an ode to elliott smith

so, we all knew this was coming. how can i have a series of odes to my favorite musicians without dedicating one to my favorite artist of all time? although he wasn’t the first one, he will definitely be the most fleshed out edition to this series. this post might be quite long, so i want to keep the intro as short as i can. so, without further ado, here is an ode to elliott smith

the early years: the location and upbringing of elliott smith

steven paul smith was born august 6th, 1969 in omaha, nebraska. for the majority of his childhood, he was raised in texas with his mother and stepfather. smith had a hard childhood, and suffered a strained relationship with his stepfather. later in his life, he would come out with stories about the abuse he suffered in his childhood home. smith started playing the piano at age 9, and quickly grew a large love for music. in later interviews in which he was asked how he learned how to play certain songs as a kid, he stated he would record a part of a song and play it over and over while attempting to match the notes. later, when he was ten, he started playing guitar- the instrument that would cement him as one of the greatest musicians of all time. at age 14, smith moved away from his mother in texas and went to live with his father in portland, oregon. during high school, smith would begin to experiment with recording music and even join the school band. outside of that, he also began to create his own bands, and was apart of the bands “stranger than fiction” and “a murder of crows.” he graduated from lincoln high school as a national merit scholar. shortly after graduation, he began to go by the name “elliott.” 

dead air, cop and speeder, and yellow no. 5: heatmiser and elliott smith’s punk years

after graduating from hampshire college, elliott began to work in a bakery in portland despite having a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and political science. during this time, the band heatmiser was formed. the band consisted of guitarist and backup vocalist elliott smith, lead singer neil gust, drummer tony lash, and bassist brandt peterson. the band started performing in local venues in portland around 1992. under the heatmiser name, the group released the albums “dead air,” “cop and speeder,” and “yellow no. 5.” later, the group would release their final album before splitting, “mic city sons.” smith had already begun his solo career while in the band, and worked various construction jobs while recording what would later become his first solo album, roman candle. the contrast between elliott’s punk vocals and style in heatmiser and his softer melancholic tone in his solo music is often a shock for most, sometimes even elliott himself. while working on and releasing their album “cop and speeder,” elliott released his debut album “roman candle” and began to perform in small, local venues once again.

in this song, elliott smith is singing lead.

roman candle: lofi beginnings

in 1994, the debut solo album from smith was released until the title “roman candle.” the album featured 9 songs on it- to elliott’s shock, as he had originally signed a deal for a 7 inch record. the album is the calm after the grunge storm of the late 1990s. before its release, elliott claimed he did not expect the album to be well-liked because of the grunge movement. but once again to his shock, the album was incredibly well-received, and smith’s name was being brought up everywhere in the portland scene. while performing solo shows, smith often created sets of combined acoustic heatmiser tracks with his solo ones. a year after the release of roman candle, elliott would begin working on what would become his two biggest albums. 

self-titled, either/or, and an academy nomination: elliott smith 

in 1995, elliott smith released his self-titled album. while the album was similar in style to the previous debut album, the self-titled album was of greater recording quality and the songwriting showed significant improvement. songs like “needle in the hay” and “the biggest lie” began to cement elliott as a dark, depressing artist in the folk scene. smith would later resent this idea of him, attempting to diversify his songwriting in the hopes of erasing that characteristic. in 1997, elliott released what would later become his most well-known album, either/or. while the self-titled album introduced more instrumentation into elliott’s songwriting, either/or was arguably the single album that drove elliott to begin using more instruments in his music, later becoming more apparent in his album “xo.” songs like “angeles” and “between the bars” drove him to being featured everywhere, notably in director gus van sant’s movies. later, sant would create a movie titled “good will hunting,” and would call upon smith to create a song for the movie. many of smith’s songs were featured in the movie, but he created the song “miss misery” for it and got an academy nomination because of it. while he was nominated for the song, he did not win. he did, however, perform at the oscars, shooting his popularity into an unmeasurable size. 

xo and figure 8: the beginning of the end

when creating his album xo, smith began to fall deeper and deeper into a depression. he talked about the idea of suicide frequently, and even had a failed attempt in which he threw himself off of a cliff. he was injured, but in the end survived. in 1998, elliott released xo and it received high praise. this album featured the largest group of instruments on any elliott smith solo album, and shortly after its released it was followed by a tour. smith began to appear on television more frequently, and even performed waltz #2 on saturday night live the same year. during a dutch special, smith performed “miss misery,” “i didn’t understand,” and “waltz #2,”- the last of which he stopped mid-song, claiming he “just couldn’t do it anymore.” in 2000, smith would release his final fully completed album, figure 8. around this time, he battled with addiction and would often perform shows too high and/or drunk to even speak. figure 8 was recorded at abbey road studios and was once again praised by the general public after its release. a tour followed the release and even more late night show performances took place, including one on conan and david letterman. smith grew addicted to heroin and his state started to worsen towards the end of the figure 8 tour. 

a basement on the hill: addiction and recovery

while recording his final album- which would never be completely finished on his own- smith’s addiction grew worse. his paranoid increased and he began distancing himself from everyone helping him on the new album, leading to a delay in recording. even when smith was able to hold a session, it was often he would get kicked out of it for being high or abusing substances during the session. many times during the recording of the album smith would scrap it in its entirety. along with the album, smith had a lack of time to perform locally like he used to. he would more often than not choose to cancel most shows, and when he was able to make it, he was almost always on something during the shows. he would often leave the shows mid-set after messing up a couple songs. elliott was a perfectionist when it came to playing live sets, and that affected him greatly when he was no longer able to play with the same dexterity due to his substance abuse. in 2002, smith and his girlfriend were arrested for standing up for a man he believed was being abused by the police. they spent two nights in jail, and smith suffered injuries from the arrest that caused him to cancel even more shows. when he did play shows, he would tease songs for his upcoming album. he attempted to start rehab multiple times, but each time he was unable to find what worked best for him. slowly but surely though, smith began to fight his addiction. he continued scheduling shows to attempt to build his credit as an artist back up, but he was still struggling as his addiction had lasting effects on him during that period of time. as he continued to record a basement on the hill, he slowly got sober. right after his birthday in 2003, he completely cut out alcohol and even began to cut out red meat, sugar, and completely transform his diet. he also completely stopped using drugs, and close friends recalled him being at an ultimate high point in his life. he was doing well, and he was making unbelievable progress on the record. however, later that year, elliott smith would face a heartbreaking fate, putting a halt to his music and legacy, and most importantly, his life.


elliott smith died on october 21st, 2003. he was 34 years old. he and his girlfriend were in their home in california when they got into an argument. his girlfriend, jennifer chiba, went to the bathroom and locked herself in there when she heard a scream from the living room. she ran into the room to find elliott with a knife to his chest. she pulled out the knife (she was a nurse at the time, which means she must have known pulling out the knife would have caused him to bleed out) and he fell to floor which caused chiba to call 911. elliott smith died in the hospital at 1:36pm. a suicide note was found on the scene- but with one problem: his name was misspelled on the suicide note. during an autopsy, doctors found no hesitation wounds on elliott- which are always present on suicide cases in which a knife has been used. while the first ruling of death was claimed to be a suicide, later it was opened up to be a possible homicide. we may never know what actually happened, but if you ask me, i think the reason for his death was right there in the room with him. a memorial was held for him at the same wall where the album cover for his 2000 album figure 8 was taken. 

lasting impact and how he changed my life: the experience of elliott smith

elliott smith completely changed the music scene, and he has been a beloved musician throughout the ages since his death. while the circumstances around his death are deeply sad and troubling, we continue to celebrate his life and his creativity through tribute shows and memorials. he has inspired so many young musicians, including me. elliott’s music has been in my life since i was a very young child, and as soon as i learned to love music, i loved him. he has figuratively and literally saved my life time and time again, and i truly wouldn’t be here without him. he inspires me to write, create, and just as he was- be kind. not a day goes by that i don’t feel his legacy in my own life, and to end this blog i wish to introduce you to a song that will forever cement itself in my heart and my favorite song ever written. it has saved my life multiple times and it will continue to give me reason. here is “angeles.” elliott, we love you. 

“i can make you satisfied in everything you do. all your secret wishes could right now be coming true, and be forever with my poison arms around you.”

“no one’s gonna fool around with us, no one’s gonna fool around with us, so glad to meet you, angeles.”


Author: Erin Erter

erin (they/them) is a published writer who creates in their darkest moments.

4 thoughts on “an ode to elliott smith”

  1. I love the genuine passion you put into just this post; it shows how much Elliot Smith means to you and the impact he’s made on many others as well

  2. I think you should continue to spread your music around. I know I have gotten to listen to a few new artists this year from your blogs.

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