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."
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.
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...