Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield are both animal lovers. Rabid even, if you’ll forgive the pun, to the point where talking about their pets changes the direction and tone of conversations.
Avett is more of a cat person and Mayfield is more of a puppy gal, though. Calling in at separate times in the afternoon before their performance at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville, they both gush about their pets, or as Avett prefers to call them, “those friends.”
“I have one kitty. Her name is Marty. Perhaps one of the dumbest animals on the planet,” he says, trailing off before laughing and resolutely stating, “But she knows that she loves me and that’s really all it needs to be!”
Mayfield’s pup is a rescue that probably has “got mountain cur in him. He’s really odd-looking!” she describes. “He’s got black, white, and brown brindle, and in his brindle he’s got the shape of a heart in his fur on his back. He’s a 72-pound lapdog and he likes to sing.” In fact, she exudes, “He won first place in a dog trick contest for singing! I harmonize with him, but he’s got good pitch.”
Contrary to the cliché of fighting like cats and dogs, Avett and Mayfield actually work quite well together, and collaboration comes easily. Their friendship evolved smoothly after Mayfield, an Ohio-based songstress, opened for the North Carolinian roots revivalists The Avett Brothers on a West Coast tour a few years ago. But, Mayfield’s dog might be the reason that their Elliott Smith covers project came together in the first place.
“It happened really naturally. It’s hard to go back and really pinpoint it,” Mayfield says. “We both figured out that we were really big Elliott Smith fans. We think it might have to do with my dog. Before we had the Elliott Smith connection, we talked about animals…he’s really into cats and puppies. I had adopted my dog Elliott and I called [Seth] and was like, ‘I got a dog today!’”
As Mayfield remembers, “He asked, ‘What’s his name?’ and I said, ‘Elliott.’ He was like, ‘After Elliott Smith?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah! How’d you know?’ He said, ‘Well, I was just kinda joking.’”
Pressing Avett on the puppy story a few hours later, however, he recalls, “I probably said something like, ‘Ah, you don’t know anything about Elliott Smith!’”
After they debated each other’s knowledge and understanding of the late Portland singer’s work, Mayfield says, “I think it ended up spiraling into a conversation about every song on From A Basement On A Hill. It seemed to be a conversational point every time we talked—different intricacies in Elliott’s music and geeking out over different aspects of it.”
Then one day, as the story goes, they were hanging out backstage when Avett started playing Smith’s “Twilight” on the piano. Mayfield joined in by singing. He recorded a snippet on his iPhone for fun and sent it to her.
“At the end of that tour we both went home and went on to do our own things and we kept sending each other voice memos of Elliott Smith songs and talking about maybe doing a project,” Mayfield remembers.
“You know, you talk about these things, but if I had $10 for every time I talked about making a record with a musician friend of mine, I’d have millions of dollars!” she exclaims with a laugh. “So the fact that this project actually happened really says a lot about how much we both love Elliott Smith, how great these songs are, and how it’s almost impossible to stay away from them.”
Avett agrees. “It’s a labor of love. There was nothing about making the record that was necessarily easy. We love the songs. We love the material. We love where it comes from. And we love singing together.”
The 12 tracks on the aptly titled Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith span the songwriter’s career—from 1994’s Roman Candle to 2004’s posthumous release From A Basement On A Hill. After graduating from iPhone’s Voice Memos, they recorded songs over three years at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C. and both of their homes in North Carolina and Ohio.
Musically, the duo treats Smith’s originals lovingly and sparsely. They each play guitar, and Scott Avett even joins in on the banjo for a few tracks. Three other musicians contribute a quartet’s worth of strings. Percussion only appears on “Somebody That I Used To Know” and “Roman Candle.”
“With all the noise in the world, it feels nice for the heart and the mind to listen to something that is a bit more sparse and opens up some space,” says Avett of the reasoning to keep this record so bare-bones.
“Baby Britain,” one of Smith’s poppiest tunes, retains its rhythm, but Avett and Mayfield slow the tempo to a dirge. “Memory Lane” exemplifies Smith’s yearning, leaving mid-range strings to accentuate the piano line as Mayfield adds haunting harmony to Avett’s nearly voice-cracking melody. Throughout the LP, Avett and Mayfield annunciate clearer than Smith ever did, a subtle homage to the songwriter’s honest lyricism.
Coming up, Avett divulges that he’s committed the rest of the year to working on new Avett Brothers material. They’re hoping to have a new record by early 2016. Mayfield, on the other hand, wants to get back to writing. “I’m trying to set aside time to lock myself in a dark cave and sing the things I’ve been thinking out loud,” she says.
But for now, Avett and Mayfield will continue their tour together through the rest of March, sharing their love for and versions of Elliott Smith’s songs across the country. For Mayfield, no matter what new music comes out or which other classic artist she discovers, Smith will be among her favorites and most-listened.
“Seventy percent of what I listen to is Elliott Smith. If I get sick of something else, I put Elliott Smith back on. I could never ever get sick of Elliott Smith,” she says.
In fact, she explains, her Smithian listening habits often work in seasonal cycles. “When fall rolls around, I get really inclined to listen to the self-titled stuff. When it starts to get wintery, I get into Roman Candle and with spring it turns into Figure 8. I also get really into Figure 8 in the summertime. I think for me, it’s almost nostalgia for when I spent time with these records at some point in my past.”
Avett, for his part, is content to diversify his listening habits, even with his acknowledged love of Smith’s songs. “Seventy percent of any artist would drive me outta my mind!” he says. “But I love that it’s like that for her! She definitely connects with and understands his music on a very special level and on a very high level, and it’s differently than I do.”
But that’s part of what makes this project such a perfectly rare pairing and beautiful tribute. Says Avett, “Me and Jessica, we’re a combination. We are two things that come together that are very different that can make sense presenting certain music and certain songs.”