Shawn Smith, the gifted, soulful singer-songwriter who played with some of Seattle’s biggest musical names, but never reached the level of fame many felt he deserved, died Friday.
Smith, 53, was found at his Seattle home. The King County medical examiner confirmed his death Saturday. A later autopsy determined he died April 3 from a torn aorta and high blood pressure.
That Smith’s body was discovered on April 5 — the very day that musicians and fans marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and the 17th year without Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley — added a certain measure of disbelief to the news. One fan suggested online that April 5 be removed from the calendar.
In recent weeks, Smith was working on a new album with the band Brad, which he founded in 1992 with Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, drummer Regan Hagar and bassist Jeremy Toback. They were recording at Studio Litho, owned by Gossard.
Born in Spokane, Smith went to high school in Bakersfield, California, and came to Seattle in 1987. Not long after, he formed the group Satchel with Hagar. They took a break to join up with Gossard to form Brad, which put out its first album, “Shame,” in 1993. The band would go on to put out five albums, including “Interiors,” which features one of Smith’s best-known songs, “The Day Brings.”
Around the same time, Smith joined up with producer Steve Fisk in a collaboration called Pigeonhed, which released three albums between 1993 and 1997.
In 2006, he sang with a reunited version of the band Malfunkshun, originally formed by Kevin and Andrew Wood, who would go on to form Mother Love Bone with Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament before his death in 1990.
Smith made four records with Satchel, and appeared on The Afghan Whigs’ album “Black Love,” as well as Whigs founder Greg Dulli’s solo album. He was in two other bands, All Hail the Crown and From the North, and toured with both.
One of his last public performances was on Feb. 15 for the annual “Gimme Shelter” concert to end homelessness, put together by Billy Joe Huels of the Dusty 45s.
Smith performed a set of songs for which he made his mark: “The Day Brings,” “Wrapped in My Memory,” and a version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” that folded into Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns.”
In a Facebook post, bassist Andy Stoller, who performs with Heart, recalled a recent call from Smith, asking him to play on a new song he was recording called “Air That I Breathe.”
“The song and his vision were stunning,” Stoller wrote. “I hope we can share Shawn’s beautiful song soon. His loss is devastating.”
Despite his immense talent — his whiskeyed voice was bluesy and lullabye tender, yet able to hold on to the hardest rock riffs — Smith never achieved the success of some of his peers.
“I don’t deserve any more than anyone else,” Smith said in 2016. “I just was never focused on making money. It was always about making the best songs I could make. That was my goal, to be a songwriter.”
Three years ago, a friend created a GoFundMe page for Smith with good intentions, but without his knowledge. The campaign raised $12,000 from 242 people in just three days.
It embarrassed him, but it also woke him up not only to the fact that he was loved and cared for, but that he tended to get in his own way.
“I need to cross over into a new stage of my life,” he said.
Smith is survived by a teenage son, named Dove, who posted a message of thanks on his father’s Facebook page on Saturday:
“I think he’d want all of you to know he’s leaving his love for all of us, me and my mom both know how grateful he is for all of you. Thank you everyone and we’ll leave you with one of many beautiful Shawn Smith lyrics.
“Lover don’t walk away
without kissing my cheek,
Lover don’t walk away
Without saying I love you
Lover don’t pretend
That you are weak
Lover I know
You’re stronger than me”
Correction: This article was corrected on April 7, 2019. An earlier version incorrectly said that Smith was an original member of Malfunkshun and misstated the number of albums recorded by Satchel.