On her 21st birthday, Arlo Parks decided to get a new tattoo—the words “Either/Or” inked on her ankle in her close friend’s handwriting. “It’s funny,” the UK singer-songwriter tells Apple Music, “because I know a lot of people—a lot of artists—with Elliott Smith tattoos. But I see him almost as this presence that follows me. When I'm in the studio, almost every time I’ll think of him: What would he do, or how would he approach the story I have in my head? So, I thought, ‘Why not carry him with me in some way?’”
Parks’ tattoo is the title of Smith’s definitive 1997 LP, a record that, 25 years later, has become both blueprint and spiritual text for a generation of artists who discovered the singer-songwriter’s work well after his death in 2003. Though Smith had clearly come of age studying the melodies of Lennon and McCartney, his river of influence has split and spilled outward in surprising directions, resonating worlds away from its source. His songs have been covered by Billie Eilish, Julien Baker, and Mac Miller, sampled by Lil B, and interpolated by Frank Ocean. He’s left an impression on a cross-section of contemporary pop that transcends genre—from the poetics of Parks and Lucy Dacus to the hushed atmospherics of Eilish, from the open-hearted hip-hop of slowthai to the ambient melancholy of Phoebe Bridgers, whose Grammy-nominated 2020 breakthrough, Punisher, takes its name from a song in which she imagines herself stalking Smith through Silver Lake, the Los Angeles neighborhood he used to haunt. “Listening to Either/Or,” Dacus says, “I’m like, ‘Oh. Yeah. Everyone I know that makes music is ripping this guy off.’”
It’s not so much about signifiers, though, as it is a feeling. If a young songwriter draws influence from Dylan, you’ll likely hear it in an incandescent turn of phrase, or the way they stretch and slant their voice to sound just like his. If it’s Springsteen, you’re almost certain to be hit by shiplike choruses laced with sax and bells. But Smith has become secondhand for something more diffuse and difficult to define: a raw vulnerability that can translate in so many forms.
“It’s a frequency,” slowthai says. “You’ve lived it and understand it, or you haven’t and you won’t be able to. It’s either for you or it isn’t.”
So much of Elliott Smith’s appeal comes down to approachability. Like his 1995 self-titled LP and 1994’s Roman Candle before it, Either/Or was recorded in various apartments in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, Smith playing every instrument himself. At no point did it obscure his way with graceful, pristine melody. “I feel like he definitely inspired a lot of people to just start making shit in their house,” Bridgers says. “I think that’s such a popular sound now. It’s hard to know how much he influenced it or if he just would’ve thrived in this current climate.”
Take a quick glance at its cover art and you’ll find a candid image of Smith looking up from his cigarette in front of a graffiti’d mirror backstage, at a now defunct club in Arizona where he’d opened for fellow home-recording enthusiasts Sebadoh in 1996: This wasn’t so much a troubled genius as someone you might have passed on the street or sat beside at a dive bar, maybe bumped into in a thrift store. Dacus, who also plays with Bridgers and Baker in the indie-rock supergroup boygenius, was drawn to how conversational Smith’s work can feel. “The writing is so good, but his voice is so attainable,” she says. “The arrangements are brilliant, I think, but not difficult. It feels like music your friend would make to try and tell you that something was wrong. It inspires closeness.”
That feeling can be traced, in large part, to the way Smith recorded most of his earliest work: on four- or eight-track tape machines, doubling his vocals so that he’d always sound as though he’s just inches away from you—like you’re alone with him in a dimly lit room late at night, just talking. “There’s a wonkiness to it that I hold dear to my heart,” Parks says of Either/Or, highlighting the floppy snare sound of opener “Speed Trials” as a prime example. “Even now,” she adds, “when I have access to studios, there’s still that sense of wanting to keep it small and intimate and personal. And I think I get that from Elliott.”
At the time of its release, Either/Or felt almost radical: In a post-Nirvana landscape still dominated by loud, abrasive rock bands—including his own, Heatmiser, which he would finally dissolve in 1997 so that he could proceed alone—Smith’s impulse was to scale down, to whisper into the mic while others were screaming. He’d grown up in Texas, getting into fistfights, suffering abuse from a stepfather who’d become a frequent presence in his songs—but on his right bicep, Smith had a tattoo of Ferdinand, the bull who had no interest in fighting. Whereas the high-gloss, highly compressed sonics of Nevermind would define so much of the ’90s—not to mention the aggressively masculine nu-metal that began to gain momentum that year—Smith’s early solo records have a texture and a fragility that continue to set them apart.
That level of intimacy also seems to naturally inspire solitary listening—music fit for a world in which so many of us seem to feel alone, no matter how online or connected we’ve become. slowthai often finds himself turning to it when he’s painting at home. “Some of my friends, they’re obviously not into music like that at all,” he says. “And when they come in, they’re just like, ‘This is mad depressed.’ But I’m like, ‘The man’s telling you how he is feeling, you know what I mean?’” After hearing Smith for the first time while watching Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums, where early single “Needle in the Hay”—both a song he’s covered for Apple Music and one in which Smith sketches a portrait of a junkie, mimicking the hiss of heroin as it cooks—soundtracks a suicide attempt, his response was immediate: “Fucking hell, who is this then?”
As a lyricist, Smith was often devastating, offering painterly detail on just how painful the everyday can be, whether he’s telling stories of addiction (“Between the Bars,” “Ballad of Big Nothing”), alienation (“Rose Parade”), trauma (“No Name No. 5”), or even physical violence (“2:45 AM”). On one of his most beloved songs, “Say Yes”—written about then-girlfriend Joanna Bolme—he offers something that resembles optimism, sifting through the ruins of a breakup in search of a second chance. “When I first started writing songs,” Bridgers says, “I thought it had to be a story, like a Western where someone’s fucking wronged and then they shoot the person who’s fucking their wife or whatever. I like that he’s writing about how mundane life can be. That’s something I talk about a lot, and I think it’s the most influential thing from Elliott’s music to me: He’s talking about how torturous it is just to go outside and see the Rose Parade.”
His level of vulnerability would typically leave live audiences silent—and decades later, it’s inspiring artists to follow suit. slowthai points to “adhd”—closing track to the introspective second half of his 2021 LP, TYRON—as an example of Smith’s influence. “He’s allowed me to be a lot more vulnerable, to really get in touch with my emotions and feelings and not be afraid to do it,” he says of Smith. “His music has made me feel like it’s OK to not be OK.”
Parks has had a similar response. “When you listen to songs like ‘Twilight’ or ‘Between the Bars,’ there’s this real sense that he’s baring his soul, unflinchingly,” she says. “It inspired this feeling, from very early on, that if I wanted to connect or if I wanted to be truthful, then it was going to be a little bit scary and there were going to be moments where I felt like I was revealing a little bit too much.”
Either/Or would find Smith—with the help of coproducers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock—starting to utilize more muscular arrangements (see: “Cupids Trick”), building a bridge from his lo-fi beginnings to the more ambitious and symphonic-pop records he’d go on to make next: 1998’s XO and 2000’s Figure 8, as well as 2004’s posthumous From a Basement on the Hill. But it also signaled the end of something: Smith’s time in Portland; his time with Kill Rock Stars, the small indie label he’d leave for a major-label deal, a decision whose ethical implications (a late-’90s relic, for sure) he’d already hinted at on “Angeles.” A year after the album’s release, Smith briefly became a mainstream concern when his contributions to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack (many of which were Either/Or singles) resulted in an Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery,” which he performed for a televised audience of millions with an orchestra, an unknown dressed in a white suit.
Just five years later, he was gone, dead from a self-inflicted knife wound to the heart that Courtney Love would later call “the best suicide I ever heard of.” As in the case of Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, it’s become difficult to separate Smith’s struggles with addiction and depression from the many references he made to it in his work. “I think some people make music as performance,” Dacus says, “and I just feel like he wasn’t really performing anything. ”
There are obvious lessons there for new artists. Bridgers points to a 1998 clip famous among Smith fans, from Dutch television, where he’s unable to finish performing XO’s “Waltz #2 (XO)” simply because he couldn’t fake it any longer. “One of the saddest things ever,” she says. “He’s getting really close. It’s the bridge, and he’s just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’ve just played this song too many times. I’m sorry.’ It breaks my heart. I feel like I’ve had that feeling, but he seemed to think about that shit a lot more than other people: the commodification of something that you used to like until you hate it.”
Either/Or takes its name from 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s first published work, a theory on human existence that separates life into two paths or modes of being: the hedonistic (or aesthetic) and the moral. Smith studied philosophy at Hampshire College, and you can tell, Dacus says: “When you think about things in binaries like that, it can just rip you apart. I think it’s important to express how you feel and I am thankful to him for doing it, but I think, honestly, there’s a lesson: If you give everything away and then you have to sing it every night and reiterate to yourself that you’re despicable and unlovable, then you might just start to believe it. So, I actually don’t want to be like him—I want to write things that make my days feel easier instead of harder.”
When asked how it’s possible that Either/Or could continue to resonate like it has among so many artists who’d never had a chance to see him up-close, slowthai pauses. “I’ve never really thought about it,” he says. “It’s just been a therapy, something to help me out. The guy, for me, he’s an angel, really: He came, then left what he needed to leave. He was from a small place, somewhere he felt alienated, and he put that into his music. I think, nowadays, everyone feels that same way, feels those same feelings: alienated and lost. The music speaks to them, that generation of people. And I’m one of them.”