Singer, songwriter, guitar
An indie-rock musician who seemingly overnight went from an underground hero to a popularly recognized songwriter, Elliott Smith established his place in music by writing beautiful songs about the pains of life. Penning tunes that often drew comparisons to Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles—his favorite band—Smith was cast in the roll of tunesmith to the downtrodden alternative-rock crowd. “The press at home really like to call me a ‘folk hero,’,” Smith shrugged in a 1998 Melody Maker interview with Neil Mason. “For me, that’s a serious fellow who makes grand pronouncements about what’s wrong with the world. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing… but it’s smaller than that.,” Music critics, as well as listeners, tend to argue with Smith’s humble view of his own music. As Boston Globe correspondent Joan Anderman asserted in a feature story following the release of Smith’s fourth album, 1999’s XO, “His records are filled with unflinching, emotionally raw portraits of drug addicts and alcoholics, and spare, poetic sketches of selfloathing and decayed love. Gorgeously tragic words are melded to melodies that are as simultaneously lush and forthright, and as inevitable-sounding, as those created
Born on August 6, c. 1969, in Nebraska; son of a singer (mother) and a former preacher (father) who served as a United States Air Force pilot in Vietnam and later became a psychiatrist. Education: Graduated from Hampshire College, where he studied political science and philosophy.
Starrted to write own songs at age 13; member of the punk band Heatmiser, 1992-97; released first solo album, Roman Candle, 1994; “Miss Misery,” from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack received an Acadamy Award nomination for best original song, signed with DreamWorks, released XO, 1998; released Figure 8, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Dream Works Records, 9268 W. 3rd St., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, phone: (310) 234-7700, fax: (310) 234-7750. Management— Girlie Action Media, Felice Ecker, phone: (212) 334-3200 ext. 110, fax: (212) 334-4413, e-mail: [email protected]
Because Smith’s lyrics feel so intimate, many listeners assume that his life is an open book. However, as writer Chris Mundy explained in a 1998 Rolling Stone feature, “Smith’s songs have always been less confession than collage—beautifully rendered glimpses of ugly realities, pieced together with little more than voice and guitar.,” Likewise, Smith himself offered a similar description of his songwriting: “I don’t really have any goals as a songwriter, other than to show what it’s like to be a person—just like everybody else who’s ever played music does,” he told Los Angeles Times writer Richard Cromelin in 1998. “I don’t feel like my songs are particularly fragile or revealing…. They’re songs. It’s not like a diary, and they’re not intended to be any sort of super intimate confessional singer-songwriterish thing. I like the Beatles. Dylan. The Saints and the Clash. All the good things about what they did or do is probably the same things that I’m trying to do.,”
While Smith reveals an openness in singing about life’s darkest details, he often hesitates when asked to provide the specifics of his own childhood. Born in Nebraska on August 6, around 1969, Smith spent most of his childhood just outside Dallas, Texas, living with his mother, stepfather, and his stepfather’s children. His own parents divorced when Smith was only a year old, and his mother, a singer herself, later remarried when he was four year of age. “There were family problems,” Smith, who added that most of his other childhood friends also came from broken families, recalled to Mundy. “It wasn’t a good situation.,” And problems persisted outside the home as well; often picked on by his peers because of his small size—Smith was also extremely thin as a young adult—he spent much of his time getting into fights in spite of his frailty. Known as a soft-spoken performer, Smith believed that all of the fighting, evidenced by scars and a nose broken several times over, impacted his demeanor later on. “It’s probably pretty easy to put together why somebody who grew up in Texas getting into fights a lot would not want to get up on stage and start belting out songs at the top of their lungs. I’ve had enough of people yelling.,”
At the age of 14, Smith finally left his oppressive life in Texas behind, moving to Portland, Oregon, to live with his biological father, with whom he had remained close, and his new family. A former preacher who served as a United States Air Force pilot in Vietnam and later became a psychiatrist, Smith’s father bought his son his first nylon string guitar at the age of 12. Before long, at the age of 13, Smith started to write his own songs. Displaying a talent for music early in life, back in Texas Smith studied piano beginning at the age of ten, playing Debussy and Rachmanin off pieces until his mother and stepfather abruptly pulled him out of lessons a year later.
Although he had always dreamed of becoming a musician, Smith, lacking the confidence, instead enrolled at Hampshire College, an ultra-liberal school in Massachusetts, where he studied political science and philosophy. Upon graduating, however, Smith “was on this big kick that there’s no point occupying a spot because it would be better occupied by someone else,” he told Mundy, and at the time seriously contemplated training to become a fireman. Moving back to Portland, he went through a period marked by a series of failed relationships, serious drinking, and bouts of depression. His friend and fellow songwriter Neil Gust stepped in, reminding Smith about his true calling: music.
Giving in to Gust’s prodding, Smith joined his friend to form the band Heatmiser in 1992. A punk quartet that featured the melodic-abrasive formula popular in the Northwest, the Portland-based band, taking cues from groups like Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, and Helmet, signed with the small Frontier label and released their first album, Dead Air, in 1993, followed by the Yellow No. 5 EP in 1994. Although Smith enjoyed the success of Heatmiser, he nevertheless started to feel smothered amid the noise of the punkinspired act. “We would play shows, and afterward he would cordon himself off with an acoustic guitar and start practicing,” Smith’s former band mate, Sam Coomes, said to Mundy. “That was the first time I’d ever heard him play stuff like that. He was trying to evolve away from the stuff he was playing [with Heatmiser].,”
Thus, while still a member of Heatmiser, Smith began to branch out on his own, performing solo at Portland clubs and recording tapes in friends’ basements. Taking a stylistic departure from the thrash of his band, Smith instead focused on acoustic songs. By now a minor hipster sensation in Portland recognized for his artistic sensibilities, the singer caught the interest of a local label called Cavity Search. For that indie label, Smith released his first work, an eight-track mini-album entitled Roman Candle, in 1994. Recorded on a home four-track machine, the folksy, acoustic effort earned critical praise for its brittle, brooding, and consistent set of songs. Some highlights included “No Name #1,” “Condor Ave.,” and “No Name #3.” In the meantime, Smith continued to participate in Heatmiser, and the band released a second album entitled Cop and Speeder in 1994. According to reviewers, Smith’s solo activities only strengthened the group’s music, giving Heatmiser a powerful sense of mood in songs such as “Flame!,” “Antonio Carlos Jobim,” and the honest confessional “Busted Lip.,”
In 1995, Smith changed to a new label, Kill Rock Stars, based in Olympia, Washington, for the release of his second solo project, that year’s self-titled album. Progressing to an eight-track machine, yet remaining in local basements for Elliott Smith, the songwriter saw his style fall into place. Although many early critics inaccurately placed Smith’s music in the folk genre because of his acoustic tendencies, his songs covered much more territory; echoes of the Clash, the Beatles, the Saints, and, most of all, American pop icon Alex Chilton resonated throughout. “The eponymous second album was a dark, disquieting work,” noted Rough Guide to Rock contributor Duncan Cooper, “by turns furious (‘Southern Belle’), and desperate (‘The Biggest Lie’).,”
Around the same time Smith’s solo career was gaining ground—including the signing of a major-label recording deal with Virgin Records—Heatmiser was in the process of dissolving. The band’s final album, Mic City Sons, was released in 1996. Consequently, he spent time honing his craft, practicing guitar in his living room while watching countless hours of television re-runs. Unhappy with his relationship with Virgin, however, Smith disentangled himself from the company when he started work on a third album. As before, Smith abandoned the idea of recording in a studio in favor of homes and basements and arrived in February of 1997 with the acclaimed album Either/Or for Kill Rock Stars. Offering expanded instrumentation, as well as glimpses of urban life and intense, telling emotional vignettes, the album earned favorable responses, but remained for the most part unheard of outside the Pacific Northwest.
In the spring of 1997, Heatmiser officially disbanded, and Smith moved to Brooklyn, New York, hoping that the move from Portland would renew his anonymity. But despite his intentions, this did not happen. Soon after leaving Oregon, Smith was approached by film maker Gus Van Sant, who was gathering music for a film called Good Will Hunting. Smith and Van Sant, both sharing mutual friends, had met while both men lived in Portland. When the soundtrack for the film appeared, it featured four songs from Either/Or, one from Roman Candle, and a new original called “Miss Misery,” a song that Smith had been working on when Van Sant first contacted him. When he played the work in progress for the director, Van Sant was instantly impressed. “Miss Misery,” an impressionistic song about making mistakes and searching for redemption, to Smith’s surprise, earned an Academy Award nomination for best original song, along with songs performed by the likes of pop diva Celine Dion and country star Trisha Yearwood. “I had fully armored myself against having to be crushed by the presence of Celine Dion,” Smith admitted to Mundy “But she was the nicestperson I’ve met in a while.,” Although he did not take home the Oscar, Smith performed his song for the event telecast on February 10, 1998, giving the musician instant exposure.
By now, Smith had signed with a major label, Dream-Works, for the release of his forthcoming album. With a larger budget, Smith strayed from recording in homes and basements, and instead recorded 1998’s XO at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, California. Insisting that the decision was his and not that of DreamWorks or co-producers Tom Rothrock or Ron Schnapf (who had previously worked with Beck, the Foo Fighters, and Mary Lou Lord), Smith explained to Washington Post writer Mark Jenkins in 1999, “I wanted to have more things, more instruments. Nobody wants to make the same record over and over. It was something that was new for me to do.,” Such stepped-up production concerned many fans, who worried that lush instrumentation would overshadow Smith’s songs. However, fears subsided when the album arrived; the instruments used simply served to accent rather than drown out Smith’s minimalist tendencies. He added horns to retro-rock song “A Question Mark,” discreet strings for “Oh Well, Okay,” and rolling piano to the single cut “Waltz #2.,” XO appeared on several top ten lists for 1998.
In the August of 1999, after a tour with his two-person band to support his album, Smith moved to Los Angeles and started work on the follow-up to XO, a record he hoped would utilize more piano. Since his successes of 1998, Smith grew more comfortable with his rising career fortunes. Adding to his upbeat outlook, he reconciled with his girlfriend and also started to mend relationships with family members. Nevertheless, an element of sadness was always evident in his songwriting. As far as his future as a musician, Smith commented, “I don’t have any particular [musical] path,” as quoted by Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan in 1998. “I mean, I don’t want to make the same record more than once, but … as long as I can do something different—or something that feels different to me—I’ll be pretty satisfied with that.,”
On April 18,2000, Smith released his second album for Dream Works entitled Figure 8. Working again with coproducers Rothrock and Schnapf, Smith recorded the project at Abbey Road, Capitol, Sunset Sound, and Sonora studios. A collection of 16 flawless songs, Figure 8, like Smith’s prior albums, earned stellar reviews. Following in the paths of the Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon, as well as Chilton, Smith proved again why he is perhaps the greatest pop songwriter of his generation.
Roman Candle, Cavity Search, 1994.
Elliott Smith, Kill Rock Stars, 1995.
Either/Or, Kill Rock Stars, 1997.
XO, DreamWorks, 1998.
Figure 8, DreamWorks, 2000.
The Music of Heatmiser, (tape), 1992.
Dead Air, Frontier, 1993.
Yellow No. 5, (EP), Frontier, 1994.
Cop and Speeder, Frontier, 1994.
Mic City Sons, Frontier, 1996.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Billboard, August 1, 1998; August 22, 1998.
Boston Globe, March 12, 1998; March 26, 1999; March 31, 1999.
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1998.
Esquire, January 1998.
Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1998; June 13, 1999; February 19, 2000.
Melody Maker, June 27, 1998; July 11, 1998; August 8, 1998; January 2, 1999; May 8, 1999; May 15, 1999.
Rolling Stone, September 3, 1998.
Village Voice, April 15, 1997.
Washington Post, March 19, 1999; March 25, 1999; February 22, 2000.
“Elliott Smith,” Rough Guide to Rock, http://www.roughguides.com/rock/entries/entries-s/SMITH(ELLIOTT.html (March 20, 2000).
“Elliott Smith: XO,” Ink Blot Magazine, http://www.inkblotmagazine.com/rev-archive/Elliott(Smith(XO.htm (March 20, 2000).
Additional information provided by DreamWorks Records.
Best-selling album since 1990: XO (1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "Miss Misery," "Sweet Adeline"
Elliott Smith, a Beatles-influenced singer/songwriter from Portland, Oregon, started playing guitar around age eleven. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but spent his childhood in Dallas, Texas, following his parents' divorce and his mother's remarriage when he was a toddler. Family troubles eventually forced him out at age fourteen, and he moved to Portland to live with his father. The Northwest turned out to be a fruitful location. In the 1990s, Seattle and Portland spawned a new rock sound called grunge, characterized by loud, angry guitars and a do-it-yourself, punk-rock ethic, made famous by the band Nirvana.
Smith moved back to Portland after graduating from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and formed a rock band called Heatmiser with college classmate Neil Gust. The band put out three albums, but Smith was also busy composing his own decidedly hushed and introspective songs. He sent nine songs, which he recorded at home, to the Portland-based label Cavity Search, hoping they would put out a single. Instead, they wanted to put out an entire album, which became his first solo release, Roman Candle (1994). Within a year, the groundbreaking, independent label Kill Rock Stars, based in Olympia, Washington, released his self-titled Elliott Smith (1995).
Smith's songwriting on Elliott Smith and Either/Or (1997) is characterized by its sparseness; many of the tunes feature only his acoustic guitar, with minimal drumming. Smith played most of the instruments and recorded the albums himself. His songs, replete with heartbreaking tales of bitter disappointments, social isolation, and too many nights of drinking, somehow sound sweet coming from his airy baritone and impassioned guitar. "Pictures of Me" suggests a psychic discomfort with his own growing popularity: "So sick and tired of all these pictures of me / Totally wrong / Completely wrong." Lyrics such as "Drink up one more time and I'll make you mine" ("Between the Bars,") typify his hopeless romanticism. Although he has been compared to the similarly troubled-sounding English folksinger Nick Drake, Smith is more interested in rock and roll. He was once quoted as saying he does not like being called a "singer/songwriter." Critics and fans of indie rock responded favorably to his solo efforts; they took to his keen sense of melody and his somber acoustic compositions.
Smith's commercial breakthrough came shortly after Either/Or was released. Filmmaker and fellow Portland resident Gus Van Sant Jr. asked Smith if he would contribute songs to an upcoming film. Smith submitted four songs from Either/Or, and composed a new one, "Miss Misery." Van Sant Jr's film Good Will Hunting (1998) became a surprise hit and earned Smith an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for "Miss Misery." The shy, introspective performer appeared on the Academy Awards telecast in an ill-fitting white suit and sang the nominated song while sitting on a stool. The soundtrack went on to sell more than 250,000 copies.
The exposure Smith garnered through Good Will Hunting and the Academy Award nomination forced him further into the spotlight. Major record labels expressed interest in him, and he signed with DreamWorks Records. For XO, his 1998 major-label debut, Smith again played nearly all the instruments himself, and again brought along Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnaf, with whom he had shared producing, recording, and mixing duties on Either/Or.
Grandiose in its scope, with soaring, lush arrangements ("Sweet Adeline"), explosive, guitar-drenched angry rock ("Amity") and a pair of ballads ("Waltz #1, Waltz #2"), XO proved Smith's previously untapped creative potential as both a composer and arranger. One could almost hear the big-label budget in every swooping string arrangement and multilayered, harmonized track of Smith's whisper-thin voice. His fondness for 1960s popular music is evident in "Baby Britain," with a guitar riff quotation from the Beatles' "Getting Better All the Time." The album's chilling, angelic, a cappella closing tune, "I Didn't Understand," recalls the Beach Boys. In 1999 Spin magazine named Elliott Smith its number two artist of the year and declared XO one of its top twenty albums of the year.
In 2000 Smith released Figure 8, his second album for DreamWorks, a sprawling, sixteen-track excursion that at times echoed the harder sounds of his Heatmiser days. Ultimately, though, Figure 8 was both built on and slightly departed from previous releases. It is a sign of a growing musician unafraid to place a tearjerker ballad, "Everything Reminds Me of Her," next to an ethereal, string-laden song, "Everything Means Nothing to Me," only to mix in the cynical, aggressive "Stupidity Tries" a few tracks later. Smith recorded the album with the same producers from XO, Rothrock and Schnaf, at several studios, including the famous Abbey Road. Perhaps inspired by the location, Figure 8 is characterized by a varied sonic palette and continuous flow, much like the Beatles' Abbey Road.
In 2002, two years after Figure 8, fans were still waiting for a follow-up release. Smith had reportedly worked out a deal with DreamWorks to produce the album independently. Tentatively titled From the Basement on the Hill, it promised to be a return to his do-it-yourself roots: He wrote, arranged, and produced it himself.
Roman Candle (Cavity Search, 1994); Elliott Smith (Kill Rock Stars, 1995); Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars, 1997); XO (Dream-Works, 1998); Figure 8 (DreamWorks, 2000). With Heatmiser: Dead Air (Frontier, 1993); Cop and Speeder (Frontier, 1994); Mic City Songs (Caroline, 1996). Soundtrack: Good Will Hunting (Capitol/EMI, 1997).