Smith and his music mean a lot to many fans – and Mayfield and Avett are no different, having bonded over a shared admiration for his recordings. Described as a labor of the love, the project pays tribute to the indie folk artist who was known for his melancholy, honest lyrics and beautiful arrangements. Smith broke into the mainstream thanks to the half dozen tunes included on the soundtrack to “Good Will Hunting,” including “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The singer/songwriter who called Portland, Ore., home, died in 2003 at the age of 34 after putting out five albums. From a Basement on the Hill was released posthumously in 2004, followed by 2007’s New Moon, which is made up of 24 previously unreleased songs.
Although Smith’s music may be especially well-suited to those suffering from a broken heart or struggling with addiction, Mayfield says she’s always in the mood to throw on one of his LPs.
Due out March 17 on Ramseur Records, Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith consists of 12 covers from throughout his career, with the two musicians taking turns on lead vocals. Tunes range from the title track from Smith’s debut, 1994’s Roman Candle, to “Angel In The Snow” from 2007’s New Moon, along with the singles “Ballad of Big Nothing,” “Baby Britian” and “Between the Bars.”
The album stays true to the wistful, intimate feel of Elliott’s music, while adding something new with the blend of male and female vocals.
Avett and Mayfield worked on the album over three years, slotting the release date in between their own personal recordings. Mayfield released her third solo album, Make My Head Sing, in 2014 while The Avett Brothers is in the middle of recording the follow-up to 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion.
Earlier this week the duo launched a U.S. tour in support of Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, which Avett produced. Avett and Mayfield are joined on the road by The Avett Brothers touring bassist Paul Defiglia, who played on the LP.
How long have you been a fan of Elliott Smith? Was there a certain period of your life where you really got into his music?
Most of what I listen to is Elliott Smith. I’ve been a huge fan of his music for the past decade. He was like the soundtrack to my teenage years. When I first found out about him and his music it was after he had already died. … I was 15 the first time I heard him so I never got to see him live or anything like that. And the catalog that was there was all that there was for me to listen to, which was kind of a bummer.
I started listening to Elliott Smith in college. It seems like his music really resonates when you’re growing up. His music is really easy to relate to.
He was such an honest songwriter. A lot of times you listen to music and you can tell whether someone is putting on a feeling or putting on an emotion and sometimes … it’s like acting. I think a lot of Elliott Smith fans really appreciated that … he was really honest and upfront with his emotions.
How did the collaboration with Seth come about?
Well, we had talked about Elliott Smith quite a bit. And I think we share favorite albums. We’re both huge fans of the album From A Basement On A Hill. And we had geeked out on that record some together. I was doing some shows opening for the Avett Brothers in 2011. And we were in Sun Valley Idaho and there was a piano backstage at this venue. And he had started playing “Twilight” off that record and I started singing along. And that had inspired Seth to put this project together.
Obviously you had to include “Twilight” on the album.
That’s a really fun one to sing.
What was the goal of the project? Was it to pay tribute to Elliott Smith or to put a new spin on the songs? What was the vision that you and Seth had?
I don’t think there was much of an overall vision. I think it just kinda seemed like a really fun idea to play these songs together, you know, two friends singing songs by an artist that they both really like. We didn’t sit and hash out a big picture of “Why.” It just sort of came about.
It’s nice to do something just to have fun.
I really love playing music with Seth and I love singing with him. And I love Elliott Smith so it’s been a really awesome project to be a part of.
How did you and Seth pick out the tracklist for the album? Were there a lot of discussions getting the selections just right?
I think it was a lot of our favorites and it started with just like, “Oh, this one. And that one! And of course, you know, we have to do this one.” And from there it kind of went on. There were some that didn’t make the record because we just did quite a bit. It’s one of those things that could have been hard to quit working on. And it definitely was difficult when we were done [and couldn’t add any more songs]. You know, it’s like now when I listen, even every once in a while my husband will do it. He’ll be like, “You and Seth should have sang that one!” (laughs) There’s just so many great songs. There’s not an Elliott Smith song I don’t like.
I really like the songs you chose. I was listening to the album before the interview and my husband, who is also a big Elliott Smith fan, was like, “Let me see which tracks they picked out.” And then he said, “OK, I approve.”
You mentioned that From A Basement On A Hill was your favorite Elliott Smith album. Any other albums or songs especially stand out?
I really love that record but it’s all [about] Elliott Smith, it’s like, you know … there are some artists that I listen to that I can play out and get totally sick of. But when I get sick of something else, I put on Elliott Smith. He’s like the breather.
Can you talk about the recording process? How did you decide who would handle lead vocals on a certain song?
Well, with the lead vocals I think both of us would suggest the other one sing it (laughs) a lot of times because you know, I think we’re polite in that aspect. Everything just kind of fell into place. We did some of it at Seth’s garage studio and some of it we did in my living room in Kent, Ohio, and then we finished it up and did most of it at Echo Mountain in Ashville, N.C. It took us a little while. We kind of did most of it in bits and pieces and then it all finally came together.
As far as recording it in different places, was that just what worked out best because that’s where you were at the time? Or did you want to record it at multiple locations?
Well I think it just was, “How can we get this started? How can we work on this more?” Over the course of the past three years we were trying to find time to work on the record when we could both get together. We don’t live super close to one another and we’re both gone a lot anyway. It’s hard when the people you know are scattered and sprinkled all over the country. We can’t really meet up for practices and stuff like that so we met up when we could.
What’s the set-up for the tour? Are you bringing backing musicians?
It will be me, Seth and bassist Paul Defiglia. It will just be three of us. It will be real acoustic, quiet, intimate. It embodies some of the feel of the record but it’s also kind of slightly different and I’m really liking the way things are sounding. I can tell these shows are going to be a lot of fun to perform.
Will you be adding anything else to the setlist, maybe some tracks that didn’t make the record?
We might. We’re still keeping it open. We’re going to do some of our originals too and just have fun with it.
You put out your third solo album in April 2014. Are you also going to be playing dates this year in support of that release?
I’m kinda winding down touring for Make My Head Sing … I mean, I’m sure I’ll be doing some dates here and there, but I toured the album pretty hard last year and I’m hoping that I can start working on some new stuff. The next thing.
Is the tour you have planned with Seth going to be the only run of dates in support of the Elliott Smith album?
As of right now, that’s all that’s on the table.
Do you think it would be a possibility that you and Seth could work on another project together down the line?
Well, I hope so. It’s definitely something we really enjoy, singing together, so hopefully something like that could come together.
I think your voices just work so well together so it would be neat to see another release from the two of you.
I’d love it.
Upcoming dates for Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield:
March 14 – Glenside, Pa., Keswick Theatre
March 17 – Nashville, Tenn., James K. Polk Theater
March 18 – Columbus, Ohio, Southern Theatre
March 20 – Chicago, Ill., Athenaeum Theatre
March 22 – Saint Paul, Minn., Fitzgerald Theater
March 24 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater
March 26 – Seattle, Wash., The Neptune
March 27 – Portland, Ore., McMenamins Crystal Ballroom
March 29 – San Francisco, Calif., Palace Of Fine Arts Theatre
March 31 – Los Angeles, Calif., Wilshire Ebell Theatre
For more information visit SethAndJessicaSing.com.