He was once dubbed “the unhappiest man in the land.” His most renowned song was called “Miss Misery.” Nevertheless, Elliott Smithsounded disappointed that he was often asked, “Why are you so sad?”
The singer-songwriter, whose fragile Beatles-tinged melodies elevated to him mythic status on the indie scene and brought him unlikely Oscar-nominated success, died Tuesday of an apparent suicide at his apartment in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, officials said. He was 34.
Smith’s publicist confirmed the death to reporters. His official Website (www.elliottsmith.com) went black Wednesday morning; only the words “goodbye elliott” were in the title bar.
“We are deeply saddened by Elliott Smith’s tragic death,” his label, DreamWorks Records, said in a statement. “He was perhaps his generation’s most gifted singer-songwriter. His enormous talent could change your life with a whisper.”
Referred to by authorities by his given name, Steven Paul Smith, Smith’s body was found at 12:15 p.m., Tuesday, by his unidentified live-in girlfriend, said Los Angeles Police Department Officer Grace Brady. Smith was in the kitchen, with knife wounds to the chest, Brady said.
He was pronounced dead at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. The L.A. County coroner’s office, which had not confirmed Smith’s death Wednesday morning, pending notification of next of kin, was informed of the possible suicide-related case at 11:55 p.m.
Smith, who made the leap from a small Northwest record label to Hollywood’s own DreamWorks in 1998, the same year he earned an Academy Award nomination for his Good Will Hunting soundtrack contribution, “Miss Misery,” was at work on his sixth album, From a Basement on the Hill, at the time of his death, Rolling Stone said. (Per fansites, Basement, a home-recorded project eyed for an indie release, was shelved earlier this year with DreamWorks to release it as part of a double CD. There has been no word from DreamWorks on the status of Smith’s recordings.)
In August, Smith released the vinyl single, “Pretty (Ugly Before),” with the flip side, “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free.” It was his first recorded work since the 2000 album, Figure 8.
Smith’s well-being, or lack thereof, was whispered about in recent years on the L.A. music scene. Concerts could be hit and miss. At one Hollywood show in February, Smith commanded the stage for most of the night with just his hushed voice, stool and guitar. But the lyrics came and went. The devoted supplied the missing words and willed him to the finish.
Smith, who opened up in June to Under the Radar about formerly having been “a really bad alcoholic,” rarely spoke of depression, drink or drugs in interviews, just on his records. There, he also spoke of hope and love. Sometimes in the same song.
“It’s too bad that people seem to sometimes only notice the dark part of some songs of mine,” Smith told Amazon.com in 1998 upon the release of his DreamWorks debut, XO.
Rather, Smith said in a Salon.com Q&A in 2000, he was consistently asked by journalists, “Why are you so sad?”
“Just because people have a range of emotions and thoughts…sometimes they get ecstatically happy about something and at other times ridiculously depressed, doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them,” Smith told the Website.
Born August 6, 1969, in Nebraska, Smith, who proclaimed himself “Elliott” as a teenager, first emerged in the early 1990s with the Portland-based band, Heatmiser. He released his first solo album,Roman Candle, in 1994.
The followup, 1997’s Either/Or, had critics increasingly hooked on his melancholy hooks, comparing him to Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter who made sadness sound gorgeous before dying of suicidal overdose in 1974 at age 26.
Three songs from Either/Or, “Between the Bars,” “Say Yes” and “Angeles,” appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, released later that year. Smith, who counted the movie’s director Gus Van Sant among his fans, also contributed “No Name #3,” from Roman Candle, and the original tune “Miss Misery.”
It was the latter that brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song and delivered him to the stage of the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium in a white Prada suit.
Even years after, Smith didn’t know quite how to process being the guitar-playing indie guy at the Oscars, the default opening act for Titanic diva Celine Dion.
“To me, it was so weird that it seems like some pill that you swallowed that never dissolved and then it’s just passed and gone, you know?” he said to Amazon.com. “It just didn’t assimilate.”