Elliott Smith (August 6, 1969 – October 21, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. He was born Steven Paul Smith on August 6, 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Bunny Smith, was an elementary school teacher and his father, Gary Smith, was a University of Nebraska
medical student at the time. His parents divorced about a year later, and Steven went to live near Dallas, Texas, with his mother and stepfather. Smith learned to play both the piano and guitar as a child and wrote his first song when he was 13. At 14, Smith moved from Texas to Portland, Oregon, to live with his father, Gary. During high school, Smith was part of the band Stranger Than Fiction (with Garrick Duckler, Jason Hornick, and Adam Koval). He graduated from Lincoln High School on June 3, 1987 as a National Merit
Around this time, he began calling himself “Elliott”, since he thought “Steve” sounded too much like a jock name. No one is certain why he chose “Elliott.” Some speculate it came from a street name in Portland, some say it was an idea of his girlfriend at the time, and was the last name of her ex-boyfriend. Elliott is spelled with two “T”s, like the last name. Others, however, believe that his name may be related to the American Revolutionary folk singer of the 18th century, Gilbert Elliot.
Smith graduated from Hampshire College
in Amherst, Massachusetts, with a degree in philosophy and political science. After returning to Portland, Smith formed the band Heatmiser in 1991 with Neil Gust, Tony Lash, and Brandt Peterson (replaced by Sam Coomes, later of Quasi). Their sound has been compared to Fugazi and grunge music. The group disbanded in 1995, but not before signing a deal with major label Virgin Records to release their final record, Mic City Sons.
Shortly before the dissolution of Heatmiser, Elliott Smith began recording solo, mostly acoustic albums on four track and reel to reel tape machines. Smith’s solo material was more sparse and moodier than his previous band, but at the same time had a strong pop sensibility, with lyrics that referenced drug addiction, depression, and betrayal. His first release, Roman Candle (1994), was supposedly originally intended to be a collection of demos that didn’t fit as Heatmiser songs. Smith’s girlfriend at the time gave a tape of the songs to Cavity Search Records, and they immediately requested to release it. One track, “Condor Avenue,” was purported to be written when the artist was only 17 years old. The instrumentation is primarily acoustic guitar, occasionally accompanied by brief electric guitar riffs or a small drum set played with brushes.
Elliott Smith and Either/Or
In 1995, Elliott Smith was released on Kill Rock Stars, a label which, up until Smith’s arrival, contained an almost exclusively female artist roster. The record contained a similar style of recording to Roman Candle, but not without hints of growth and experimentation. Friend Rebecca Gates sang harmony vocals on “St. Ide’s Heaven.” Although songs like “Needle In The Hay” implied that Smith was beginning to have drug troubles, some maintain that he did not use hard drugs in the 1990s.
Either/Or, another Kill Rock Stars release, came out in 1997 to favorable reviews. The album found Elliott Smith venturing even further in to full-band territory, with several songs containing bass, drums, keyboards and electric guitars.
The Academy Awards
In 1997, Smith was tapped by director and fellow Portland resident Gus Van Sant
to be a part of the soundtrack to his film, Good Will Hunting
. Smith penned an original song, “Miss Misery,” and recorded an orchestral version of “Between the Bars” for the movie. Several previously released tracks from Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or were also included, such as: “No Name #3”, “Angeles”, “Between the Bars”, and “Say Yes”. The film was a commercial and critical success, and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for “Miss Misery”. Apparently not eager to step in to the limelight, his arm had to be twisted to convince him to perform the song at the award ceremony. Only after the producers informed him that his song would be played live that night - either by him or another musician of their choosing - did he agree to show up. Wearing a white suit, he played an abridged version of the song accompanied by the house orchestra. Céline Dion won the award that night for best song with “My Heart Will Go On” from the film Titanic
. Smith never voiced disappointment about his loss; if anything, he was relieved.
In 1998, Elliott Smith contributed a The Beatles cover, “Because,” to the American Beauty
soundtrack. The song can be heard during the closing credits of the film.
In 2001, Elliott’s song “Needle in the Hay” was used in the Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums
XO, Figure 8 and From a Basement on the Hill
After the success of Either/Or and “Miss Misery”, Smith signed to DreamWorks Records, on which he released XO and Figure 8. XO became the top-selling album of his career, containing a more fully-produced, baroque pop sound than any of his previous efforts. The two DreamWorks albums drew a lot of comparisons to the White Album era of The Beatles, a group with which Smith was famously enamoured. His final album, From a Basement on the Hill, was released posthumously by the Anti label in 2004.
Reportedly, the last song ever recorded by Smith was a stark, melancholy version of “Trouble,” a Cat Stevens cover. This, along with several other tracks were leaked over the internet as part of a bootleg labeled “Basement II Demos”, which can be downloaded on Elliott Smith fansites like Trash Treasury
and Elliott Smith B-Sides
Smith battled depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction for many years, which is often evident in his music. In 2002, Smith went to the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills to start a course of treatment for his drug addiction. He died in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California at age 34, from two stab wounds to the chest. While the death was originally reported as a suicide, the official autopsy report released in late December 2003 left the question open.
Almost instantly after his death, a fan memorial was initiated outside of Solutions Audio (4334 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, California) - the site where the cover of the Figure 8 album was shot. People wrote farewell messages to Smith on the wall, brought flowers, photos & candles, even made pilgrimages from other countries to the location. The owner of Solutions has, for the time being, allowed the memorial to stand.
Elliott Smith and The Big Nothing, a biography by Benjamin Nugent, was published shortly after the musician’s death. Publisher’s Weekly said that while “Nugent manages to patch together the major beats of Smith’s life, he can offer little meaningful insight.”
In 2007, Kill Rock Stars released a collection of Smith’s unreleased tracks recording during his time on the label. The collection, titled New Moon, was released to much critical appreciation.
On October 25, 2007, Elliott Smith
was released by photographer Autumn de Wilde
. The book contains de Wilde’s photographs of Smith, handwritten lyrics of Smith’s, and “revealing talks with Smith’s inner circle, many speaking here for the first time.” A five song CD featuring previously unreleased live recordings of Smith performing acoustically at Club Largo in Los Angeles was also included in the release.