Elliott Smith Biography

Steven Paul Smith, 6 August 1969 Omaha, Nebraska, USA, d. 21 October 2003, Los Angeles, California, USA. Raised in a musical family, acclaimed singer-songwriter Smith first recorded with Portland, Oregon-based alternative rockers Heatmiser. Despite achieving a modicum of success with this band’s generic Fugazi -inspired hard rock, Smith felt happier recording acoustic material on his home four-track set-up. His solo career began after he mailed a tape to local independent label Cavity Search. His debut set, Roman Candle, appeared in 1994. The album introduced Smith’s sparse folky style and introspective lyricism, redolent of the work of English singer Nick Drake. Later releases appeared on the Olympia, Washington-based independent label Kill Rock Stars, as Smith balanced his solo career with his continuing involvement in Heatmiser.

By 1997’s Either/Or, Heatmiser had split and Smith relocated to Brooklyn. His big break came about when cult film director and long-time fan Gus Van Sant used six of Smith’s songs on the soundtrack to his acclaimed Good Will Hunting. The stand-out track ‘Miss Misery’ was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, leading to the memorable sight of a dour Smith performing at March 1998’s Academy Award ceremony. Smith had already taken the plunge earlier in the year and signed to the DreamWorks label. Any worries that a major label would choke his independent spirit and songwriting skills were dispelled when the superb XO was released in August. Produced (like Either/Or) by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf of Bong Load, the album confirmed that Smith had developed into one of the finest songwriters of the 90s. The 2000 release Figure 8 was also impressive, although this time around the layered production work veered occasionally towards the soporific.

Smith’s solo albums had openly documented his fractured personal life, taking in a history of child abuse, depression, drug addiction and suicide attempts. After a difficult couple of years, he was close to completing work on a new album when he was found dead at his Los Angeles home in October 2003 from suspected suicide. It was alleged that he stabbed himself in the chest with a knife. The coroner’s report was inconclusive.

Smith’s final recordings were released posthumously the following year on From A Basement On The Hill. Despite the mixed reception given to the album, the artist’s reputation has continued to blossom in the years since his death, with an active online community helping to draw new listeners to his music. Previously unreleased material recorded between 1994 and 1997 was released in 2007 on New Moon.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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