Who was Elliott Smith?
Elliott Smith, born as Steven Paul Smith, was a talented musician and singer who rose to fame with his song ‘Miss Misery’ featured in the soundtrack of the Hollywood movie ‘Good Will Hunting’. He could skillfully play multiple instruments like piano, guitar, clarinet and harmonica, and had a voice that was whispery and thin. He used the unique characteristic of his voice to his advantage by creating distinct vocal layers and harmonies. Music ran in his blood, many of his relatives from his mother’s side had musical talents though none of them pursued it professionally. He met aspiring musician Neil Gust while in college and the duo used to perform in clubs around their town. Upon graduation, they formed the band ‘Heatmiser’ recruiting two other musicians. After many years of performing successfully with the band, Smith decided to go solo while still being a part of the band. He found greater success and fame as a solo artist which overshadowed the popularity of his band prompting him to leave the band and concentrate on his solo career. Though a successful musician, he was a troubled individual—he suffered from depression and was addicted to alcohol and drugs. He met with a tragic end when he stabbed himself to death following an argument with his girlfriend.
Childhood & Early Life
Elliott Smith was born to Gary Smith and Bunny Berryman. At the time of his birth, Gary was a student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, while Bunny was an elementary school teacher.
His parents divorced when he was six months old. Initially he lived with his mother who eventually remarried. His stepfather sexually abused the little boy who had a very difficult and disturbed childhood.
He began playing the piano from a young age and learned guitar by the time he was 10. He also began to compose original songs and played one piece at an arts festival which won him a prize.
He moved to Oregon when he was 14 to live with his father and his new family consisting of his stepmother and two half-sisters. As a disturbed teenager from a trouble home, he started using drugs and alcohol.
At this time, he also started exploring music as a professional career and began to record his music with a borrowed recorder. As a student in Lincoln High School, he sang, played multiple instruments, and occasionally performed for the bands ‘Stranger than Fiction’ and ‘A Murder of Crows’.
In spite of domestic instabilities, he managed to perform well in his studies, and graduated from high school as a National Merit Scholar.
After graduation he started calling himself ‘Elliott’ instead of ‘Steven’ which was his original name.
He attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts and graduated in 1991 with a degree in philosophy and political science.
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During college he met Neil Gust who shared his dreams of building a musical career. The duo recruited bassist Brandt Peterson and drummer Tony Lash and formed the alternative rock band ‘Heatmiser’ in 1991.
In 1992, the band released an Extended Play (EP) of six demo songs in 1992. It was a limited version series and some of the songs from the EP were later re-recorded for Heatmiser’s future album.
Heatmiser released its first album, ‘Dead Air’, in 1993. Their music was a contrast of happy and cheerful songs, along with sad and melancholy singles. Their first album featured the single ‘Still’ by Elliott.
The band released an (EP) titled ‘Yellow No.5’ in 1994. The EP was appreciated by music critics for having a varied and fresh approach. The same year their second album, ‘Cop and Speeder’ was also out.
The band was doing fine, but not well enough to support the band mates financially. Elliott did odd jobs also to earn his living.
In 1994, he started exploring a solo career. He brought out his first album as a solo artist which was titled ‘Roman Candle’. The album was well received and was credited to be honest and heartbreaking. Many of Elliott’s songs reflected the pain of his difficult childhood.
He started giving solo performances and the indie musician Mary Lou Lord requested him to open for her on an U.S. trip. He toured a lot during that year to promote his solo career.
Prompted by the success of his debut solo album, Elliott released his second album, the self-titled ‘Elliott Smith’ in 1995. It featured dark songs with minimum background music.
Heatmiser released its last album, ‘Mic City Sons’ in 1996. It had a decidedly pop feel, and was appreciated for its diversity in songs. Tension was building among the band members, and the band broke up prior to the release of their last album.
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A short 11-minute film of Elliott playing acoustic songs was recorded by director Jem Cohen in 1996 and released in 1997. The film was titled ‘Lucky Three: an Elliott Smith Portrait’.
In his 1997 album, ‘Either/Or’, he performed on multiple instruments. A music review quoted the songs as his “best ever”. Even though he was finding much fame and success, he also began suffering from depression and alcoholism during this time.
He wrote the lyrics and composed the music for the song ‘Miss Misery’ which was recorded in 1997 and featured in the soundtrack of the hit movie ‘Good Will Hunting’. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song.
In spite of his professional success, he became very depressed and talked of committing suicide. He released two more albums over his lifetime: ‘XO’ (1998) and ‘Figure 8’ (2000). Both albums did well.
He was working on an album titled ‘From a Basement on the Hill’ when he died. The album was released posthumously in 2004.
His song ‘Miss Misery’ featured on the soundtrack of the drama movie ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997) was his claim to wide spread fame. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song and was requested to play the songs at many of his tours.
His last album, ‘From a basement on the Hill’ which he left incomplete at the time of his death was released posthumously and went on to become the most popular of his works.
Awards & Achievements
He did not win any major awards during his career, but was nominated once for Academy Award for Best Song for his song ‘Miss Misery’ from the 1997 movie ‘Good Will Hunting’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was not married and shared a home with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba till his death.
He led a very troubled personal life and battled with depression, drug addiction and alcoholism. He attempted rehab many times but that did not work for him. On his own accord, he gave up alcohol and psychiatric medications in 2003.
On 21 October 2003, he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest. He was just 34.
There were many controversies regarding his death with some arguing that it was a case of homicide and not suicide.
His biography, ‘Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing’ by Benjamin Nugent was published some months after his death.
He was a big fan of the Beatles.