Elliott Smith - Artist Profile

Mr. Misery

Elliott Smith
Wendy Redfern/Contributor/Redferns/Getty Images
Born in: August 6, 1969, Omaha, Nebraska
Died: October 21, 2003, Los Angeles, California
Key Albums: Elliott Smith (1995), Either/Or (1997), XO (1998)

Elliott Smith was an American songwriter whose hushed, downcast, sad-hearted songs won him legions of fans. Drawn from a life of childhood abuse, drug addiction, and self-loathing, his music earnt him the reputation as the ultimate depressed artist, up until his death from an apparent suicide in 2003.

"When people talk about how I'm all gloom, it makes me feel bad," Smith once lamented, to In Music We Trust. "Nobody wants to be described as depressing."

Background

Born Steven Paul Smith in Omaha, Smith was raised by his mother and step-father in Dallas. Smith had a troubled relationship with his step-father, whom he later came to believe had sexually abused him. "Most of the people I knew, their parents were divorced. Or else their Dad beat them with a pool cue. There was a guy in the neighborhood who shot my cat for getting into the garbage," Smith recounted.

"It's probably pretty easy to put together why somebody who grew up in Texas getting in fights a lot would not want to get up on the stage and start belting out songs at the top of their lungs," he said to Rolling Stone in 1998. "I've had enough of people yelling."

Smith moved to Portland at 14 to live with his birth father, but got a tattoo of a map of Texas as a mark of where he'd been.

"I didn't get it because I like Texas, kinda the opposite," he confessed, to Comes with a Smile. "But I won't forget about it, although I'm tempted to."

It was Smith's father who encouraged him to play guitar, and Smith drew inspiration from Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Elvis Costello. During his high-school days, whilst playing in the bands Stranger Than Fiction and A Murder of Crows, Smith started recording on a four-track tape machine; one remnant from this period, "Condor Ave," even made it to his first solo album, 1994's Roman Candle.

After graduation, Smith headed to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he studied philosophy and legal theory. There, he began calling himself 'Elliott,' instead of Steve or Steven, and met Neil Gust, with whom he'd go on to form Heatmiser.

Moving back to Portland, Smith and Gust recruited bassist Brandt Peterson and drummer Tony Lash, and their playing grew louder, to Smith's dissatisfaction. Even the growing following that met their first two records, 1993's Dead Air and 1994's Cop and Speeder, did little to dent that. "More and more people were coming to our shows that were the kind of people who would have kicked me and Neil's ass in high school," Smith later complained.

Smith was still recording his quiet songs at home, but playing them live "didn't occur" to him. "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," he told Magnet.

Still, in 1994, when his then-girlfriend suggested he send off some home-recordings to local label Cavity Search Records for a possible seven-inch release, everything would change.

Breakthrough

Cavity Search owner Christopher Cooper, instead of choosing two songs for a seven-inch, offered to release all nine recordings as an album.

When Roman Candle came out, it "immediately eclipsed" Heatmiser, according to Smith.

When Smith then turned around and cranked out another solo album, 1995's self-titled set, this time for Kill Rock Stars, Smith's solo career really took off.

The album seemed, to all listeners, to be a study in heroin addiction, but Smith would, over the years, would belabor his denials of such. "Talking about drugs —why people do drugs and how they feel about it— just leads you to the same things as talking about relationships and people in love," he said.

"You ought to be proud that I'm getting good marks," Smith sang, with double meaning, on Needle in the Hay, a song he later described as "a big 'f**k you' to anybody and everybody." It went on to become one of his most famous songs.

The success of Smith's second LP caused a rift between he and Gust, and Heatmiser would break up during the making of their final LP, Mic City Sons.

The band had been inked to Virgin Records, who, Smith later claimed, had revealed to him they'd signed Heatmiser only so they could be in a position to control Smith as a solo artist.

Whilst Heatmiser had been recording Mic City Sons in the studio, Smith had been holed up at home, recording his third album, Either/Or. When it was released, in 1997, it served as Smith's grand breakout; a record rapturously acclaimed and infinitely influential. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie would later say: "I remember the summer of '97 as the summer of Either/Or, because that's all that anyone I knew was listening to.”

Even Smith, ever his own harshest critic, found nice things to say about Either/Or. "I remember that record most fondly even though I nearly had a nervous breakdown," Smith would later say.

Moving to New York to try and escape both drugs and a broken-heart, Smith fell into a steep depression, and drunk heavily. He tried to commit suicide several times; once, in North Carolina, leaping off a cliff, only to be impaled on a tree that broke his fall. "Yeah, I jumped off a cliff," he admitted to an interviewer not long after, "but let's talk about something else."

Whilst Smith's personal life was falling apart, his career was taking off. Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant had befriended Smith after attending his early shows, and, when Van Sant signed on to direct a screenplay by then-upstart actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, he wanted to use Smith's songs throughout the movie, Good Will Hunting.

"At some point, he mentioned putting some songs in the movie, but I had no idea there would be so many of them and that they would be so prominent," Smith said, to Magnet, in '98.

When Good Will Hunting became a massive success, Smith's career ascended whilst his mental health plummeted. "After Either/Or, the Oscar stuff happened and that kind of derailed my train. Although it took a lot for it to fully derail."

Next: The Sad Demise and Mysterious Death of Elliott Smith...

The Oscars

Early in 1998, Elliott Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The one track he'd written specifically for Good Will Hunting, "Miss Misery" rubbed shoulders with Celine Deon, LeAnn Rimes, and Michael Bolton.

Smith initially wanted to not perform at the Oscar ceremony, but after it was threatened that "Richard Marx" would play his tune, Smith relented. Appearing in a white suit —which would lead commercial media to calling him a "Beck wannabe"— and sitting on a chair, Smith seemed embarrassed and out-of-place amidst the award-show hysteria.

"I walked out and Jack Nicholson was sitting about six feet away, so I avoided that area and I looked up at the balcony in the back and sang the song. It was surreal enough that it didn't seem like it happened to me," Smith recalled. "Everything was in slow motion, and i didn't feel particularly nervous. I just felt like I was in some odd dream that was probably meant for someone else. Everyone was really nice, but the point of the show is the show. It's certainly not me. The point of it is to have a big parade of celebrities."

In subsequent years, Smith would go onto become quite the celebrity himself.

The Dreamworks Years

After being signed to Dreamworks (a label co-owned by Steven Spielberg), Smith set out recording his fourth album, XO, with Beck's producers, Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, in Los Angeles.

Smith toured in support of XO supported by Quasi, who also served as his backing band.

On their own album of that year, Featuring "Birds", Quasi frontman Sam Coomes (who had filled in on bass in Heatmiser right near the band's end), took this shot at his friend Elliott: "You won't live long, but you may write the perfect song;/Please excuse those who choose to not play along."

Becoming a "really bad alcoholic" during the two years he lived in Brooklyn, Smith would often get into bar-fights, having, he later claimed, his nose broken several times.

He moved to Los Angeles when making 2000's Figure 8. Part of the album was recorded at London's Abbey Road, the studio made famous by his boyhood idols, The Beatles. "I made up a song on the same piano they used on 'Penny Lane,'" Smith would boast. "It was a big deal to me, but I like to play it down."

Towards the end of touring Figure 8, Smith once again got addicted to heroin. And, not coincidentally, it would be the last album the songwriter would release whilst still alive.

The Sad Demise of Elliott Smith

Smith set out recording his sixth LP, From a Basement on a Hill, in 2000, with Rothrock and Schnapf, but the sessions were quickly abandoned. In 2001, he began recording with producer Jon Brion, and finished half an album. But, when Brion tried to stage an intervention to short-circuit Smith's self-destructive behavior —the songwriter smoking copious amounts of crack and heroin, and often discussing his own suicide— Smith broke off the sessions for good.

"There was even a little more than half of a record done that I just scrapped because of a blown friendship with someone that made me so depressed I didn't want to hear any of those songs," Smith told Under the Radar in 2003, in what turned out to be his last interview.

"He was just helping me record the songs and stuff, and then the friendship kind of fell apart all of a sudden one day. It just made it kind of awkward being alone in the car listening to the songs."

Filmmakers Wes Anderson (with The Royal Tenenbaums) and Mike Mills (with Thumbsucker) found Smith agreeing to work with them, only to 'disappear' and fail to deliver promised material. Rumors abounded that Smith was often found passed out in toilet stalls in Los Angeles clubs, and neighbors near his Silverlake house claimed to have seen Smith wandering the streets, barefoot and disturbed, at night.

In 2002, Smith would only perform three times. After one famously-disastrous show at Northwestern University, in which Smith failed to complete a single song over the course of a 50-minute set, a writer at the website Glorious Noise made the soon-to-be-infamous statement "it would not surprise me at all if Elliott Smith ends up dead within a year."

Late in 2002, Smith was arrested, along with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, at a Flaming Lips/Beck show in Los Angeles after getting in a brawl with police-officers. The event inspired Smith to clean up. Spending a month at the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center, he, by all reports, successfully cleaned himself up.

In 2003, a reinvigorated Smith started re-recording From A Basement on a Hill himself, and working with Chiba's band, Happy Ending. Smith even released a 7" single for Suicide Squeeze, "Pretty (Ugly Before)," and apparently was close to finishing his album.

Smith's Mysterious Death

Smith died on October 21, 2003, from two stab wounds to the heart. As it was widely reported, after an argument with Chiba, she locked herself in the bathroom, and came out to see Smith with a knife plunged into his chest. He was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, but was pronounced dead 20 minutes after his arrival.

The coroner's report, later made public, said that whilst "the location and direction of the stab wounds are consistent with self-infliction, several aspects of the circumstances are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide."

While an apparent suicide note had been found by Chiba —written on a Post It note, it read "I'm so sorry, love, Elliott. God forgive me"— detectives concluded that "this death is possibly suspicious, however, circumstances are unclear at this time."

Posthumous Output and Legacy

In 2004, From a Basement on a Hill was released. With tracks entitled "A Fond Farewell," "The Last Hour," and "Shooting Star," it was tinged with the inevitable eeriness.

This was followed in 2007 by New Moon, a 2CD set of early rarities recorded during Smith's time on Kill Rock Stars, including an early version of his most famous song, "Miss Misery."

New Moon's liner notes featured eulogies by many close to Smith, including Coomes. Former Crackerbash songsmith Sean Croghan wrote: "Song after song, he took life's pain, joy and longing and turned them into real beauty."