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R.I.P. Shawn Smith, lead singer of Brad

Image for article titled R.I.P. Shawn Smith, lead singer of Brad
Photo: Dana Nalbandian (Getty Images)

Musician Shawn Smith—whose various stints in the Seattle music scene included time with the bands Satchel, Pigeonhed, and, most notably, the well-known ’90s alt-rock outfit Brad—has died. As reported by Consequence Of Sound, Smith died yesterday of complications from diabetes, and was 53.

Born in Spokane, Washington, Smith quickly gravitated into the Seattle music scene, playing with Regan Hagar and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard for years before formalizing (with bassist Jeremy Toback) into Brad. (The name is apparently a joke, based on the fact that musician Brad Williams was already using the actual band name they wanted to go with.) Operating somewhere in the intersection between grunge, alternative, and pure R&B, Brad’s most obviously distinctive feature was Smith’s high, wistful voice; reviewing the band’s 2002 album Welcome To Discovery Park, our own Josh Modell praised his “beautifully unforced delivery” and the band’s “gentle soul.”

Despite Gossard’s presence (and a few appearances by Smith’s solo work and other projects on big-deal TV shows like The Sopranos and ER), Brad remained a less well-known pleasure; Smith himself later noted that he sometimes chafed under the increased scrutiny and loss of control that came from working within the confines of a label deal. (The band’s first two albums, 1993's Shame and 1997's more-polished Interiors, were both produced by Epic.) All of which is in line with his most frequently-cited influence and obvious musical hero, Prince. Here’s Smith speaking to his fandom in a 2014 interview with Songfacts:

Prince is kind of the rock in the center of it all. That’s where I really learned. That’s who I was focusing on when I was learning how to write songs. So everything I learned as a songwriter in terms of structure I kind of got from Prince, because he writes in a very specific way, you know, verse/chorus/verse/chorus, he has these things. Or he has a song where it’s all a verse and then the outro’s a chorus. So it’s just like three minutes of verse, just kind of continuous. My roots are in Prince, because when I was really learning, that’s who I was paying attention to. 

A talented pianist in addition to his role as a singer-songwriter, Smith spent much of his career bouncing between his various bands—at least in part due to Gossard’s variable availability, given that Satchel was essentially Smith and Regar (and bassist John Hoag) playing sans the Pearl Jam star. But while his name never became a national draw, it’s hard to discount the sheer number of famed Seattle luminaries who sought Smith out to collaborate, folks like producer Steve Fisk and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil. Pigeonhed, his more heavily electronic collaboration with Fisk, gained some heat in its own right, most obviously with its funky Prince homage “Battle Flag.” (And the fact, proudly noted on Smith’s Twitter account a few years back, that David Bowie once cited them as one of the bands he was interested in back in the mid-’90s.)

Smith’s fortunes declined in recent years, to the point that a friend reportedly launched a GoFundMe on his behalf in order to help him cover rent and other living expenses in 2016. In recent social media posts, he’d noted that “I would be surprised if I played outside Seattle again,” and seemed dismissive of the likelihood that Brad—which toured as recently as 2013—would ever go on the road again. That being said, he continued to be an enduring part of the city’s musical scene, playing frequent gigs under his own name.