[This story was updated on 10.24.2003 at 1:07 p.m. ET.]
Folk-punk singer/songwriter Elliott Smith has died, an apparent suicide, according to the Los Angeles County Department of the Coroner’s office. Smith was found in his apartment, in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles, by a female friend, who took him to a local hospital at approximately 12:18 p.m. on Tuesday.
He was pronounced dead at Los Angeles County University of Southern California Medical Center just over an hour later. He was 34.
A single knife wound that appeared to be self-inflicted was evident on the body, though police detectives are investigating the incident for foul play and/or other possibilities. A coroner’s examination performed Thursday proved inconclusive, and an official cause of death is pending toxicological tests and the police investigation.
“Elliott was a beautiful, gentle soul, generous beyond words and loved so much by all of us,” read a statement from his family. “We wish to extend our gratitude to the many people who supported him and have been touched by his music. While Elliott will be deeply missed, his spirit will always be with us.”
Smith’s death cuts short a career filled with promise. Each of his five albums showed musical growth and songwriting development that drew comparisons to such artists as Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, Jackson Browne and the Beatles.
“We are deeply saddened by Elliott Smith’s tragic death and send our condolences to his friends and family,” Smith’s record label, DreamWorks Records, said in a statement. “He was perhaps his generation’s most gifted songwriter. His enormous talent could change your life with a whisper. We will miss him.”
The news of Smith’s death broke at the start of the annual CMJ Music Marathon, an industry convention that brings thousands of college radio DJs, journalists, independent record company personnel, as well as hundreds of bands, to New York. And this community, which embraced Smith early in his career and was very affected by the loss, shared its sorrow in a few touching tributes Wednesday night.
Travis, performing at the Beacon Theater, dedicated a cover of Graham Nash’s “Another Sleep Song” to Smith after singer Fran Healy described it as a song “about being a performer.”
Downtown at Irving Plaza, Death Cab for Cutie used lyrics from Smith’s “Say Yes” during their encore rendition of “Blacking Out the Friction,” and guitarist Chris Walla played with the letters “XO,” the title of Smith’s 1998 album, emblazoned on his shirt.
“Today is a very sad day,” DCFC singer Ben Gibbard said. “Elliott was a very important person in my life.”
Earlier in the Barsuk Records showcase, the Long Winters singer John Roderick echoed the sentiments. “It’s a tragedy what happened to Elliott Smith. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him, so this set is dedicated to him.”
“It was an honor to have worked with someone as immensely talented as Elliott was,” read a statement from the indie label Kill Rock Stars, for which Smith recorded two early albums. “It is a testament to who he was as a person that he touched so many lives — we have received many heartbroken letters and calls. He will be greatly missed. All of us here at KRS offer our deepest condolences to [his] family and friends.”
In front of Los Angeles’ Solutions! speaker repair shop on Sunset Boulevard, which was seen on the cover of Smith’s 2000 album, Figure 8, photos, notes, candles and other keepsakes formed a makeshift memorial.
Smith (real name Steven Paul Smith) had battled drug and alcohol addiction throughout his career. His first two albums, 1994’s Roman Candle and the next year’s self-titled LP for Olympia, Washington’s Kill Rock Stars label, intimated these subjects with haunting, sparsely recorded acoustic songs such as “Needle in the Hay.” He reportedly cleaned up midway through his career, but his reclusive nature and sporadic public performances in recent years led some to believe the problem had returned.
A cornerstone of the indie-rock scene in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-1990s, Smith gained critical acclaim with 1997’s Either/Or and 1998’s XO, albums that best demonstrated his ability to delicately deliver poetic, emotional lyrics and beautifully dark, lush pop melodies. “Miss Misery,” his contribution to the film “Good Will Hunting” that earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1997, brought mainstream recognition to the artist regarded as a figurehead of the indie-rock underground.
“Good Will Hunting” co-writer and star Ben Affleck was shocked when he heard the news. “It’s a terrible loss of a real talent,” he said in a statement.
Smith helped change the DIY (Do It Yourself) aesthetic in Portland to DIT: “Do it together,” the film’s director, Gus Van Sant, noted. According to the director, Smith was known for giving back to the indie-rock community in any way he could.
“His music was always very serious and honest,” Van Sant said, “and it’s too bad we won’t have that anymore.”
Smith’s influences can be heard in music by such artists as Bright Eyes and Dashboard Confessional. And while those artists may still exist without ever having heard his material, “They’d be missing a big chunk of what they’re doing,” according to Smith’s friend and longtime collaborator Rob Schnapf.
“We had a lot of fun together,” Schnapf said. “And it was extremely rewarding. Sometimes [working with Elliott] would be intense — it could be extremely intense — but there was always a payoff.”
Born August 6, 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, Smith grew up near Dallas and took an interest in music at age 9, and began writing and recording original compositions as a teenager. He moved to Portland in high school, where he played in a local band, before attending Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Returning to Portland, he formed the alternative-rock quartet Heatmiser with future Quasi member Sam Coomes. The band released three albums and disbanded after hitting its creative stride with 1996’s Mic City Sons.
While still a member of Heatmiser, Smith retreated to his basement to focus on more intimate material in vast contrast to Heatmiser’s heavier sound. Roman Candle, on which he played all the instruments, was recorded on a four-track and epitomized the lo-fi DIY aesthetic while showcasing Smith’s talent to craft emotive song structures that emphasized the dark themes of his lyrics.
The promise of a great songwriter was furthered on Smith’s self-titled album. While keeping with an overall melancholy vibe, he concentrated on beautifying the melodies. The songs floated like lullabies, though the lyrics could disrupt sleep for weeks.
Smith continued to play all the instruments on 1997’s Either/Or, while focusing on the arrangements. Dramatic constructions combine with Smith’s eerily potent stripped-down fare for the album that cemented his role in the indie-folk pantheon. At the time of the LP’s release, Van Sant, a Portland resident, used Smith’s music for the soundtrack to “Good Will Hunting.” Smith performed “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for Best Original Song, at the Academy Awards show in April 1998. The Oscar went to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” from “Titanic,” though simply being nominated helped his subsequent LP, 1998’s XO, become Smith’s best-selling album.
XO and his final album, 2000’s Figure 8, both released on major-label DreamWorks Records, were marked by lush textures and acoustic melodies inspired by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and latter-day Beatles, that brimmed with a sunny brilliance, but still retained Smith’s keen commentaries and forlorn sentiments. He had been working on a follow-up album, From a Basement on the Hill, at the time of his death (see “Elliott Smith Flying Solo On Next LP, But It Won’t Sound Like It” ).
The limited-edition 7-inch single “Pretty (Ugly Before)” was released in August on Seattle indie Suicide Squeeze Records, and the previously unreleased songs “Splittsville” and the instrumental “Snowbunny’s Serenade” appear in the film “Southlander: Diary of a Desperate Musician,” directed by Silverlake resident Steve Hanft, who’s helmed videos for Beck. After limited theatrical showings, the movie was released on DVD October 7. Hanft was also responsible for the Smith documentary “Strange Parallels,” released in 1998.
“Elliott Smith was an extraordinarily warm person and gifted musician,” Hanft wrote in an e-mail. “He had a very keen sense of humor and a kind heart, but he was also a complete bad ass. … One of my fondest memories is seeing Elliott hanging with his girl and some friends, sitting down at the piano smiling, and playing his own wild version of a Rachmaninoff piece, which he called ’Punkrachmaninoff.’ He was a misunderstood genius, and each time he sat down with his acoustic guitar and played a song it was better than the last.”
In June, Smith performed on the second stage of the Field Day festival in East Rutherford, New Jersey, which was headlined by the Beastie Boys, Radiohead and Blur. A brief tour of the U.S. followed. He was scheduled to perform at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles on November 9.