Elliott Smith

Figurehead for a generation of US singer-songwriters

Steven Paul Smith (Elliott Smith), singer and songwriter: born Omaha, Nebraska 6 August 1969; died Los Angeles 21 October 2003.

When the then unknown Elliott Smith was nominated for an Oscar for his song "Miss Misery", in Gus Van Sant's film Good Will Hunting (1997), he became the unlikely figurehead for a new generation of American singer-songwriters working in the wake of Kurt Cobain's cataclysmic death. He offered a new style of deliberately oblique, prettily melodic, almost whispered introspection.

He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1969, and his parents split when he was a baby. Mostly raised by his churchgoing mother in Texas, he spent a week each year in Los Angeles with his father, a one-time hippie preacher who quit his church when they insisted he wear a tie, then lost his faith in Vietnam, and became a psychiatrist. Smith remembered these visits as weird breaks from a buttoned-up life in Texas.

Though he resolutely resisted confessional interviews, he admitted to having been an angry youth. Moving to be with his father in the counter-culture enclave of Portland, Oregon, when he was 14, he scratched a living at manual jobs while beginning to perform in the city's underground clubs at night. It was here that he was seen by a fellow Portlander, Gus Van Sant, his future passport to unlooked-for glory.

Gaining a degree in Political Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts in 1991, he also released four albums with the raucous alternative rock band Heatmiser in the early Nineties - Dead Air (1993), Yellow No 5 (1994), Cop and Speeder (1995) and Mic City Sons (1996). But it was when he opted to move to New York to be utterly alone that his solo songwriting cohered.

Playing Greenwich Village clubs at night, he wrote in the daytime while watching TV or other people, deliberately keeping his lyrics distracted, impressionistic and unresolved. Lacking the loud self-pity of Cobain, or the self-obsession of early Seventies forebears like James Taylor, he was more in tune with Americans of his own time like Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous and Will Oldham, spare, surreal writers with few social or personal axes to grind. He explained his wish to vanish into his songs with reference to the painter of abstract blocks of colour Mark Rothko:

They make me think of this one big block, the one thing that keeps coming up in someone's life. They're more permanent, more universal than some particular depiction of an object. [I'd like to] make up songs that were like those paintings, songs that have dispensed with details and objects.

What made Smith stand out from his contemporaries was a simultaneous love not only for Spartan abstraction, but for the classical pop forms of the Beatles. After three increasingly strong solo albums, Roman Candle (1994), Elliott Smith (1995) and Either/Or (1997), Van Sant let him take his fragile tunefulness to the 1998 Oscars, where, a shambling figure seeming to have been snatched straight from a coffee house, he eventually lost out to Céline Dion - who, he said, was "very nice".

The fairy tale continued when Smith was signed to Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks label, and his commercial breakthrough was confidently predicted. XO, later in 1998 (during which all four albums gained their first UK release), and Figure 8 (2000) certainly gained in confidence and musical sophistication.

But, despite minor UK hits, radio programmers never found a place for his amorphous delicacy. He never quite went beyond a devoted cult following, which suited his work's introverted honesty, and small-scale emotion. A sixth solo album, From a Basement to the Hill, was being recorded at the time of his apparent suicide.

Nick Hasted

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
election 2015
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates his goal for Real Madrid against Juventus
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
voicesArmando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Guru Careers: Project Manager / Business Analyst

£40-50k + Benefits.: Guru Careers: A Project Manager / Business Analyst is nee...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power