A native of Portland, Oregon, Smith began writing and recording his first songs at age 14, later becoming a fixture of the city's thriving music scene. As a member of the band Heatmiser
, he debuted in 1993 with the LP Dead Air, issuing his first solo effort, Roman Candle, on the tiny Cavity Search
label a year later. For his 1995 self-titled album, Smith signed with the noted Kill Rock Stars
label. Either/Or followed in early 1997, around the same time that filmmaker and longtime fan Gus Van Sant
requested permission to use the singer's music in his upcoming character drama Good Will Hunting.
Smith also composed a handful of original songs for the soundtrack, among them "Miss Misery." When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Oscar nominations the following February, the track was a surprise entry in the Best Original Song category. Although he did not win, the soft-spoken Smith performed the song live at the televised Oscar broadcast, appearing on-stage alongside superstars Trisha Yearwood
and Celine Dion
in a notably surreal musical moment. Smith's Dreamworks
label debut, XO, followed later in 1998 and reached number 104 on the Billboard 200, charting among the Top 50 in Australia and Sweden. Two years later he delivered Figure 8, which delved further into lush arrangements and orchestrations. It charted in several European countries and hit number 99 in the U.S. For the next two years, Smith labored over what was to be his next album, From a Basement on the Hill. He would not live to see the album's completion, however.
To the shock of friends and fans alike, Smith's body was found on October 21, 2003, with two stab wounds in his chest. To date, the coroner has been unable to determine whether he committed suicide or was murdered, and the Los Angeles Police Department's investigation remains open. From a Basement on the Hill was released one year later, just two days shy of the first anniversary of his death, to a warm critical reception. It also became his only Billboard Top 20 album, reaching number 19 in 2004. In 2007, the Kill Rock Stars
label issued a two-disc set of Smith's unreleased work, all of which had been recorded between 1994 and 1997. Entitled New Moon, the 24-track collection contained three songs that had been previously released on hard-to-find compilations or soundtracks, including an early version of "Miss Misery" and a cover of Big Star
's "Thirteen." It, too, charted in several countries, peaking at number 24 in the U.S. A career compilation titled An Introduction to Elliott Smith appeared in 2010, and in 2015 Smith was the subject of a documentary called Heaven Adores You. The first such documentary to receive permission to use his music, its soundtrack album followed in 2016 and landed on the soundtracks chart. A 20th anniversary reissue of Either/Or returned Smith to the Billboard 200 in 2017. ~ Jason Ankeny & Marcy Donelson, Rovi