Shawn Smith, the immensely soulful singer-songwriter who played with the groups Brad, Pigeonhead, and Satchel died at his Seattle home on April 5. Some outlets reported that Smith passed away due to complications from diabetes, but his bandmate in Brad, Regan Hagar, said that Smith had succumbed to a heart issue unrelated to that disease. He was 53. In a strange coincidence, fellow Seattle luminaries Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) died on the same date in 1994 and 2002, respectively.
Blessed with a voice that could flit from diaphanous falsetto to stealthy growl with the élan of the greatest in the soul genre (Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Prince—the latter being Smith's main inspiration), Smith was also a poet of wounded romance. In a feature about Pigeonhed from the time of their 2010 comeback—Pigeonhed being the most interesting musical project in which Smith played, in my estimation—I wrote: "Pigeonhed's two [studio] albums fuse silky R&B and gritty funk to eccentric electronic music with exuberant expressiveness. Amid the grunge explosion, the debut sounded like a true oddity—an unabashedly romantic and vulnerable yet unclichéd soul record that sprouted in a manly-man milieu of lumberjack rock."
The ultra-sensual ballad "Her" off 1993's Pigeonhed represents a peak in Seattle—nay, global—music history. Pigeonhed's best-known song, the militantly funky "Battle Flag," from 1997's The Full Sentence, became a hit when English group Lo Fidelity Allstars remixed it; that version—which appeared on the Pigeonhed collection, Flash Bulb Emergency Overflow Cavalcade of Remixes as well as on LFA's How to Operate with a Blown Mind—ended up getting licensed for several films and TV shows. It's a galvanizing track, and it reveals Smith at his most combative.
Bruce Pavitt, who helped bring to fruition Pigeonhed's self-titled 1993 album on Sub Pop, stated in an email interview, “I remember Shawn as a sweet, soft-spoken individual who unveiled a powerful voice once on stage. Introduced to me by Sub Pop partner Jon Poneman, Shawn’s angelic, soulful style was at odds with the grunge vibe that was blowing by up in the early '90s. Despite his low-key presence, he did involve himself with a number of interesting acts, including the ahead-of-its-time Pigeonhed project, which featured both Shawn and production genius Steve Fisk. Shawn was a gentle spirit with a heart of gold—he was highly respected by the Seattle music community and will be truly missed. Lots of tears right now, as the collective shock is still sinking in.”
Born in Spokane in 1965, Smith moved to Seattle in 1987,
and performed with Malfunkshun. In addition to the bands mentioned above, Smith maintained a busy solo career and guested on records by Critters Buggin and the Twilight Singers. He is survived by his son Dove.
A third Pigeonhed full-length has been in the works for many years. In a 2010 interview in these page with Trent Moorman, Fisk described the album in progress:
Shawn's voice sounds thick and gutsy. It's a home-studio record like the first one. Very out of the box, mixed mostly by hand without automation. It's still funk and ballads, pretty organic vocals, and very little harmonizer. I'm real happy with the beats and grooves. I think it's friendlier than the first two CDs. We played all the instruments, except for Thad [Turner] stealing the show on "Oakland." It's Opcode Studio Vision bumped to Pro Tools HD. My Joe Meek compressor is used on almost every instrument, including the voice. Its photo-optical thing gives Shawn that "Strawberry Fields" tizzing on the lip noise and smacks. Walter Sear sold me the compressor. He was the U.S. rep for a while. There are none of my descending homemade 808 bass drums! My "new" Mellotron and my Arp 2600 synth got used a lot.
Let us hope that this music eventually gets released.
Stranger Music genius Fisk said in an email interview about his close friend: "Shawn was a very talented human. I want all his friends and fans to know how much love and compassion he had in his heart. I miss him."
UPDATE: There is speculation that Smith may have passed away on Tuesday, April 2. The singer didn’t make it to two Brad recording sessions scheduled for April 3 and 4.