The album Elliott Smith was working on throughout the last year of his life was an extraordinarily diverse effort that ranged from “phenomenal, experimental soundscapes to the most intimate guitar vocals,” his DreamWorks Records A&R man, Luke Wood, tells Billboard.com.
“He was really having fun experimenting with recording,” Wood says. “And as always with Elliott, the lyrics were incredibly poignant and very consistent and very beautiful.” However diverse, the album — reportedly titled “From a Basement on the Hill” — was a focused effort, Woods notes. “It wasn’t like a free-for-all.”
There’s no word yet on what will happen to the recordings. Although Smith had tracked more than 30 songs and was said to have been considering a double album, Wood says it’s unclear how many are complete, as Smith had a habit of working on multiple songs at a time. “He was always editing and working,” he says. “He always had a large cycle of songs that he was making better, and sometimes that cycle took years.”
Yet the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd tells Billboard.com that when he did some casual recording with Smith roughly a year ago, the singer had “tons of stuff that hasn’t been released. And I know a bunch was recorded and mixed and all ready to go.”
Smith, 34, died Tuesday after apparently stabbing himself in the heart. According to a source, he did so using a steak knife at his girlfriend’s apartment in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
About a year ago, Smith built his own studio in Los Angeles, and it was there that he was focusing on “From a Basement on the Hill.” Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simins, who occasionally collaborated with Smith onstage and in the studio, says he recently recorded with the singer at his own studio in New York.
Some of the new songs Smith was working on included “Strung Out Again,” “Let’s Get Lost,” “Shooting Star,” “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity To Be Free” and “Fond Farewell.” The titles seem to suggest he may have been contemplating suicide and revisiting his frequent themes of addiction.
In a highly unusual move, Wood says DreamWorks had reached an agreement with Smith that allowed him to take a “sabbatical” from the label. The singer, Wood says, was looking for a more intimate way to reconnect with the fans who had followed him since his indie days, during which he issued albums for the Cavity Search and Kill Rock Stars labels.
“It was sort of like, ‘How do you continue to motivate and be a true partner to an artist who’s gonna want to take turns and do different things, and reach his audience more directly without going through radio or MTV?'” Wood says. “I think it was really a sense of him being able to feel like he was in control of his own destiny. And he wanted to bring it down and do sort of less promotion, and focus just more on making a record and getting it out.”
Smith, Wood says, was going to release “From a Basement on the Hill” on an independent label of his choosing, even though he would have remained signed to DreamWorks. During his five-year tenure with the label, Smith issued a handful of releases on indies. In August, he released the single “Pretty (Ugly Before)” as a limited-edition seven-inch on the Suicide Squeeze label.
While it was well-known amongst his friends and peers that Smith was battling alcohol and hard drug addiction and depression — for which he was on medication, according to a source — Wood says the singer’s suicide was still quite shocking. In the past six months, Wood says, the singer seemed hopeful and excited about completing the album and then launching a tour to support it.
Says Simins, “He seemed to be doing really well lately. That’s why it’s really sad. We all had a hope that he was in a good way, or at least heading towards that.”
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne wasn’t so optimistic about Smith’s state of mind. He recalled the Lips’ show in Los Angeles with Beck last year, where a bloated and clearly frustrated Smith was involved in a scuffle with police and seemed to be clearly losing his fight with addiction. “It really was nothing but sad,” Coyne says. “You just sort of saw a guy who had lost control of himself. He was needy, he was grumpy, he was everything you wouldn’t want in a person. It’s not like when you think of Keith Richards being pleasantly blissed out in the corner.”
“I think it points out how unglamorous the whole drug thing really is,” Coyne continues. “For the people who knew him, the people who were around him, it was horrible. It’s not this glamorous, jetsetting, beautiful lifestyle that everybody dreams of rock’n’roll heaven being. It wasn’t like that at all. It was ugly. It was sad.”
Adds Drozd, “There’s an undercurrent of f***in’ real sadness in a lot of his music that just f***in’ crushes me. And that’s just really the way he was. I hate to sound that way, but he really was. And I can hear it in his music. That’s totally him.”
Addiction, Wood says, was “a constant battle for him, but I gotta say, I thought it was one he was winning.” Wood called Smith the “essence of what we would want DreamWorks as a culture to stand for — the true song craft, the ambition, the artistry, his performance ability. I think he challenged the rules of songwriting and being a pop artist.”
He adds that to Smith, life was “a very beautiful and brutal place, and his songs were that ground in between.”
What was lost Tuesday, Simins says, was “someone who was really admirable as a person and as a star. There’s so much bulls*** around, so many unhumble people who are all about the glitz and the glam and the bulls***. What we lost is a very, very, very, very truthful, truthful, honest star. I think both as a person and as a musician, as an artist. It’s really sad because he was just brutally, brutally honest. And very smart. And if you put the two together, it’s undeniably appealing.”