Elliott Smith ‘Heaven Adores You’: The Untold Stories & Photos Behind The Songs

Incredible untold stories & photos from Elliott Smith's life, as told by friends, family & collaborators.

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud

In July of 2015 long-awaited DVD release of Heaven Adores You finally arrived, a documentary on the life of the late Elliott Smith which soundtracked by previously unheard — and often unfinished — songs as it traces Smith’s music and life through his upbringing, early artistry and transitions in the public eye.

The film, which was Kickstarted in 2011, is a savored gem for Smith’s fans as it documented the scene from which he emerged, following the thread of the songwriter’s life and creations through “the dense yet often isolating landscapes of the three major cities he lived in: Portland, New York & Los Angeles.” 

Heaven Adores You was the first project of its kind to have access to Smith’s music. Producer Kevin Moyer, a high school acquaintance of Smith’s who also served as music supervisor and score composer on the film, was joined by a cast of constellatory figures in Smith’s life including his sister Ashley, former bandmates and collaborators Jon Brion, Larry Crane, Tony Lash, Joanna Bolme, Rob Schnapf, Kill Rock Stars’ Slim Moon, and others. You can find the remarkable documentary on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes – a must-watch for Smith fans. 

What follows is an incredibly in-depth Crave-exclusive photographic journey and commentary from Moyer, as well as the film’s director Nickolas Rossi, producer Rob Schnapf and several others involved in Smith’s life and/or the production of the film. Most of these stories have never been told, with an accompanying gallery of 45 photos that offer a candid look into the life, upbringing and world of the tragic icon who left us too soon.

Moyer introduces the collection:

Our intention was always to make a film about an artist that tries to explain why we all loved him so much. There have been many great artists, and many who are no longer with us, but for Elliott Smith his music still impacts audiences today as strongly as the day it was first released. In putting together this project, we felt that the focus shouldn’t be about the last few minutes of his life, rather it should be about the many years that came before, and of course the art and legacy that he left behind.

Elliott’s music is still cherished by many and we wanted to make this about the music, bring the focus back to where it should be, where he would want it to be. But in doing so, when you make a movie about an artist that you want to share with the broadest audience possible, you have to try to speak to everyone… people who are already familiar with him and his music and those who are not, and everyone in between.

00_INTRO

So we told his story, from the words and music that he gave us and also with contributions from those who were closest to him. For the hardcore fan, we slipped in as many unreleased gems of music that we could; and for the people who would hopefully fall in love with his music for the first time, we included many that are his classics or might perhaps already be recognizable.

The truth is, it’s hard to even find a bad song that he wrote, I am not sure that one even exists, so my job as music supervisor was really very easy. Since we spent so much time in the film telling his story, and listening to his beautiful music, we thought that it might be nice to extend the conversation here and tell you some stories about the music that we used. Thank you for listening.

 1 Exordium_ photo credit Heaven Adores You

“Exordium”
2013-2014 // SCORE written, performed and produced by Kevin Moyer and Greg Snell

KEVIN MOYER (Heaven Adores You Producer, Music Supervisor, and Score Composer):
I feel like the first 8 minutes or so of the film, is more like the prologue where we set up what happened and also kind of tackle the elephant in the room so that people know that Elliott is no longer with us, so that there is proper context to all of the interviews when you see how people on screen are reacting. So the first two score pieces of music that we hear in the film, from my perspective at least, are just set up and there to set the mood. And also to provide a foil for the Elliott tracks, some sound so that the viewer isn’t sitting in silence, but to also be a buffer that lets the Elliott Smith songs really pop that much more when they come into frame. So this first piece that appears in the film is score music that I created, and we hear it open up the movie and set Elliott’s story into motion. We also used it in the trailer for the film and we got lots of people asking who did it, which was a nice compliment, but we didn’t really want to divulge what it was because we wanted the focus to be on Elliott. But it would have been too expensive to license an Elliott song for use in the trailer- music licensing for advertising is like twenty times as much as we spent to use music in the movie. So we snuck this score track into the trailer, which creatively worked best anyhow since it kind of sets up the vibe straight away and is the start of the movie too so it feels like a proper introduction for both.

NICKOLAS ROSSI (Heaven Adores You Director, Director of Photography, and Producer):
I love how this was composed and how well it fit with the opening shots above Portland. It has that ethereal feeling of being in the clouds and it gives us the perfect introduction to Portland and to the story.

KEVIN MOYER: But it took a while to get the right tone and feeling for this one. I think that Nickolas had this opening scene in mind as he was building the edit, or at least he had an idea of how he wanted to start the story, and he sent me a track from another artist that he liked the style and vibe of to go with what he was thinking, and I was trying to figure out how to write one of our own that had the same feeling. We didn’t want to replicate the reference track, we didn’t want it to be similar, rather we wanted to replicate the feeling and vibe that the song evoked. So, I was working on what would go here for a while, trying different things, trying different guitars and different guitar sounds. The base to the song was there, the murky first slide that falls just beneath Elliott’s words, but I just couldn’t find the right riff or guitar tone to go on top and to carry on into the scene. Everything leaned too hard one way – too happy or too sad, when I think we wanted something that was haunting but not scary either, something that was introspective and reflective but not sad. I had that opening fog of heavy with the sound slide and then the sound of the strings being touched and released throughout, and I wanted this heavenly riff to just come out of it and just float along with the camera, but I just couldn’t find it. Then I thought of a riff that friend and musician Greg Snell had done, whom I had worked with previous and is just a really great musician. I wish he would get his guitars back out and start writing his own songs again.

Anyhow, I reached out and Greg was nice enough to let me borrow his riff and he told me that he was actually a big fan and gave his son the middle name Elliott. I had no idea, it was just one of those synergistic things that seemed to pop up all over this project in really nice ways. So I tried that riff with the music that I had already created, softening it a bit with some reverb plates and adding some ethereal sounds of Elliott’s voice tone panned on each side but just below the surface, and then the tone of that riff completely took over the composition and just leads in such a beautiful way. Its so warm but also sparse and lonely at the same time. Which felt fitting because Elliott’s music can be the same way. I think it actually sounds very dissonant all put together too because the pads are in a totally different key, but I think that’s part of what makes it work too – the pieces still work together but the dissonance is separate enough that it floats even amongst itself and that further lends to the imagery of the camera floating over the trees of Portland that we shot out of a low flying helicopter. It took a while to get there, but it turned out to be a piece that really helped to capture the mood. I decided to title it “Exordium”, the definition of which is the beginning or start, and that’s how this song fits into the film. Plus when you break down the word, it all starts with E, and the beginning is essentially pronounced XO.

 2 Everyone Loses Something_ photo credit Heaven Adores You

“Everyone Loses Something”
2013-2014 // SCORE // written and performed and produced by Kevin Moyer

KEVIN MOYER: This is the second piece of score music, and I remember being in a very dark mood the day that I recorded this. I think it kind of reflects having to relive all the dark feelings associated with Elliott’s passing and the commiserating with friends throughout just maybe trying to get some closure was laying very heavy on me. Everyone loses something. Elliott. Us. It was just this sludge and murk that I didn’t know how to get out of my system so I sat down with the guitar to try to get it out. Which by the way is what Elliott would often do, he would sit down and purge his emotion through writing a song. To get it out of his system. So that’s maybe why his songs are so full of emotion because he is laying it all there. And then he would jump up from the writing and from the bad mood and be ready to go again. But all that we as listeners hear on the record is the songs and you don’t see him joking around five minutes later. So the myth propagates itself. This one felt like walking the streets, alone, at night with darkness at your heels. And hearing it put with the visuals of the Figure 8 Wall memorial filmed the day after Elliott died really heightened that vibe. It also does a great job of being a really ugly and downtrodden foil to the first beautiful Elliott track (“Angeles”) that comes immediately after it.

NICKOLAS ROSSI: The one thing that really stuck out for me with this piece was the sound of the pick being dragged across the string, and how it took my breath away.The slow, minimal instrumentation here really leaves the images of notes left for Elliott and his friend’s reaction to the news that he died to fill the void.

3 Angeles_ photo credit Heaven Adores You

“Angeles”
written and performed by Elliott Smith June 1996 // Produced by Elliott Smith, Rob Schnapf & Tom Rothrock / Recorded and Mixed by Rob Schnapf & Tom Rothrock at The Shop

KEVIN MOYER: The first Elliott song we hear and it’s perfect. The way the guitar comes rolling in as the imagery of the train rolling through the snowcapped mountains really brings Elliott to the forefront and I love that this is the first piece of Elliott music that the audience hears because it is a classic. His voice comes in and you can’t help but recognize its beauty. It’s such a beautiful song to kick off from.

NICKOLAS ROSSI: I wanted the first Elliott Smith song to be somewhere in the middle of early lo-fi and later fully produced. We wanted the fans to recognize it, but not feel like it was too well known, or a hit right out of the gate. The fact that it’s the track that opens us to Elliott’s music and is immediately followed by Chris Douridas announcing the title on the radio was the best way I could think of to open the story. The opening lone whistle of the track was the hook for me when paired with the images from above Portland, over the train on the tracks.

ROB SCHNAPF (Producer of albums Either/Or, XO, Figure 8, From a Basement on the Hill and more): I think it’s one of the first songs we finished on “Either/Or”. Elliott had started it or made an attempt at it working at Waterfront Studios in Hoboken. I think the Waterfront might’ve been a first attempt at either/or working in a real studio outside of the safety of Portland. We ended up recutting the song but we kept the organ from the Waterfront version. We just flew it in into the new version where ever it was needed. And it was the icing on the cake….

LARRY CRANE (Owner of Jackpot! Recording Studio, Elliott Smith Estate archivist).: That early version of “Angeles” was recorded by Greg Di Gesu at Waterfront Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey, on March 25 and 26, 1996. Greg always wondered how that organ ended up on a different take of the song!