Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith are two musicians who share more than just a North West residency. Fiercely independent, and committed to doing things their own way, they epitomize the vibes of Seattle and Portland respectively.
Below I explain how Cobain and Smith, and Seattle and Portland, are two songwriters and cities united by the spirit of DIY.
Recommended reading: Thank you Elliott Smith
Though he’s one Seattle’s most famous residents, Kurt Cobain was born in the neighboring fishing city Aberdeen.
The first gig Cobain attended was held in Seattle, with Sammy Hagar and Quarterflash playing the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1983. Cobain would regularly see punk shows in Seattle during his teens.
Cobain formed Nirvana in 1987 and the group quickly became associated with Seattle’s DIY punk scene, which evolved into the grunge movement that gave Seattle global fame.
Despite his long connection with Seattle, Cobain only moved to Seattle in 1992. Cobain spent less than two years of his life living in Seattle but the city “embraced him as one of their own.” Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home on 8 April 1994.
A “learn-as-you-play” star
Cobain was known for his outspoken views for minorities and vulnerable members of society, voicing support for female, black, homosexual rights. But he also spoke about his DIY approach to his art.
In 1991, Cobain told an interviewer: “I don’t understand anything technical about music at all… We were never good enough or had the patience to do it! So we put that energy into putting our own stuff together. We’re from the learn-as-you-play school. We’re still in it.”
This desire to create art on his own terms was shared by Cobain’s Seattle peers. However, the global success of Nirvana meant Cobain’s DIY spirit inspired artists far and beyond, with commentators pointing out that Cobain’s “do-it-yourself attitude” influenced “everything from indie to pop and grime.”
Seattle, achieving success with a little help from itself
Cobain showed the world it’s possible to achieve your dreams on your own terms. Today there are numerous examples of Seattle residents who have taken this DIY ethos to heart.
Sub Pop chief executive officer Megan Jasper explains: ““We are a very progressive, forward-thinking city, and I think a part of why we are is because we care about each other.”
But it’s not just the music scene remains fiercely committed to doing things on its own terms.
Seattle is a tech heavyweight, one that has long been predicted to become the next Silicon Valley. With its tech and creative qualities, Seattle is city brimming with startups, as you can see from the top Seattle listings, who are making their own success – Cobain would approve.
Portland adores you, Elliott Smith
It’s 20 years since a little-known songwriter from Rose City was nominated for a Oscar. Elliott Smith’s work on the soundtrack for Good Will Hunting brought the Portland indie scene to global attention, but he wasn’t born in the city.
Smith was born in Nebraska, and raised in Texas. But unlike Kurt Cobain, Smith spent a significant portion of his life in the place he’s most associated with.
He moved to Portland aged 14. It was in Portland that he changed his name from Steven to Elliott (considering his birth name to be jockish). It was also in Portland that he made music his life. Smith first played in post hardcore band, Heatmiser, before striking out on his own.
However, Smith left Portland before recording his seminal third album (1997’s Either/Or) and his Oscar nomination and appearance. He went to Brooklyn and then LA, where he died on 21 October 2003.
An artist everywhere, even under the stairs
Smith was an artist of contrasts. He was a punk who played an acoustic guitar. He was a Portland hero whose greatest success came after he left the city. He was a softly spoken brawler. However, one area without contrast was his music. He believed in his independence and practised it – even when he signed it away to a major label.
He left Heatmiser as the bad was primed for success because he wanted control over his own direction. He recorded his first record under the stairs in his apartment, and played every instrument on his third – in addition to recording it.
Indeed, his way of keeping in touch with his punk mentality was decidedly DIY. Using an acoustic guitar ran against the, riff heavy, distortion laden formula used by punk. Smith, though, would not have it any other way, explaining: “playing it safe is the most popular way to fail.”
Portland, changing the world on its own terms
Like Smith, Portland sticks out among its peers. As Portland Monthly explains: “Portland will never have New York’s money, DC’s clout, or London’s connections. But… [it] has become its own kind of capital city for global action.”
Portland goes about changing the world on its own terms, using the same DIY ethos as Elliott Smith. Indeed, it’s been asked if Portland is too DIY – absolutely not.
Like Seattle, the creative DIY spirit burns bright – Portlandia is a terrific example of this – and the startup mentality runs strong. And also like Seattle, Portland is a tech leader, as you can see from the top Portland listings, that’s doing things its own way.
Neither Kurt Cobain nor Elliott Smith were born in the cities most closely associated with their names. Nor are they solely responsible for the do-it-yourself ethos that drives them. However, they’re two kindred spirits from two kindred cities. United by their spirit of DIY and admired the world over.
Victoria Greene is a branding consultant and freelance writer. On her blog, VictoriaEcommerce, she drops nuggets of advice for DIY business owners. A big music fan, her first love was Nirvana, and her favorite album is Elliott Smith’s Either/Or.