Elliott Smith passes away at 34

by Lindsay Barnes | 10/27/03 6:00am

Last week, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, most famous for his brand of dark folk-rock music, was found dead in his home in Los Angeles at the age of 34. He died of a stab wound to the chest, an apparent suicide.

Originally named Steven Paul Smith, he was born in Omaha, Neb., on Aug. 6, 1969. He grew up in Dallas with his mother and stepfather, and his musical prowess was evident at a very early age. He wrote his first song when he was 10 years old.

By the time he was in high school, his home was in Portland, Ore., living with his father. It was in Portland that he formed his first band, called Stranger Than Fiction, which lasted until his graduation. He then attended Hampshire College where he first became acquainted with fellow tunesmith Neil Gust.

In 1992, the two formed Heatmiser with drummer Tony Lash and bass player Sam Coomes and relocated back to Portland. Recording three albums worth of punk-influenced rock, the band's sound was a long way off from the acoustic work that would make Smith famous. Before Heatmiser broke up in 1996, Smith put out his first two solo albums -- 1994's "Roman Candle" and 1995's "Elliott Smith."

Prior to releasing his next record, Smith found that he had gained a cult following. Among these new fans was filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who had been working on "Good Will Hunting" upon discovering Smith. By the time 1997's "Either/Or" was released, six of Smith's songs appeared on the film's soundtrack.

One of the six was his most famous song, "Miss Misery," for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. The newfound mainstream exposure was capped off by a performance on national television at the Academy Awards. It was at this time he signed with David Geffen's Dreamworks label.

Smith's mixed feelings about his newfound celebrity were reflected in his eventual choice to retire "Miss Misery" from his live performances.

In 1998, his first major label release "XO" marked a new direction for Smith as he expanded upon his spare acoustic guitar sound by using new instruments and production techniques to create a fuller sound. The trend continued on 2000's "Figure 8," after which he fell out of the public spotlight.

In spite of his time off from recording, he gained fans when his song "Needle in the Hay," was used in Wes Anderson's film "The Royal Tenenbaums."

He was beginning to make music again this year, releasing two new songs: "Pretty (Ugly Before)" and "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free." He had begun work on his sixth album, "From a Basement on the Hill," planning to release it next year.