Elliott Smith Wasn’t Just A Poet, He Was A Fighter

The new issue of NME is devoted to unsung genius Elliott Smith. Here, the songwriter’s close friend, photographer Autumn De Wilde, remembers him

One of my first memories of Elliott is seeing him in New York, about a year after ‘Either/Or’ came out. He was meeting his friend for a drink and I was meeting my friend for dinner, but when I came back a few hours later, he was still there, sitting in the window of the bar, writing lyrics on napkins. We hung out all night, and then he crashed on my floor afterwards.

The first time we took pictures was the very next day, when we went for breakfast. He was very shy, and I only took a couple of photos. We were walking around the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and for some reason the word ‘Freak’ seemed to have been written on every street corner, so we took some of that. It’s probably a pretty good explanation of his sense of humour.

Stream new compilation ‘An Introduction To… Elliott Smith’

Later on, someone asked me to send in my portfolio when he was looking for photographers to shoot the ‘Figure 8’ cover. We met a couple of nights later to talk about what he wanted to do, and I’d been warned that he hated having his photo taken.

Elliott Smith – archive interview

And he did, but at the same time he was sick of taking photos the same way. He told me that ‘Everyone thinks that I want everything black and dark and depressing – I’m more than just the depressed guy.’ And it’s true, he was.

Elliott Smith – a photo tribute

The album cover for ‘Figure 8’, I cut the photo up and did a collage of a few photos. After an hour of shooting, I could tell he was really tired and… needed a drink, basically. So I asked my make-up artist Georgie to do a cartwheel in front of him as I was taking the picture, to mix it up a little bit. So the cover photo is him trying to ignore her as she’s cartwheeling by.

I think my favourite thing about Elliott’s songwriting is that as sad as some of it is, he was so powerful. He was a fighter, and his songs aren’t just delicate and pretty and sad.

Elliott Smith in Los Angeles, 2003, five months before his death

I guess I’d want people to remember what a great poet he was, and that he wasn’t just writing down his diary. He was crafting his observations of the world, and turning it into great poetry and great melodies. There’s still so much about his music that’s still to be discovered. There are so many mysteries in his lyrics.

The new issue of NME, featuring interviews with those who knew Elliott Smith best, is on sale from Wednesday 27 October.