Despite the brevity of his life, Elliott Smith left an indelible impact on popular music, writes Alison Lee.
Some names are immediately associated with suicide. Think Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Nick Drake- the facts of their deaths are often more well-known than the facts surrounding their lives. Elliott Smith is one of these. This month marks the five year anniversary of his suicide.
Smith was born on 6th August, 1969. His parents christened him Steven. After his parents’ divorce, he moved to Texas with his mother and her new husband Charlie. Some of Smith’s lyrics such as “Charlie beat you up week after week” point to memories of abuse that haunted Smith throughout his life.
Growing up in a dreary Dallas suburb impacted Smith, influencing him to find solace in music. He won prizes for piano compositions at a young age, and received his first guitar from his father at age twelve, with music becoming a major part of the artist’s life.
Smith also discovered diversion in less wholesome pastimes- he was ten when he started drinking, and smoked his first joint at age fourteen behind his local church.
However, halfway through high school, Smith decided to make a change for the better. He went to live with his father in Oregon, where he started his first band, Stranger Than Fiction.
It was around this time that people started calling him Elliott, a name which Smith apparently chose for himself.
Having graduated from high school, Smith studied Philosophy and Political Theory at Hampshire College. Although he frankly admitted to not enjoying his years in university much, he completed his degree after which he wound up working in a bakery in Portland.
Smith’s passion for music won out over pressures to find a nine-to-five job. He formed the band Heatmiser with friend Neil Guest, while earning money working a number of jobs- he tried everything from ditch-digging to training as a fireman to make a living.
Heatmiser, a loud, grunge-punk style rock group, were just on the cusp of success when Smith began recording solo material. The self-effacing musician didn’t initially anticipate much success- he hoped that his first attempt, Roman Candle, would be released as a 7-inch. Therefore he was stunned when Cavity Search records requested they release the recordings as a full album. This was surprising considering his acoustic style, caressing vocals and poetic lyrics were the antithesis of grunge, the genre that dominated the alternative scene in 1994.
Heatmiser eventually disbanded when it became obvious that Smith’s heart was set on continuing his folk/pop acoustic music. Over the next decade he released a number of albums, contributed songs to the soundtracks of Good Will Hunting (1997), for which he was nominated for an Oscar and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), having been signed to DreamWorks Records.
His appearance at the Oscars, in which he performed the haunting ‘Miss Misery’, epitomised his sheer discomfort with the spotlight. Smith appeared in a striking cream coloured suit, wearing a solemn, nervous expression and looking entirely out of place amidst glitz and glamour which surrounded him.
This brush with ubiquity coincided with what most fans would regard as his artistic zenith. A sudden burst of creativity enabled him to release two modern day classic albums, Either Or and XO, within a two year period. These two works highlighted the incredible diversity of Smith’s musical palette.
Either Or was a sparce, lo-fi and mostly acoustic recording, while XO proved to be an astonishing leap forward musically with the album’s elegant, string-drenched sound winning Smith many new admirers, while retaining the passion and poise of his previous work. The latter album also featured ‘Waltz #2’, which, with its bittersweet lyrics and heartbreaking melody, was arguably the last great ballad of the twentieth century.
Nonetheless, as Smith’s success escalated, so did his dependence on alcohol, antidepressants, and eventually heroin and cocaine. His recording fell by the wayside as his friends tried to confront him about his addictions, and his live performances were few and far between. However in 2002, Smith checked into rehab, after which the pieces of his life seemed to slowly fall back into place. He began recording songs for the Thumbsucker soundtrack and experimenting with computerised recording techniques.
But this promising period was short-lived. On 21st October 2003, Smith and his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba argued, resulting in Chiba locking herself in the bathroom- only to emerge to the sight of Smith with a kitchen knife protruding from his chest. He died later in hospital.
Legions of fans turned out worldwide to mark his death with anniversary concerts, and in the intervening five years, song covers and several tribute albums to Smith have been released. Although his lyrics are starkly personal, classicists like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Samuel Beckett also influenced his writing, while the Beatles and Bob Dylan undoubtedly left a mark on his music.
This month marks the five-year anniversary of his death, but it’s Smith’s life- his talents, his songs, his music- that should be remembered.