The Life and Legacy of Elliott Smith

Next week the Speak Soft Magazine team are headed south to document the charity tribute show in memory of the iconic singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, celebrating what would have been his 50th birthday.

Host of the evening Dan Caleb will be performing alongside Benjamin Langford-Biss (As It Is), Georgia Maria, Aaron King, and more incredibly talented musicians all coming together to play songs from Elliott’s back catalogue and most importantly celebrate his life and legacy.

For those of you who don’t know much about Smith or even if you do, we have composed a short timeline of his life and his musical career up until his tragic death in 2003:

  • Stephen Paul “Elliott” Smith was an acclaimed American singer-songwriter, known distinctively for his melancholic sound and often deeply personal lyrics that danced around the topics of addiction, alienation, and depression.
Photo by Wendy Lynch
  • Born August 6th 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, he endured a difficult childhood, his parents divorced when he was six months old, and he moved with his mother to Texas. The strained and possibly abusive relationship with his step-father became a reason to sedate himself with drugs as an adult.
  • Smith began playing Piano at age nine alongside guitar just a year later. He began writing and recording his first songs around the time he moved to Portland, Oregon at the age of 14.
  • His musical influences included such iconic stars as Bob DylanElvis Costello, and the Beatles; he said he was inspired to become a musician after hearing The White Album.
  • After graduating high school, Smith began calling himself “Elliott“, saying that he thought “Steve” sounded too much like a “jock” name, and that “Steven” sounded “too bookish”.
  • In college he met future bandmate, Neil Gust, and formed the indie rock band Heatmiser and released three studio albums and two EPs before disbanding in 1996, shortly after signing to Virgin Records.
“Blackout” by Heatmiser
  • Smith‘s girlfriend at the time convinced him to send some of his solo demos to Portland-based record label Cavity Search Records. The label immediately expressed interest in releasing a full album, and so Roman Candle was born, using mostly acoustic guitar with a handful of other instruments, entirely home-recorded on a four-track tape recorder.
  • In 1997 he became a mainstream name with the success of the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, which he contributed “Between the Bars”, “Say Yes” and “Miss Misery” for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but lost to “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. This mainstream exposure led to a record deal with DreamWorks, resulting in Smith‘s first album, XO, being produced in professional studios.
“Miss Misery” in the closing scene of Good Will Hunting
  • In 1999, he contributed a cover of the Beatles‘ “Because” to the soundtrack of Best Picture winner American Beauty.
  • For the next couple of years, Smith laboured over what was to be his next album. He parted ways with DreamWorks, and after a falling out with fellow musician and producer Jon Brion, he scrapped an album they had started working on together.
  • Elliott Smith was arguably the Van Gogh of music, a heavy drinker and drug user, diagnosed with ADHD and major depressive disorder. He died on October 21, 2003 in Los Angeles, California, after he was found in his home with two stab wounds in his chest. The coroner was unable to determine whether it was suicide or the result of homicide, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation remains open.
“We miss you”, a fan tribute on the Figure 8 album mural.

We spoke to co-producer of the My Favourite Elliott Smith Song podcast, Robert Comba about Smith’s legacy:

 “What’s so great about Elliott Smith, for me, is how his songs seem to get better with every listen. There are things in songs he’s left for you to discover only when you’ve listened for the 500th time. It’s like with a good film – you notice more, the more you watch it.”

“What’s been interesting about doing the podcast – which I now make with my co-producer Elizabeth Withstandley – is hearing how he still has such a strong influence on artists today. People we’ve spoken to like Benjamin Langford-Biss, Phoebe Bridgers and Lindsey Jordan (Snail Mail) all discovered him after he died but cite him as a major influence on them. From that perspective, it’s reassuring to hear his legacy is continuing in a major way.”

If you can, come along to the Finsbury in London on 6th August to celebrate the life and legacy of one of the greatest singer songwriters of all time, on what would have been his 50th birthday.

Elliott was known by his friends as a very charitable person – he set up his own music studio and let smaller bands record there for free. So, in keeping with his spirit, all money raised from this event will go to the charity Help Musicians UK. So, what are you waiting for? Tickets below!


Sources for timeline:

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