Suicide theory as cult folk singer Elliot Smith is found dead

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The singer-songwriter Elliot Smith has been found dead, apparently after committing suicide.

The performer, 34, had been known to have drink and drug problems and is believed to have killed himself. He was found by his girlfriend with a stab wound to the chest that appeared to be self-inflicted, said Marsha Grigsby, records supervisor for the Los Angeles county coroner.

Smith came to prominence in 1997 after his track "Miss Misery" was featured in the soundtrack to the film Good Will Hunting and was nominated for an Academy Award. He performed at the 1998 ceremony, generating widespread interest in his work and gaining a cult following.

Smith's version of the Beatles' "Because" was included in the Oscar winner American Beauty.

His website reported that he died yesterday and the Los Angeles county of the coroner's office confirmed the death of a man called Paul Smith, the singer's real name.

Smith won huge acclaim for his most recent album, Figure 8, in 2000, the fifth of his career and his second on a major label. It was partly recorded at Abbey Road studios in London.

In a biography of the artist, Rolling Stone magazine said: "There are few tunesmiths who can tackle delicate issues - heroin addiction, alcoholism, heartbreak and self-loathing - with more sincerity and sensitivity than folk crooner Elliott Smith."

The singer, who lived in Los Angeles, turned to a solo career after a spell with the band Heatmiser, based in Portland, Oregon. Heatmiser made three albums and one EP and were applauded for their brand of wiry, pop-punk material. When they split, the softly spoken Smith moved to New York.

His first solo album, Roman Candle, was recorded in his basement on a four-track system and was released to critical acclaim in 1994. Some critics predicted Smith would usher in a new, hip era of folk music, drawing in fans of indie rock.

His haunting music was nearly always downbeat but many of his supporters reported that they found it strangely uplifting.

Smith always shunned the pop star image and was often to be seen on stage wearing a bobble hat.

He received his Oscar nomination after Gus Van Sant asked to use some of his songs for Good Will Hunting, which starred Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and became a surprise worldwide hit.

"Miss Misery" took off and the low-fi folky found himself sharing a stage with Celine Dion and Sir Elton John at the Oscars ceremony. In character, he turned up to perform in a scruffy T-shirt. The appearance before a global audience led to brief stardom, including a spot on the David Letterman Show and interest from major labels.

He became a hero on the US college circuit and was hailed as the new Paul Simon. But Smith hated the attention. The title of his favourite song was "Success Can Only Fail Me Now".

And he once said: "Hell is like really posh restaurants full of winners. I hate winners."