Two indie folk songwriters band together to honor the legacy of the indie rock legend
When a musician dies tragically at an early age, their catalogue of songs can easily take one of two directions. Ether they can be forgotten (along with the myriad of tunes that disappear from the lexicon of popular music), or they can be given a new life through interpretation and re-recording.
More than a decade after shocking the music industry by taking his own life at just 34 years old, songwriter Elliott Smith continues to inspire a new generation of songwriters who stumble upon his heartfelt lyrics and consummate guitar skills. Jessica Lea Mayfield and Seth Avett are two such examples.
It was July of 2011 at the Sun Valley Pavilion in Idaho when North Carolina-based Americana troubadours The Avett Brothers were touring with Mayfield – the 25-year-old born-and-bred Ohio singer/songwriter. The two musicians were backstage when Seth jumped on a piano and started banging out the chords to Smith’s song, “Twilight.” Mayfield joined in, sweetly singing the lyrics, “You’re wonderful/And it’s beautiful/But I’m already somebody’s baby.”
Recognizing that each shared a deep appreciation for Smith’s music, Mayfield and Avett started discussing the possibility of recording an entire album of songs by the musician best known for his Academy Award-nominated ballad “Miss Misery” from the movie Good Will Hunting. Avett says the idea of recording cover albums is thrown around all the time by musicians, but very rarely do the projects come to fruition.
But the two musicians committed to honoring Smith’s legacy and starting the recording process late in 2011. The result – Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Cover Elliott Smith, a 12-track tribute spanning the late songwriter’s extensive catalogue – will be released on March 17. Avett – now 34 years old, the same age Smith was at the time of his passing – recounts the three years spent recording off-and-on, describing the album as a “labor of love,”
“My life was in a very different place when we started the record than it is now,” says Avett, who spoke from his home in Asheville, NC, last month. “But I think it’s a testament to what the record means to us and how fueled we are by inspiration of music we love. It certainly wasn’t a convenient thing to make this record; it was more like really seeing something through that started as just a little spark.”
Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Cover Elliott Smith features some of Smith’s earliest songs, including “Roman Candle” from his first album of the same name in 1994, all the way up to his 2007 posthumous release New Moon with the song “Angel in the Snow.” The pair revealed their rendition of “Somebody That I Used To Know,” off Smith’s 2000 release Figure 8, on NPR’s All Songs Considered in January.
Avett and Mayfield didn’t want completely recreate Smith’s songs, but instead put their own fingerprints on them, switching up the original tempos, instrumentation and vocals throughout the album.
Most of the album was recorded in Avett’s Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, utilizing fellow Avett Brothers’ members Scott Avett (banjo), Joe Kwon (cello), Paul Defiglia (bass) and Tania Elizabeth (violin/viola). The true standout on the recordings, however, are the vocal harmonies between Seth and Mayfield, playing on the original inspiration of their impromptu “Twilight” session in Idaho.
Avett says the three-year process in making the cover album is the longest period he’s ever spent working on one musical project, going farther by saying it’s “probably twice as long as anything I’ve ever worked on.” He says the recording process felt like an “idling engine,” where occasionally it would be revved up, but mostly it was left in the lowest gear, with the engine continuously running over the three years.
When he had free time on tour, Avett would pull out his laptop, load up the Pro Tools audio software and start engineering a song. Once, while sitting in a hotel room in Munich, Germany, on a day off, he “pulled a sneak-attack on Scott” and got his older brother to record a banjo part for one of the songs. (Scott later re-recorded the banjo part because Seth says he unintentionally messed up the recording.)
For both Avett and Mayfield, one of the most interesting recording sessions came during the vocal recording of the song “Between the Bars” in Mayfield’s living room at her home in Ohio. Mayfield (who spoke on her phone as she wandered outside her hotel in Portland, OR, last month) says she has a strange habit of singing to her dog – a 72-pound “hunting” mutt aptly named “Elliott” after the singer – and Elliott will sing back to her through howls, barks and baying.
Avett says Elliott was banished from the living room a few times because one of his favorite songs to sing along to is “Between the Bars,” but “his pitch wasn’t very strong.”
“It’s a funny thing when you’re making a record and you have to take into account that your dog wants to sing with you – kind of a wonderful problem to have, really,” Avett laughs.
To keep the project moving along, there were certain triggers that prompted Avett to make a phone call to Mayfield, touching base with her to discuss the project and throw around song ideas. One of the biggest motivators was when he would hear an Elliott Smith song playing somewhere.
Another trigger for Avett was listening to old voice memos he made on his phone of the two of them sitting backstage somewhere singing Smith’s songs. He says he’d be on an airplane looking at his phone and accidentally come across those memos, and when he would land he would immediately text Mayfield.
Perhaps the biggest motivator was when Avett would hear some of Mayfield’s music or see her in person. He’s not shy to call Mayfield one of his favorite performers and says she’s “as close to a sister as I can have.” Avett says her own music has a very obvious lack of ego – just like Smith – and she’s not in awe of her own talent.
As far as Mayfield’s opinion of Avett, she says he’s an “extremely talented dude” – a great singer who’s fun to sing with and an excellent guitar player who’s a joy to watch perform.
“To be able to sing them with someone as talented as Seth, the process of working on [the album] was so much fun,” says Mayfield. “I didn’t really think of what it would turn in to or whether other people would like it.”
Avett’s discovery of Smith dates back to his days as a printmaking major at UNC Charlotte in the early 2000s. A friend played him the song “Say Yes” from the album Either/Or, and Avett says he was immediately hooked.
As for Mayfield, it was a “cute, older guy who had a music tattoo and a nice bicycle” who introduced her to Smith when she was a teenager. He snuck into her room in Kent, OH, performing some of his own “terrible” tunes before playing Smith’s song “Clementine.”
A few days later, the guy took Mayfield out to “lunch” (which turned out to just be a bottle of rum) and brought her a copy of Smith’s 1995 self-titled album on CD. Mayfield insists the CD was the only good thing that came out of the short-lived encounter.
“You’ve just got this impression that Elliott Smith was very open and clear, but at the same time he’s this incredible musician and a creative mind. He had such beautiful ways of painting his emotions.” – Jessica Lea Mayfield
It was around the same time in 2006 when Mayfield recorded her first album, White Lies – a six-song EP that – similarly to Smith’s own lyrics – lays out her emotions with little sugarcoating. And it was Smith’s discography that was helping to fuel her own songwriting.
“When I found [Smith’s] music, it was the perfect soundtrack for my life at the time,” Mayfield says. “Seventy-percent of what I listen to now is Elliott Smith. I can always just put him on, whereas some things I might not necessarily be in the mood for. But he’s the first artist that comes to mind to put on.”
While their favorite Smith songs differ (Mayfield points to “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” and Avett favors “Memory Lane”), both musicians cite the 2004 posthumous From a Basement on a Hill as their favorite Smith album. It was that album that initially caused both of them to discuss their mutual appreciation for Smith, and a majority of the cover album songs are from that recording session – including “A Fond Farewell,” “Let’s Get Lost,” “Memory Lane” and “Twilight.”
Mayfield calls From a Basement on a Hill a “freakin’ masterpiece” and may be her favorite album from any musician of all time.
“I dug the place that [Smith’s] mind was in and the stuff he was working on,” Mayfield says. “That record just kind of latched on to me and sort of blew me away the first time I heard it.”
Even before Smith took his own life by stabbing himself in the heart twice in Los Angeles in 2003, he had acquired a loyal and dedicated fanbase – almost a cult-like figure in the indie music scene. But what was is it about Smith’s music that keeps it sounding current more than a decade later?
Avett thinks it’s the intimacy and the vulnerability of Smith’s lyrics. He says the music sounds like you’re in the room with the writer, laying his emotions out for the world to see. It’s a process Avett says he tries to accomplish in his own songwriting but is difficult to achieve every time.
Mayfield puts her own spin on Smith’s popularity. She says one of the biggest factors she looks for in music is honesty and is consistently drawn to songs that don’t feel “contrived.” She points to Smith as a really honest songwriter who was obvious about his emotions and the emotional human experience that transcends individuals.
<<< MORE: Read our September 2012 interview with Seth Avett about The Avett Brothers’ punk rock roots, playing with Bob Dylan and work with Rick Rubin. >>>
“You’ve just got this impression that [Smith] was very open and clear, but at the same time he’s this incredible musician and a creative mind,” Mayfield says. “He had such beautiful ways of painting his emotions.”
With the album set to drop, Avett and Mayfield are ready to take Smith’s music into a live setting, taking the songs on tour. Avett calls the tour an acoustic, minimalistic “skeleton crew approach” towards the music, utilizing Difiglia on bass and both he and Mayfield on guitar and vocals. They initially debated bringing other members of The Avett Brothers on tour, but the two wanted to keep the Americana sound associated with the band separate from the songs.
By taking Smith’s songs into a public setting through the album and the tour, Avett and Mayfield have opened themselves to criticism from his intensely loyal fanbase who may feel like someone is trying to capitalize on his music.
Avett says initially there wasn’t any trepidation in making an album of Smith’s music, but he’s begun to feel that sense now. He says it’s going to be an interesting dynamic to field some of those feelings from Smith’s fans, but he says once people hear the music, they’ll see there’s no disrespect intended, and the motivation for the project was genuine and pure.
“It’s my belief is that it’s ok to sing songs that you love, and that’s what I’m sticking to,” Avett says. “I don’t feel that [Smith’s] songs are off limits, but I understand why some people do feel that way, and I support that. It feels like someone is speaking to you, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any divide at all. And that will last forever – that’s why people love his music.”
Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield play the Keswick Theatre (291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside) on March 14. 7pm doors. $29.50-$40. Click here for tickets.