiser disbanded prior to Mic City Sons' release, prompting Virgin to put the album out inauspiciously through its independent arm, Caroline Records. A clause in Heatmiser's record contract with Virgin meant that Smith was still bound to it as an individual. The contract was later bought-out by DreamWorks prior to the release of his album, XO.
Smith felt his solo songs were not representative of the music Heatmiser was making: "The idea of playing [my music] for people didn't occur to me... because at the time it was the Northwest – Mudhoney and Nirvana – and going out to play an acoustic show was like crawling out on a limb and begging for it to be sawed off."
The instrumentation of the recordings was primarily acoustic guitar, occasionally accompanied by brief electric guitar riffs or a small drum set played with brushes. Only the final track, an instrumental titled "Kiwi Maddog 20/20" (a reference to the bum wine MD 20/20), had full band instrumentation.
Smith's debut solo performance was at the now-defunct Umbra Penumbra on September 17, 1994. Only three songs from Roman Candle were performed, with the majority of the ten-song set comprised of B-sides, Heatmiser tunes, and unreleased tracks. Soon after this performance, he was asked to open for Mary Lou Lord on a week-long U.S. tour. Several more short tours followed, and Smith helped her record one of his songs "I Figured You Out", which he once called "a stupid pop song [written] in about a minute" that he discarded for "[sounding] like the fucking Eagles.
In 1996, filmmaker Jem Cohen recorded Smith playing acoustic songs for the short film Lucky Three: an Elliott Smith Portrait. Two of these songs would appear on his next album, Either/Or, another Kill Rock Stars release that came out in 1997 to favorable reviews. The album found Smith venturing further into full instrumentation, with several songs containing bass, drums, keyboards and electric guitars, all played by Smith. The album title was derived from the two-volume book of the same name by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which deals with such themes as existential despair, dread, death and God.
By this time, Smith's already-heavy drinking was now being compounded with use of anti-depressants. At the end of the Either/Or tour, an intervention was staged by close friends of his in Chicago, but it proved ineffective. Shortly after, he relocated from Portland to Brooklyn.
On March 5, 1998, Smith made his network television debut on Late Night With Conan O'Brien performing "Miss Misery" solo on acoustic guitar. A few days later, wearing a white suit, he played an abridged version of the song at the Oscars, accompanied by the house orchestra. James Horner and Will Jennings won the award that night for best song with "My Heart Will Go On" (sung by Celine Dion) from the film Titanic. Smith did not voice disappointment about not winning the award.
Smith commented on the surrealism of the Oscars experience: "That's exactly what it was, surreal... I enjoy performing almost as much as I enjoy making up songs in the first place. But the Oscars was a very strange show, where the set was only one song cut down to less than two minutes, and the audience was a lot of people who didn't come to hear me play. I wouldn't want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day."
In 1998, after the success of Either/Or and "Miss Misery", Smith signed to a bigger independent record label, DreamWorks Records. Around the same time, Smith fell into depression, speaking openly of considering suicide, and on at least one occasion made a serious attempt at ending his own life. While in North Carolina, he became severely intoxicated and ran off a cliff. He landed on a tree, which badly impaled him but broke his fall. When questioned about his suicide attempt, he told an interviewer, "Yeah, I jumped off a cliff, but let's talk about something else."
Christopher Cooper, head of Cavity Search Records (which released Roman Candle), said about this time in Smith's life: "I talked him out of thinking that he wanted to kill himself numerous times when he was in Portland. I kept telling him that he was a brilliant man, and that life was worth living, and that people loved him. Pete Krebs also agreed: "In Portland we got the brunt of Elliott's initial depression... Lots of people have stories of their own experiences of staying up with Elliott 'til five in the morning, holding his hand, telling him not to kill himself."
Smith's first release for DreamWorks was later that year. Titled XO, it was produced by the team of Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock. XO also contained some instrumentation from Los Angeles musicians Joey Waronker and Jon Brion. It contained a more full-sounding, baroque pop sound than any of his previous efforts, with songs featuring a horn section, Chamberlins and elaborate string arrangements and even a drum loop on the song "Independence Day". His familiar double-tracked vocal and acoustic guitar style was still apparent. The album went on to peak at number 104 on the Billboard 200 and number 123 on the UK Album Charts, while selling 400,000 copies (more than double that of each of his two Kill Rock Stars releases), becoming the best-selling release of his career. Smith's backing band during most of this period was the Portland-based group Quasi, consisting of former bandmate Sam Coomes on bass guitar and Coomes's ex-wife Janet Weiss on drums. Quasi also performed as the opening act at many shows on the tour, with Smith sometimes contributing bass, guitar or backing vocals. On October 17, 1998, Smith appeared on Saturday Night Live and performed "Waltz #2." His backing band for this appearance was John Moen, Jon Brion, Rob Schnapf and Sam Coomes.
In response to whether the change to a bigger record label would influence his creative control, Smith said: "...sometimes people look at major labels as simply money-making machines, they're actually composed of individuals who are real people, and there's a part of them that needs to feel that part of their job is to put out good music. Smith also claimed in another interview that he never read his reviews for fear that they would interfere with his songwriting.
Figure 8, which was released in 2000, featured the return of Rothrock, Schnapf, Brion, and Waronker, and was partially recorded at Abbey Road Studios in England. The album garnered generally positive reviews, peaking at number 99 on the Billboard 200 and 37 on the UK Album Charts. The album garnered praise for its power pop style and complex arrangements, described as creating a "sweeping kaleidoscope of layered instruments and sonic textures." However, some reviewers felt that Smith's trademark dark and melancholy songwriting had lost some of its subtlety, with one reviewer likening some of the songs to "the self-pitying complaints of an adolescent venting in his diary.
Smith relocated from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1999. Album art and promotional pictures from the period showed Smith looking cleaned-up and put-together. An extensive tour in promotion of the record ensued, including television appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Late Show With David Letterman. However, Smith's condition began to deteriorate as he had become addicted to heroin either towards the end of or just after the Figure 8 tour.
When Brion sent a bill for the abandoned sessions to DreamWorks, executives Lenny Waronker and Luke Wood scheduled a meeting with Smith to determine what went wrong with the sessions. The singer voiced what he believed to be intrusion upon his personal life from the label, as well as poor promotion for the Figure 8 album. The talks proved to be fruitless, and soon after, Smith sent a message to the executives, stating that if they did not release him from his contract, he would take his own life. In May 2001, Smith set out to re-record the album, mostly on his own, but with some help from David McConnell, a member of the band Goldenboy. McConnell told SPIN that, during this time, Smith would smoke over $1500 worth of heroin and crack per day, would often talk about suicide, and on numerous occasions tried to give himself an overdose. Steven Drozd (of The Flaming Lips) and Scott McPherson played a few drum tracks, Sam Coomes contributed some bass and backing vocals, but almost every other instrument was recorded by Smith.
One of the few highlights for Smith in 2001 was inclusion of his song "Needle in the Hay" in Wes Anderson's dark comedy The Royal Tenenbaums. The song plays during a suicide attempt. Smith was originally supposed to contribute a cover of The Beatles' "Hey Jude" for the film, but when he failed to do so in time, Anderson had to use The Mutato Muzika Orchestra's version of the track instead. Anderson would later say that Smith "was in a bad state" at the time.
Smith's live performances during 2001 and 2002 were infrequent, typically in the Pacific Northwest or Los Angeles. A review of his December 20, 2001 show at Portland's Crystal Ballroom stated concern over his appearance and performance: his hair was uncharacteristically greasy and long; his face was bearded and gaunt; and during his songs he exhibited alarming signs of "memory-loss and butterfingers". The crowd would often have to shout out the lyrics (and in some cases, guitar chords) when Smith could not think of them.
In the first of only three concerts performed in 2002, Smith co-headlined Northwestern University's "A&O Ball" with Wilco on May 2 in Chicago. Smith's performance was described as "undoubtedly one of the worst performances ever by a musician" and an "excruciating...nightmare". A reporter for the online magazine Glorious Noise made the statement "...it would not surprise me at all if Elliott Smith ends up dead within a year.
On November 25, 2002, Smith was involved in a brawl with the Los Angeles Police Department at a Flaming Lips/Beck concert. Smith later said he was defending a man he thought the police were harassing. Assuming that Smith was homeless, the officers allegedly beat and arrested him and his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. The two spent the night in jail. Smith's hand and back were injured in the incident, causing him to cancel a number of shows. Wayne Coyne, lead singer of The Flaming Lips and a friend of Smith's, stated concern over Smith's appearance and actions, saying that he "saw a guy who had lost control of himself. He was needy, he was grumpy, he was everything you wouldn't want in a person. It's not like when you think of Keith Richards being pleasantly blissed out in the corner.
Smith had attempted to go to rehab several times, but said he "couldn't honestly do the first step... I couldn't say what you were supposed to say and mean it." In 2002, Smith went to the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills to start a course of treatment for his drug addiction. In one of his final interviews, he spoke about the center: "What they do is an IV treatment where they put a needle in your arm, and you're on a drip bag, but the only thing that's in the drip bag is amino acids and saline solution. I was coming off of a lot of psych meds and other things. I was even on an antipsychotic, although I'm not psychotic." After his 34th birthday on August 6, 2003, he gave up alcohol, caffeine, red meat, refined sugar and his longtime (sometimes abused) regimen of psychiatric medication. Director Mike Mills had been working with Smith during his final years and described Smith's troubles and apparent recovery: "I gave the script to him, then he dropped off the face of the earth… He went through his whole crazy time, but by the time I was done with the film, he was making From a Basement on a Hill and I was shocked that he was actually making music." With things improving for Smith after several troubled years, he began experimenting with noise music and worked on his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba's iMac with the intent of learning how to record with computers, noting that it was the only method with which he was still unfamiliar. Smith jokingly labeled his experimental way of recording "The California Frown" (a play on the Beach Boys' "California Sound"). He said of the songs: "They're kind of more noisy with the pitch all distorted. Some are more acoustic, but there aren't too many like that. Lately I've just been making up a lot of noise."
He was also in the process of recording songs for the Thumbsucker soundtrack, including Big Star's "Thirteen", and Cat Stevens' "Trouble". In August 2003, Suicide Squeeze Records put out a limited-edition vinyl single for "Pretty (Ugly Before)", a song that Smith had been playing since the Figure 8 tour. Steve Hanft described the last six months of Smith's life as being "like the light at the end of the tunnel" and was convinced that Smith was clean and recovered.
According to Pitchfork, producer Larry Crane reported on his Tape Op message board that he had planned to help Smith mix his album in mid-November. Crane wrote: "I hadn't talked to Elliott in over a year. His girlfriend, Jennifer, called me [last week] and asked if I'd like to come to L.A. and help mix and finish [Smith's album]. I said yes, of course, and chatted with Elliott for the first time in ages. It seems surreal that he would call me to finish an album and then a week later kill himself. I talked to Jennifer this morning, who was obviously shattered and in tears, and she said, 'I don't understand, he was so healthy.' The coroner's report revealed that no traces of illegal substances or alcohol were found in his system at the time of his death. The coroner did find anti-depressant and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder medications in his system, but at prescribed levels. With his death not being officially declared a suicide, a journalist noted that some have suspected foul play, but also that the authorities do not seem to be investigating the case further.
Smith was cremated, but no information has ever been provided by his family as to whether his ashes have been scattered or remain intact. No public burial site or memorial was ever formally announced; however, soon after his death a fan memorial was initiated outside of Solutions Audio (4334 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California), the site at which the cover of the Figure 8 album was shot. Farewell messages to Smith were written on the wall, flowers were brought and photos, candles and empty bottles of alcohol mentioned in Smith's songs were left. At one point in 2007, the wall was largely vandalized with unrelated graffiti to the point where almost all of its original paint had been obscured. Fans of Smith lead an effort to repaint the mural, and by February 28, 2008, the Solutions wall had be repaired to it's "original glory", looking roughly the same as it did on the cover of Figure 8. In turn the owner of Solutions — reenergized by Smith's fans — announced his ambition to create a statue composed of crushed electronics that would play music by "Elliott's influences". The piece, which is Smith's exact height (5'7"), is to be placed exactly where the singer stood during the wall's famous photoshoot and could be installed as early as winter 2008.
Memorial concerts were held in several cities in America and England. A petition was soon put forth with intent to make part of the Silver Lake area a memorial park in Smith's honor. It received over 10,000 signatures, but no plans to go forth with the park have been announced. Another memorial is located inside Smith's former high school, Lincoln High, and was erected in July 2006.
Since Smith's death, many musical acts have paid him tribute. Songs in tribute to, or about Smith have been released by Rilo Kiley ("Ripchord" and "It Just Is" on More Adventurous), Sparta ("Bombs and Us"), Third Eye Blind ("Elliott Smith" on Symphony of Decay), Mary Lorson ("Lonely Boy" on Realistic), Ben Folds ("Late" on Songs for Silverman), Rhett Miller ("The Believer" on The Believer), Earlimart ("Heaven Adores You" on Treble and Tremble), Joan As Police Woman ("We Don't Own It" on Real Life), and Pete Yorn ("Bandstand in the Sky" on Nightcrawler, a song jointly dedicated to Jeff Buckley). Several tribute albums have been released since his death: To: Elliott From: Portland, Home to Oblivion: Elliott Smith Tribute, Remote Memory: A Tribute to Elliott Smith, A Tribute to Elliott Smith and The String Quartet Tribute to Elliott Smith.
From a Basement on the Hill, with almost four years in production, was released on October 19, 2004 by ANTI- Records (a part of Epitaph Records). With Smith's family in control of his estate, they chose to bring in Rob Schnapf and Smith's ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme to sort through and mix the album. Although predicted by Smith to be a double album (or a regular album with a "bonus disc"), it was released as a 15-track single album. Many of the darkest songs from the sessions (later leaked onto the Internet) were not included, such as "True Love" (which deals graphically with addiction and rehab), "Abused", "Stickman" and "Suicide Machine" (a reworking of the Figure 8 era unreleased instrumental, "Tiny Time Machine"). It is rumored that it was the family's wishes not to have these songs on the record, as they had the final say in what should and should not be released. Reviews of the album were mostly very positive, but some were more critical; The Onion's A.V. Club wrote that "the album he left behind turns out to be messy, complicated, and unquestionably not his defining work...the album still earns its place—not at the top, and unfortunately as a bookend—in a jarringly important body of work.
Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, a biography by Benjamin Nugent, was rushed to publication and hit stores shortly after From a Basement on the Hill, barely beyond the first anniversary of the musician's death. Smith's family, as well as Joanna Bolme, Jennifer Chiba, Neil Gust, Sam Coomes, and Janet Weiss, all declined to be interviewed and did not support the publication of the book. It contained interviews with Rob Schnapf, David McConnell, and Pete Krebs. The book received mixed reviews, with Publishers Weekly remarking that while "Nugent manages to patch together the major beats of Smith's life, he can offer little meaningful insight" and that Smith's fans "will be disappointed by this short and shallow biography.
On May 8, 2007, a posthumous two-disc compilation album entitled New Moon was released by Kill Rock Stars. The album contained 24 songs recorded by Smith between 1994 and 1997 during his tenure with the label. The songs consisted of songs recorded during this era but not included on albums, as well as a few early versions and previously released b-sides. In the U.S., the album debuted at number 24 on the Billboard 200, selling about 24,000 copies in its first week. The record received favorable reviews and was Metacritic's 16th best-reviewed album of 2007. A significant portion of the proceeds from album sales are to go to Outside In, a social service agency for low-income adults and homeless youth in Portland, Oregon.
On October 25, 2007, a book titled Elliott Smith was released by Autumn de Wilde, which consists of photographs, handwritten lyrics and "revealing talks with Smith's inner circle". De Wilde was responsible for the Figure 8 sleeve art, making a landmark and de facto Smith memorial of the Solutions Audio mural. A five-song CD featuring previously unreleased live recordings of Smith performing acoustically at Club Largo in Los Angeles was included in the release.
Smith respected and was inspired by many artists and styles, including U2, The Kinks, Elvis Costello, Motown and flamenco records, AC/DC, Scorpions, and Modest Mouse. Smith claimed to listen exclusively to select albums (such as The Marble Index by Nico) for months. Sean Croghan (a former roommate of Smith's and member of bands Jr. High and Crackerbash) said that Smith "listened almost exclusively to slow jams" in his senior year at college. Smith was also known to gain inspiration from novels, religion and philosophy. He liked classic literature, especially Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, and Fyodor Dostoevsky (and other Russian novelists).
Smith mentioned his admiration for Bob Dylan in several interviews, citing him as an early musical influence. He once commented: "My father taught me how to play "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right". I love Dylan's words, but even more than that, I love the fact that he loves words. Smith covered Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" several times in concert. Smith has also been favourably compared to folk singer Nick Drake, due to his lush fingerpicking and soft voice. Darryl Cater from allmusic.com called references to "the definitive folk loner", Drake, "inevitable, and Elliott's lyrics have been compared to those in Drake's minimalist and haunting final album.
Smith was a dedicated fan of The Beatles (as well as their solo projects), once noting that he had been listening to them frequently since he was about "four years old and also claimed that hearing The White Album was his original inspiration to become a musician. In 1998, Smith recorded and contributed a cover of the Beatles song "Because" to the American Beauty soundtrack, which can be heard during the closing credits of the film. Although this was the only Beatles song that Smith ever officially released, he is known to have recorded at least one other ("Revolution", during the sessions for XO), and played many songs by both the band and the members' solo projects at live concerts. Smith was also rumored to have recorded a version of "Hey Jude" for the 2001 Wes Anderson film The Royal Tenenbaums to be played during the opening scenes, but the song never materialized. In a December 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Anderson said that although Smith was lined up to record the song, he "was in a bad state and just wasn't able to. The Royal Tenenbaums did include Smith's song "Needle in the Hay", which played during a scene in which one of the principal characters attempts suicide.
Regarding his songwriting, Smith said:
The way I think about it is... I don't really think about it in terms of language, I think about it more like shapes. That's an interesting thing to talk about but it's difficult. I'm really into chord changes. That was the thing that I liked when I was a kid. So, I'm not like a... I don't make up "a riff" really. It's usually like... that sequence that has some implied melody in it or something like that.
Smith said that transitions were his favorite part of songs and that he preferred to write broader, more impressionistic music closer to pop rather than folk music. Smith compared his songs to stories or dreams, not purely confessional pieces that people could relate to. When asked about the dark nature of his songwriting and the cult following he was gaining, Smith said he felt it was merely a product of him writing songs that were strongly meaningful to him rather than anything contrived.
|July 14, 1994||Roman Candle||Cavity Search Records|
|July 21, 1995||Elliott Smith||Kill Rock Stars|
|February 25, 1997||Either/Or||Kill Rock Stars|
|August 25, 1998||XO||DreamWorks|
|April 18, 2000||Figure 8||DreamWorks|
|October 19, 2004||From a Basement on the Hill||ANTI-Records|
|May 8, 2007||New Moon||Kill Rock Stars|