Singer-songwriter Smith's somber beauty plays on

I was in my friend’s car when the song “Say Yes” started playing. It absolutely blew me away. I asked who sang it, and he answered, “Elliott Smith. Here, take some of my CDs of him with you.”

I listened to the CDs and loved them. Some of the songs sounded so familiar, though I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard them. After questioning my friend, I learned that I had actually heard Elliott Smith many times before in the movies “American Beauty” and “Good Will Hunting.” I had even watched his live performance at the 1998 Oscars and had always wanted to learn more about him, but I never got around to it. Now I finally did, and I really loved the music. I kept my friend’s CDs for over six months before I finally bought my own to have other friends listen to them while driving around in my car.

Singer and songwriter Elliott Smith died Tuesday, Oct. 21 at the age of 34 from an apparent suicide. According to his girlfriend, Smith was found in his Los Angeles apartment having “sustained a single stab wound to the chest that appeared to be self-inflicted,” The New York Times reported.

Best known for his contribution to the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack, most notably “Miss Misery,” which brought him a 1998 Academy Award nomination, Smith received praise for his insightful, melancholy lyrics. His musical style is considered most similar to the Beatles, his favorite band, and Nick Drake, an artist whose death in 1974-an overdose on medication-is also speculated to have been a suicide.

Smith released five solo albums, most recently “XO” in 1998 and “Figure 8” in 2000 and was recording “From A Basement on the Hill” at the time of his death. He acquired an underground group of fans after his first three albums, which were produced by independent record labels. His nationally broadcasted performance of “Miss Misery” at the Academy Awards helped propel him to his first major record deal with Dreamworks and worldwide recognition.

Born on Aug. 6, 1969, Steven Paul Smith (he later changed his name to Elliott) only stayed in his birthplace of Omaha, Neb. for a year before his parents, Bunny and Gary Smith, decided to divorce. His mother moved near Dallas, Texas to raise Elliott. He started playing the piano at age nine and composed his first piece just a year later, according to, Smith’s official website.

Smith started playing the guitar at age 12. Two years later, he moved to Portland to live with his father. He attended Lincoln High School, where he and his friends formed the band Stranger than Fiction. He starting going by the name Elliott, because he felt Steve was too “jockish” and Steven was too “bookish.”

Smith, a National Merit Scholar, decided to follow a girlfriend to Hampshire College. There he met Neil Gust, another vocalist and guitarist, and the two formed the band Heatmiser, which lasted through their years at Hampshire to their post-graduation days spent living and performing in Portland. He stayed with Heatmiser for almost ten years, but due to creative differences, Smith decided to begin simultaneous work as a solo artist.

His first two albums, “Roman Candle” in 1994 and “Elliott Smith” in 1995, were recorded while Smith was still playing with Heatmiser. After the production of “Either/Or” in 1997, director Gus van Sant approached Smith to write a song for his new movie, “Good Will Hunting.” The result was “Miss Misery,” and a transition from Heatmiser to a solo career.

Smith’s music is characterized as melancholic, but his style is not that of a stereotypical confessional singer. He writes of alcohol, drugs and love, but he and his guitar sing with an undeniable beauty that, at times, completely overshadows the sadness of the songs. Knowledge about his life, especially his parents’ separation and his eventual addiction to drugs, helps explain the inspiration for much of his lyrics.

“It’s more modern than folk,” fan Lola Milholland ’07 described Smith’s music. “Sometimes I think of him as Elvis Costello, except more trendy. He talks a lot about girls and his relationships with girls. His voice is very soft. His music isn’t extraordinary, but it really is unlike any other.”