Elliott Smith emerged from the Pacific Northwest rock scene of the early 1990s, a performer soaked in both grunge’s soul-baring angst and Beatles-infused pop. Smith’s refined sense of arrangement and composition made him a singular figure among singer-songwriters and produced a stellar solo catalog until his presumed suicide in 2003.
The Texas native, born Stephen Paul Smith, spent his teenage years in Portland, OR. After graduating from Hampshire college in Amherst, Massachusetts, Smith moved back to Portland with university pal Neil Gust in 1992 and started the group Heatmiser. The band released two albums on Frontier Records — 1993’s Dead Air and 1994’s Cop and Speeder — and was signed to Virgin, which put out their final album, Mic City Sons in 1996 on subsidiary Caroline Records.
By that time, Smith was already two albums into a solo career. Roman Candle, a set of spare, acoustic songs, was released on Cavity Search Records in 1994. The songs were ostensibly home demos deemed not suitable for Heatmiser (Smith being one of the two principal songwriters in that band), evidenced by a quartet of songs being titled “No Name #1,” “#2,” etc. But songs like “Condor Ave.” and “Last Call” showed an emotional potential that reviewers linked to Nick Drake and Bob Dylan.
Smith’s second, eponymous LP was issued in 1995 on the Kill Rock Stars label and showed marked songwriting progression. The album was partially recorded and mixed at Heatmiser drummer Tony Lash’s house and featured Gust’s guitar on the song “Single File” as well as guest vocals from the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates on “St. Ides Heaven.”
For the most part, Smith stuck to the instrumentation style of Roman Candle, focusing on the mix of his breathy, pained singing voice and his methodically melodic acoustic guitar playing. Lyrically, the album wallowed in depression, with hefty dashes of addiction and loneliness as seasoning. Smith admitted in interviews that his words drew from his own experience with drug and alcohol dependencies and suicidal episodes. Harrowing opener “Needle in the Hay” was later chosen by film director Wes Anderson to soundtrack a suicide-attempt scene in his 2001 movie The Royal Tenenbaums.
Tensions within Heatmiser, reportedly focused on Smith’s preference for his burgeoning solo career (and his disparaging comments about the band’s music in interviews) led to the group disbanding in 1996 before the release of Mic City Sons, which was produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf.
Free to concentrate his musical inspirations wholly on his solo efforts, Smith set to creating his most fully realized album to date, 1997’s Either/Or. The lion’s share of songs on the LP were still sparsely arranged, but the songwriting had once again taken a step forward, Smith reaching for more melody in memorable choruses and adding wrinkles in mixing and production, such as the multi-tracked harmony vocals on uplifting closer “Say Yes” and the surprisingly evolved “Ballad of Big Nothing,” which found Smith utilizing full-band instrumentation (he played and sung every note on the album himself) on an uptempo rock/pop song for the first time in three albums. Rothrock and Schnapf mixed the set, furthering a working relationship that would last until Smith’s untimely death six years later.
The Either/Or track “Pictures of Me” best exemplifies Smith’s progression toward becoming the studio-rat pop maven of his later years. The song starts out with representative finger picking and acoustic guitar strumming, but as Smith heads into the first bridge, a rough-hewn but catchy beat kicks in and propels the rest of the song. The obvious touchstone is latter-day Beatles at their rawest, with steady, head-shaking drums and the ham-it-up melodic bassline.
Either/Or was Smith’s breakthrough album in that its success brought about two watershed points in his musical career: In 1998 he signed to DreamWorks records, his label for his next two LPs. His music also caught the ear of film director Gus Van Sant, who commissioned Smith to provide music for his 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Smith recorded an orchestral version of Either/Or’s “Between the Bars” and also contributed a new original song, “Miss Misery” (two other Either/Or cuts, “Angeles” and “Say Yes,” were also included on the soundtrack). Following the film’s commercial and critical success, “Miss Misery” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. Though it would ultimately lose out to the Titanic theme, the song brought Smith to a much wider audience when he performed it onstage at the Oscars in March 1998.
Smith recorded his DreamWorks debut, 1998’s XO with help from LA studio veterans Jon Brion and Joey Waronker, and the album featured elaborate arrangements and lush instrumentation. Everything shines, from the candy-sweet staccato pop of “Baby Britain” to the hesitating maternal love letter “Waltz #2 (XO)” to a capella closer “I Didn’t Understand,” whose musical bed comprises a multitude of Smith’s own harmonic vocals, echoing post Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson.
XO hit No. 104 on The Billboard 200 album chart and Smith supported it with an extensive tour that included an appearance on Saturday Night Live in October of 1998. His backing band in this era often included former Heatmiser bandmate Sam Coomes, who contributed as a keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist as well as serving as one-half of sometime opening act Quasi. The next year, Smith moved permanently to Los Angeles and began work on his follow-up, Figure 8, which would be released on DreamWorks in 2000 and become the last album Smith put out in his lifetime.
The Figure 8 sessions found Smith (with Rothrock and Schnapf in tow) working in Los Angeles as well as in London at the Beatles’ famed Abbey Road studios. As if the Beatles comparisons Smith drew in reviews weren’t enough, he also contributed a cover of the Fab Four’s “Because” to the American Beauty soundtrack in 1999.
Like its predecessor, Figure 8 is full of modern chamber pop, mixing in keyboards, strings and studio flourishes on melodically simple, yet structurally complex songs. “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “I Better Be Quiet Now” hearken back to the bare acoustic setting of Smith’s first solo albums, while jangly opener “Son of Sam” and the rainy-day rocker “Junk Bond Trader” sound like long-lost radio singles (Figure 8 would reach No. 99 on the Billboard charts).
While the music on Figure 8 is some of the most upbeat in his career, the lyrics on Figure 8 still lean toward the melancholy. Even the chiming “LA,” with its vaudevillian caricature of Smith’s new hometown, portends toward self-destruction in its very chorus: “Living in the day / but last night I was about to throw it all away.”
Recording the follow-up to Figure 8 proved more difficult than expected, as Smith’s drug habits reportedly got in the way of separate sessions with Schnapf and Brion. He performed sporadically throughout 2001 and 2002, working on music for a new album by himself and with David McConnell of Goldenboy.
After playing only three shows during 2002, Smith returned to the stage in January 2003 with a trio of gigs each in Los Angeles and New York. He also played an east coast tour in early summer, appearing at the Field Day festival at Giants Stadium on June 7, 2003. Back in Los Angeles and working on a sizeable batch of songs under the working title From a Basement on the Hill, Smith released a two-sided vinyl single on Suicide Squeeze Records featuring two new songs, “Pretty (Ugly Before)” and “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free.” He took time out of recording to make his last concert appearance September 19 at Redfest in Salt Lake City.
On October 21, 2003, Smith died from two stab wounds to the chest. The coroner’s report called it “possible suicide versus homicide,” leaving the mode of death officially unconfirmed. Smith had been arguing with his live-in girlfriend Jennifer Chiba and according to Chiba, she locked herself in the bathroom when she heard Smith scream, and emerged to find him with a knife in his chest. The report also noted Smith’s reported longstanding narcotics habit (specifically, “heroin and crack”) but that Chiba said he had been clean for a year.
Smith’s estate hired Schnapf and longtime Smith associate Joanna Bolme to put together an album from the sessions the artist had been working on in the years since Figure 8. Anti- records released From a Basement on the Hill in October 2004. The album, which peaked at No. 19 on The Billboard 200, features 15 tracks whittled down from over 30 that Smith had left. It included different versions of both songs from the Suicide Squeeze single, and a handful of other notable compositions that rank with some of the artist’s best work, especially the delicate, pastoral “Let’s Get Lost,” the XO-style nostalgia trip “A Passing Feeling” and the dark rocker “Don’t Go Down.”
In May 2007, Kill Rock Stars released New Moon, a two-disc compilation of songs Smith recorded while signed to the indie label, including demos, b-sides and a cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen.” The set debuted at No. 24 on The Billboard 200, and was warmly received by critics, with its glimpse into the depth of Smith’s artistry at what was in retrospect considered by many to be his creative peak. “High Times,” “Fear City” and “Either/Or,” amongst others, are as compelling as much of the music on Smith’s proper albums.
In December 2009, Kill Rock Stars announced that it had obtained the rights to re-release From a Basement on the Hill and Roman Candle, essentially consolidating the rights for all of Smith’s independent albums. The press release on the label’s website was accompanied by a free download of an unreleased Smith song, “Cecilia/Amanda.”