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Obituaries

Elliott Smith, 34; Songwriter, Vocalist With Bittersweet Touch

October 23, 2003|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter whose musically seductive, emotionally dark recordings made him one of the most acclaimed cult artists of the past decade -- and an unlikely Oscar contender in 1998 -- died Tuesday.

Smith, 34, was discovered in his Echo Park apartment with a self-inflicted knife wound and died at County-USC Medical Center, according to the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

In a series of albums beginning in 1994, Smith established himself as an evocative poet of the tormented soul, pairing scenarios of romantic loss, existential bleakness and the curse of addiction with engaging, lilting melodies. His spare guitar accompaniment and the eerie, echo-like quality of his vocals reinforced the music's bittersweet mood.

Though his record sales were modest, Smith enjoyed tremendous respect from his peers and from critics, emerging as his generation's preeminent exponent of the singer-songwriter tradition.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Record label -- An obituary of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, which appeared in Thursday's California section, indicated that the Kill Rock Stars record label is located in Seattle. It is located in Olympia, Wash.

Though he was stereotyped as a gloomy, introspective artist, Smith had broader aims.

"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," Smith said in a 1998 Los Angeles Times interview. "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."

Friends and colleagues agreed Wednesday that there was more to Smith -- who had been nearing completion of a new album when he died -- than his image as a downbeat troubadour

"He was incredibly funny and sweet, intellectually rigorous, someone who really cared about the people around him," said Luke Wood, an executive at DreamWorks Records who had worked with Smith for five years. "I really felt he was in a very positive, forward-thinking place. He really wanted to get his record out early next year."

Rob Schnapf, who co-produced his last two albums, said Smith "was a dignified, gentle person and a great artist. I loved making records with him," he said. "It was extremely rewarding and we had fun."

But the demons Smith wrote about weren't fictional.

"All that stuff is real," Schnapf said. "That was no game, that was not a marketing idea. That was real stuff."

Steve Hanft, a filmmaker who directed an experimental short for Smith called "Strange Parallel" and enlisted Smith to do music for his new movie, "Southlander," said he saw the singer five days ago.

"He just seemed like he was imploding on himself," Hanft said. "He was still really sweet and nice and really smart, but he just seemed like he was starting to cave in physically. He just wasn't happy."

Steven Paul Smith was born in Nebraska and spent his early childhood in the Dallas area, living with his mother and stepfather and the latter's children. At 14, he moved to Portland, Ore., to live with his biological father and his family. After graduating from Hampshire College in Massachusetts with a degree in political philosophy, he returned to Portland and embarked on a period of difficult relationships, heavy drinking and a musical career.

He played in a punk-rock band called Heatmiser, but increasingly concentrated on solo material in a more reflective style. In 1994, he released his first album, "Roman Candle," on the local Cavity Search label. He followed it with two albums for the Seattle-based Kill Rock Stars label and began drawing critical notice and a small but intense and growing audience.

Smith toured extensively and relocated to Brooklyn. In 1997, director Gus Van Sant prominently deployed five songs from Smith's albums in his film "Good Will Hunting," and introduced one new one -- "Miss Misery," which was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. That led to the odd sight of the reticent troubadour performing in a white suit on the gala 1998 Oscars telecast, in competition with the likes of Celine Dion and Michael Bolton.

Smith signed with the prominent Los Angeles label DreamWorks, and with a bigger budget he began to enhance his sound with orchestral pop elements.

"When you listen to it, it's very easily digestible," said Schnapf, the co-producer of his two DreamWorks albums, "XO" and "Figure 8."

"He made it look really easy. He was a great musician in an understated way. A lot of times you couldn't take apart his songs. They were this puzzle, this intricate little puzzle."

Schnapf cited in particular "Independence Day."

"The record company had said it would be great if we could get that chorus that only comes in at the end, if we could have it come sooner," Schnapf said. "And I remember saying, 'Well, it's a metaphor about turning into a butterfly. You can't turn into a butterfly twice.'"

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