Elliott Smith - Biography

American singer and songwriter Elliott Smith strummed and harmonized his way into popular culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, becoming well-known in 1997 when his Good Will Hunting contribution, “Miss Misery,” was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Original Song.” The troubled singer died at age 34 in 2003 from two stab wounds to the chest, leaving behind a decade’s worth of material; beginning with his solo debut, Roman Candle (1994, Cavity Search), followed by a work commonly referred to as Elliott Smith (1995, Kill Rock Stars), Either/Or (1997, Kill Rock Stars), major label debut XO (1998, DreamWorks), Figure 8 (2000, DreamWorks), the posthumous release From a Basement on the Hill (2004, Anti-) and finally the compilation, New Moon (2007, Domino). Tracks like “Pretty (Ugly Before)” and “Needle in the Hay” (used in Wes Anderson's film The Royal Tenenbaums) exhibit some his most well-known traits: acoustic guitar, intimate hushed vocals, multi-tracked melodies of himself, and a penchant for bleak lyrics (often misanthropic and addressing drug abuse). Figure 8 cracked the Billboard 200 at number 99 while From a Basement on the Hill became a number one album on the Billboard Independent Charts and New Moon hit 24 on the Billboard 200.


Steven Paul Smith would parlay a rather unexceptional childhood into an extremely exceptional musical career. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska on August 6, 1969. His parents, music teacher Bunny Welch and psychologist Gary Smith, split the following year. Smith was raised mostly in Texas, but would occasionally visit his father in Portland, Oregon. Smith had a rough relationship with his stepfather, hated the Midwest and bristled at his Methodist upbringing. His father introduced him to the Beatles at age three. At age nine, Smith began learning the piano before branching out into guitar, clarinet, bass, harmonica and drums. Smith stated in interviews that he first got drunk at ten years of age. By fourteen, he had moved in with his father in Portland. He tried marijuana during this period and began recording on a four-track. Inspired by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Elvis Costello, Motown, flamenco records and AC/DC; Elliott composed “Condor Avenue” at age sixteen and it would become part of his repertory as an adult. Originally aspiring to be a mathematician, Smith veered off into music when he realized he could never work independently in mathematics. He graduated from Lincoln High School as a National Merit Scholar and chased a girlfriend to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Around this time he began going by Elliott, as he did not like being called Steven.


Smith graduated from Hampshire in 1991 with a degree in Philosophy and Political Science. His mother thought he was going to become a lawyer, but he moved back to Portland to play in his college band Heatmiser with friend Neil Gust. Adding drummer Tony Lash and bassist Brandt Peterson, the band gigged in Portland, starting with a Valentine's Day performance in 1992. They cut The Music of Heatmiser (1992 self released), Dead Air (1993 Frontier), Yellow No. 5 (1994 Frontier) and Cop and Speeder (1994 Frontier). Smith disliked the harsh shouting of the grunge movement and began writing quieter solo pieces. Spurred by a girlfriend's encouragement to submit some demo tapes, Smith wound up releasing Roman Candle while still in Heatmiser. Noted for its mostly acoustic approach, Smith assumed it would be pilloried by the grunge-loving press; however, it was well-received and he quickly followed it up with the untitled release, now called Elliott Smith, just as his stint in Heatmiser was coming to a close with their last record, Mic City Sons (1996 Carolina). Single “Needle in the Hay” conveyed Smith's sentiments at the time with a whispering, yet vitriolic lyric accompanied by acoustic guitar. The song was later used to great effect during a scene involving an attempted suicide in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.


According to Smith, his next record marked a turning point in his career, where he could finally be himself. Yet it was a stressful time for Smith — the album was recorded over a year in three places and self-production bogged him down. Furthermore, the emergence of a fan base and press attention tainted him with self-consciousness. He recorded thirty songs for Either/Or but didn't like any of them. Filmmaker Jem Cohen recorded Smith in 1996 for the short film Lucky Three. Two of the songs he provided would make it onto the album. Similar to Roman Candle, the album was self-arranged and played, Smith handled bass, drums, keyboards and electric guitars. The title of the album came from his college studies — philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s work of the same name that dealt with the conflict between hedonism and moral responsibility. Album closer “Say Yes,” the song that brought him widespread attention, was composed in five minutes, after a break-up.


Around this time, Smith fan and filmmaker Gus Van Sant contacted the artist and asked him to handle music duties for his new film Good Will Hunting. Smith composed orchestral scores as well as several songs including “Miss Misery” and “Angeles” that appeared on the soundtrack. The film was a box office success and Smith's fame grew considerably. “Miss Misery” received an unexpected nomination in the 'Best Original Song' category and the skulking singer songwriter made competent appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and the Academy Awards show, performing a shortened version of “Miss Misery.”


Now an international name, Smith moved to larger label, DreamWorks, and his life began to take a turn for the worse. Enabled by newfound money and resources, Smith became deeply depressed and began abusing alcohol more heavily. While in North Carolina, Smith ran off a cliff, impaling himself but surviving. He recovered to record his fourth album XO featuring production by Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock. They offered Smith all the trappings of a big budget Los Angeles studio, including horn sections and string arrangements. The album peaked at number 104 on the Billboard 200, selling 400,000 copies to become the best-selling work of his career. Portland-based Quasi handled backing duties. On October 17, 1998, he appeared on Saturday Night Live performing “Waltz #2,” a staggeringly beautiful, insistent piece based on a classical waltz beat and pop chord structure infused with Smith's instantly identifiable storytelling of loss and resignation.


Touring for XO preceded a return to the studio for Figure 8, which would be Smith's last work. Satisfied with Rothrock and Schnapf, Smith brought them back for work at Abbey Road Studios in England. On his final outing, Smith indulged in a more pop sound and even more complex arrangements than before. Standout singles of the record included “Son of Sam,” “Somebody That I used to Know” and “Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?” The album peaked at number 99 on the Billboard 200. On tour for the record, his health began to deteriorate due, in part, to his abuse of heroin.


The follow-up to Figure 8 did not happen in Smith's lifetime. Sessions with Schnapf were abandoned, followed by sessions with Jon Brion, which collapsed after he confronted Smith over his drug problems. Smith threatened suicide unless DreamWorks released him from his contract. In May 2001, he set out to rerecord the album personally. Subsequent performances in 2001 and 2002 exhibited a musician on the edge of a breakdown. In 2002 Smith entered a Beverly Hills treatment center for his addictions. By mid 2003, Smith allegedly had gotten his life back together and was recording again. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.


Smith died at a Los Angeles hospital on October 21, 2003 at age 34 from two stab wounds to the chest. According to his live-in girlfriend, the two had an argument and he stabbed himself after she locked herself in the bathroom. According to Smith's autopsy report released in late December 2003, no illegal substances or alcohol were found in his blood, only normal levels of prescribed antidepressant and ADHD medications. The death was not ruled a suicide due to suspicious circumstantial evidence, and the case remains open.


From A Basement On The Hill arrived the next year, with Smith's estate delegating production to Rob Schnapf and Smith's ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme. “Let's Get Lost,” “Passing Feeling” and “Shooting Star” as well as the artist's untimely demise helped the album’s sales. It hit Smith's highest-ever position, nineteen on the Billboard 200. It also achieved the number one spot on the Independent Album chart. The posthumous, two-disc compilation, New Moon, contains 24 songs recorded between 1994 and 1997 — including demos, early versions, b-sides and unfinished work. It received favorable reviews.


Smith's life and work has inspired dozens of covers and several tribute albums including To: Elliott From: Portland (2006 Expunged) and Home to Oblivion: Elliott Smith Tribute (2006 World Village).


Like many rock legends before him, Elliott Smith's early death only served to enhance his reputation as a post-modern bard of melancholy. Yet the tragedy overshadows his profound talent in the eyes of potential new listeners. Underneath the Hollywood story of Smith's quick rise and meteoric fall remain six, definitive albums; whispered reactions to the Grunge era that, though quiet, metaphorically made some of the loudest statements a musician could ever make. Indebted to the works of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan as much as T.S. Eliot and Soren Kierkegaard; Elliot Smith strove to reach similar artistic levels. In that respect, his death wasn't entirely in vain.

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