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‘He needed to get it together’: The tragic story of Elliott Smith’s last album, 20 years on

Though it laid the groundwork for 2000s Americana, ‘Figure 8’ was the troubled songwriter’s curtain call, overshadowed by his death. As it turns 20, Mark Beaumont speaks to producer Rob Schnapf about Smith’s final masterwork and its destructive making

Saturday 18 April 2020 22:00 BST
Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith performing on stage at the LA Weekly Music Awards show
Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith performing on stage at the LA Weekly Music Awards show (Getty)

For Elliott Smith, wisp-voiced enigma of US alt-folk, Figure 8 became a downward spiral. Planned as his “happier” album after several tough years – a devastating break-up, a reliance on alcohol and prescription drugs, a psychiatric intervention, an impetuous suicide attempt – it was laced with rare slivers of hope and optimism. But it was also the last record that he’d release in his lifetime.

Dark-eyed and craggy cheeked, Smith had built his underground legend as post-grunge’s premier troubled troubadour via the weightless melancholies and quiet cries for help on acclaimed albums Either/Or (1997) and XO (1998). 2000’s Figure 8, with its string-laden honky-tonks, LA heat-haze and Beatledelic fug, was the record that consolidated and refined his sound and laid the bedrock for the coming decades of cult Americana.

“I think that’s when the wheels started to come off a little bit,” says the record’s producer Rob Schnapf, reflecting on Smith’s fifth and arguably most undervalued record, 20 years on from its 2000 release. “I think that’s when he started to dabble with [hard] drug use, because he only really drank up until then. It was beer and whiskey. That was it.”

But by the end of the Figure 8 tour, Smith had developed a heroin habit, and the following years saw a rapid and worrying descent into addiction and desperation: mixing cocktails of drugs, playing wasted and collapsing in toilet cubicles. Just as it seemed he’d turned a corner in 2003, ditching drugs and embracing near total abstinence, he died on 21 October in what’s widely accepted among those that knew him as the suicide he’d been warning them for so long to expect.

Smith’s death was a double tragedy. Not only had we lost one of the finest songwriters of the late 20th century but the nefarious details of his decline threatened to eclipse his music. Smith’s songs were delicate craftsman’s sketches of the cracked and fragile psyche, steeped in impressionistic depths and subtleties. The five solo albums he completed captured the angsts and frustrations of the grunge age in acoustic butterfly traps, and set a warm, intimate, amorphous tone for future indie folk that would grow to encompass The National, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Bright Eyes and Elbow. And basically write the script for Badly Drawn Boy.

“You believed him,” Schnapf says. “There was this quiet intensity and it sucked you right in. His musicianship is the magical kind because it’s all subtle. And some of his songwriting is literary to me… those lyrics, if you’re paying attention, they give it to you. It was real.”

Real, perhaps, because it was so deeply rooted. Born Steven Smith into a family from the Community Of Christ church, a Mormon denomination, he was only six months old when his parents split. His mother married an insurance salesman named Charlie Welch, whom Smith would claim first beat him on their wedding day, aged three. His memories of his childhood had always been hazy, but at 14 he left his mother’s home in Texas to live with his father in Portland. “I didn’t sleep at all for about the first six months I lived there,” he told Under the Radar. “I was very worried about my mother.” In another interview, he elaborated: “I couldn’t stay in the same house as my stepfather.”

Smith started writing his own songs on piano and guitar from a young age – his father recalled a church talent show at which his son was beaten by someone tap-dancing to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” – and sang in several high school bands, sometimes under the pseudonym Elliott Stillwater-Rotter. On graduation, he officially took the name Elliott. At college in Amherst, Smith started a noise-grunge band called Heatmiser, but he also took to playing solo acoustic shows when he returned to Portland. Alongside Heatmiser albums, Smith quietly snuck out his first solo collection of minimalist four-track acoustic demos recorded on a borrowed guitar in his basement (1994’s Roman Candle), which, he said, “immediately eclipsed my band, unfortunately”.

Word spread of his bewitching performances, the antithesis of grunge but the inheritor of its spirit. One night, Schnapf and his partner Margaret Mittleman saw Smith play “Needle in the Hay”, from his self-titled 1995 second album, and soon became his producer and manager, respectively. In tandem with the third Heatmiser record (now signed to Virgin), they and co-producer Tom Rothrock helped Smith create a surreptitious masterpiece in 1997’s Either/Or. Tender and tremulous, it channelled Nick Drake, Red House Painters and Big Star, while speaking to Smith’s studio naivety and deepest insecurities.

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“He was super curious and excited about the whole recording process on that scale, going from a basement to the studio we had up in Humboldt County,” Schnapf says. “He was writing with purpose and communicating. That’s why it connects, that’s what makes it timeless. We could have done more but he wasn’t ready to do it yet and I think there was turmoil in him.”

“I remember that record most fondly even though I nearly had a nervous breakdown,” Smith told Under The Radar. “I recorded so many songs for it, and one or two of them sucked. Then three or four of them sucked. Then they all sucked and everything I did was terrible. I was never good enough.”

The critical acclaim for Either/Or spelt the end for Heatmiser, however, and out on the road Smith was winning over audiences and tastemakers far and wide. “There’s a key show at Brownies in New York and it was full of all the people,” Schnapf says. “They’re in a room. If there was talking he would play quieter and he hushed the room, you could hear a pin drop. And he killed it. From that point forward, it was on… Before Either/Or it was like, ‘Singer songwriter? That’s cheesy.’ And then after Either/Or it became a cool thing again.”

Yet Smith’s confidence was so shot he was mixing his alcohol with antidepressants to such a degree that, in a hotel room in Chicago, his friends staged an intervention. Before he knew it, Smith found himself in an Arizona psychiatric hospital. “Let’s just say I didn’t want to go there,” he told NME in 2000. “It made things worse. A lot of [it] seemed to be based on fear: maybe if we scare these people enough they’ll act like they don’t feel like they do.”

The cover art to ‘Figure 8’, Smith’s last album before his tragic death (DreamWorks Records)

Walking out after a few days, Smith would use his simmering anger over the experience in new songs, which he told Spin were about “how quickly people will invade your space just because you don’t deal with things like they do. They think that you drink too much … I just don’t think being scared is a good enough reason to take over somebody’s life.” He reiterated the point to NME: “More of the songs have a vibe of ‘Get the f*** off me, and quit telling me what I should be doing’.”

Smith soon left Portland for Brooklyn, characteristically low. His New York roommate Dorien Garry told Spin: “He always talked about suicide… He made me promise that I wouldn’t be mad at him. He just talked about it as if it were going to happen.”

It was a story many of his old Portland friends would have found familiar. “In Portland we got the brunt of Elliott’s initial depression,” musician and friend Pete Krebs told one paper. “Lots of people have stories of … staying up with Elliott ’till five in the morning, holding his hand, telling him not to kill himself.” One was Cavity Search Records chief Christopher Cooper, who told Spin, “He would tell me that if I didn’t see him again, to tell everyone … in our community, that it’s not their fault, not to take it personally. I would tell him, ‘People love you,’ and, ‘They love your music.’”

It would soon become apparent that public adoration was no solution. In 1997, filmmaker and fan Gus Van Sant used Smith’s song “Miss Misery” in Good Will Hunting and the spotlight turned on this glare-shy genius. When he was nominated for an Oscar afterwards, Smith was cajoled into performing at the 1998 ceremony with threats that the organisers would get Richard Marx to sing the song if he refused. “It was surreal enough that it didn’t seem like it happened to me,” he said in 2003. “I walked out and Jack Nicholson was sitting about six feet away … At a certain point, I threw myself into it because all of my friends were like, ‘One of us is on the moon!’”

In the wake of the Oscars, Smith signed with DreamWorks Records, but Schnapf feels the press and radio “game” that ensued played further on Smith’s insecurities. “It’s a double-edged sword of wanting to do what’s being asked of you and really hating what’s being asked of you and not being good at it, in that he’s real, he’s not a bulls*** artist.”

The nadir came in North Carolina that year, where a severely intoxicated Smith was impaled on a tree during an impulsive attempt on his own life. “I jumped off a cliff,” he told Spin. “But it didn’t work … It wasn’t like I made up my mind to throw myself off a cliff. I got freaked out and started running, it was totally dark, and I ran off the edge of a cliff. I saw it coming up, and it wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna throw myself off this cliff and die.’ It was just, ‘Ground’s coming up. Who cares, whatever.’”

Despite such downturns, and the “exhausting grind” of Smith naturally playing almost every instrument, Schnapf remembers recording 1998’s plusher, richer fourth album XO as an optimistic experience. “I feel like XO was hope. He was really excited and pumped. He wanted to experiment and we had the budget and the time… He said ‘let’s try things’. We would try tape machine games, recording real strings, playing with form. We could try this idea of, ‘What if we got, bass, saxophone and flute?’ ‘OK, let’s get those guys in.’ Boom, that’s ‘A Question Mark’. ‘Let’s try accordion in “Waltz #2”… Oh that’s terrible, OK, well we tried it.’ We were able to, as we would say quite often, ‘send out the probe’.”

XO was Smith’s lustrous masterpiece, where sublime folk, country, ragtime, indie rock and the softer notes of late-era Beatles melted together into viscous sonic treacle, and uncompromising lyrics hit back at controlling forces and cut to the core of “rock star” mythology: “they took your life apart and called your failures art”. Buoyed by a move to the Silver Lake area of LA, where he’d often play low-key solo shows and bellow Scorpions and Don McLean tunes at karaoke nights, he planned to expand his sound further on its follow-up and, in interviews, began playing down his image as “a very depressed hermit who can’t do anything but sit on the edge of his bed and look at his shoes writing songs… it’s not like that at all. I can talk to people, but sometimes I don’t want to.”

The songs Smith wrote for 2000’s Figure 8 were more reflective and sanguine, no longer blind to silver linings. Many seemed to regretfully dissect his recent split from girlfriend Joanna Bolme of Stephen Malkmus’s Jicks, while others addressed the stifling expectations of fame (“Can’t Make a Sound”) but there were also optimistic songs about finding new purpose (“LA”, “Happiness”) and the art of owning one’s loneliness (“In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)”). Somewhere in Smith’s enclosed world, a window had opened onto the Californian sunshine.

Only rarely did the lyrics suggest distraction. “Son of Sam”, he explained, concerned not so much the infamous New York serial killer as “a destructive, repetitive person” wrestling with a “clouded mind”. “Junk Bond Trader” spotlit the plight of the artist pressed to “give the people something they’d understand”, and “Everything Means Nothing to Me” was born of a violent reaction, during a 48-hour mushroom trip, to the pressures of having to worry about the future of his “art”.

“A lot of people from the label were telling him he needed to get it together,” producer David McConnell told Spin. “He was so sick of people talking about the future. So he carved the word ‘NOW’ into his arm with a knife. And he sat down at the piano and wrote ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’ as the blood was dripping down his arm.”

Schnapf suggested recording Figure 8 in batches, to lighten the burden on Smith. Which meant that, after working in a variety of LA studios, Smith could make a pilgrimage to Abbey Road Studios in London to record strings and immerse himself in the records of his childhood.

Smith performs in Austin, Texas, in March 2000, shortly before the release of ‘Figure 8’ (Redferns)

“He’s playing that upright piano you hear on ‘Lost and Found’ and the piano sounded so familiar to me,” says Schnapf. “I get over the top going ‘Elliott, you know that piano?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You know what that is?’ ‘No.’ I go ‘“Lady Madonna” and “Penny Lane”’.”

What emerged was a dreamlike collection of what Smith called “little movies”, a narcotic drift through pop history, from doo-wop to modern psychedelia, that was arguably the equal of XO. “XO was about exploring possibilities of the studio and arrangement,” Schnapf says. “Figure 8 is about playing with form and impressionism.” Smith named the album after “the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection”. Yet behind the scenes, things were turning pretty ugly. Hard drugs crept in and escalated fast. Smith’s partner towards the end of his life, Jennifer Chiba, would suggest he wasn’t someone prone to half measures.

“Seemed like he went pretty all-in,” Schnapf sighs, sadly. “Up until then he didn’t smoke weed, he didn’t do drugs. A lot of Figure 8 was very positive. It just started to slowly unwind… Towards the end of the process there was skittish behaviour, not looking you in the eye kinda stuff. It seems like everybody hits this point in your late twenties or early thirties where however you’ve been dealing with shit stops working. Either you start to get your shit together or go heavily down the other way. He hit that fork and went the other direction.”

Early sessions in Schnapf’s garage for a “weird, stripped-down” and ambitious follow-up fell apart when he objected to Smith turning up wasted. “He said he was going to work with [producer] Jon Brion because he thought Jon wouldn’t disapprove of whatever he was going to be doing.” He was wrong; Brion stopped their sessions over Smith’s drug use. When Smith resumed recording on his proposed double album of noise and experiment, working primarily on his own, he was subsisting largely on ice cream and a reported $1,500 worth of heroin and crack a day, mixed with alcohol and tranquilisers, a cocktail which medical books had told him was often used to help the terminally ill slip away.

Chiba later explained to Spin that Smith had been planning to take his own life the “socially acceptable” way, with “alcohol and drugs”.

“I had him on constant suicide watch,” said McConnell. “He tried OD’ing… The guy was immune to drugs. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, where somebody could take that many drugs and walk away. He used to talk about it: ‘I just did $800 worth of drugs in an hour! What’s wrong? What the f***!’”

Paranoia set in. Disappointed at the lack of success for Figure 8, Smith became convinced DreamWorks were stalking and bugging him and had broken into his house to steal songs; he threatened to kill himself in order to escape his contract. “They were nothing but supportive,” says Schnapf, “but he went down this rabbit hole and that was not what was happening.”

Smith’s gigs became shambolic – gaunt, scruffy and rambling, he’d virtually fall asleep mid-song, fluff chords and have audiences shouting out lyrics he couldn’t remember: “Undoubtedly one of the worst performances ever by a musician,” a reviewer wrote of one show where Smith had lost all feeling in one hand. He was reportedly found unconscious in a Silver Lake club bathroom in a heroin stupor and injured his back in a brawl with the LAPD at a Flaming Lips show in November 2002.

Several attempts at detox failed, until a split with then-girlfriend Valerie Deerin inspired him to quit everything in August 2002, virtually all at once. Undergoing a controversial IV amino acid treatment at LA’s Neurotransmitter Restoration Centre and flushing all his drugs, he got clean. But such a brutal cold turkey, even cutting out vital prescription meds, had deep psychological consequences. Chiba would return home to find him taking a knife to old cigarette burns on his arm from his heroin days, and as his head cleared, so did his childhood.

“He was remembering traumatic things,” Chiba said to Spin and, while Welch denies any wrongdoing, Smith spoke obsessively about his belief that his stepfather had abused him. “My stepfather used to take me up to the attic,” he told his friend Andrew Morgan, according to Spin. “That’s all I remember. I don’t remember what he did.”

On his 34th birthday, on 6 August 2003, Smith quit drinking overnight, and also soon gave up red meat, caffeine and sugar. “He might have been cleaned up, but he was not well… still super paranoid,” Schnapf says, yet Smith felt hopeful enough to propose to Chiba in the studio. Then, following an argument in their Echo Park apartment in the afternoon of 21 October, Chiba claims she emerged from the shower to find Smith with a knife in his chest. He died in hospital an hour later. His final album, From a Basement on the Hill, would be completed and compiled by Schnapf and Smith’s family posthumously.

The danger in lingering on the darkness that enveloped Smith, particularly in his final years, is that it shrouds the enlightening impact of his music, both on subsequent generations of Americana artists who took on his mantle of airy melodic melancholy and on the listeners finding their own stories in his words. “Something that makes you feel sad might make someone else feel happy, because they’re like, ‘Well, that’s how I feel now,’” he told NME. “I don’t want to perpetuate the notion that if somebody plays music they must be f***ed up or crazy… It winds up being another part of your cartoon costume… I don’t play music because I’m a tortured person. I play music because I enjoy it. I’m no sadder than anyone else I know. People overlook the happiness.”

The Figure 8 anniversary, then, is a time to celebrate the breezy consolations to be found hearing him hanging around feeling both lost and found. To bask in the billowing bright sides of “Happiness”, the lovestruck harmonies of “Pretty Mary K” and the evident joy in Smith making the “Penny Lane” piano his own. It’s what he would’ve wanted.

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