Seth Avett, one of the founding members of the Avett Brothers, and Jessica Lea Mayfield have teamed up to honor the late Elliott Smith with their album Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith and a supporting tour that stops at the Palace of Fine Arts on March 29.
Elliott Smith was a quiet success throughout the 90s, redefining traditional folk and singer/songwriter genres with elements of pop and indie rock. He tragically took his own life in 2003 after years of struggling with depression and drug abuse.
Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield offer a new take on his brilliantly crafted songs with a tribute album. Seth Avett is mostly known for his band, The Avett Brothers, while the young singer/songwriter from Ohio, Jessica Lea Mayfield, recorded her first two albums with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. We caught up with Mayfield to talk about the influence of Elliott Smith in her life, the pressure of playing his songs live and her unique upbringing into the musical world.
How did you and Seth come up with this idea of playing Elliott Smith songs for an album and tour?
I’d known Seth for a while and somehow he and I didn’t realize we were both such huge Elliott Smith fans. Once we became aware of this, we could hardly have a conversation that didn’t steer its way toward the music of Elliott Smith.
I was opening for the Avett Brothers in 2011, and it was on that tour we were sitting backstage and there was a piano. Seth started playing “Twilight” and I started singing it. From there we recorded it as a voice memo, and then Seth kept the ball rolling and it slowly steered its way, when time allowed., to becoming what it is now.
Do you remember the first time you heard Elliott Smith?
I know it was in 2005, probably right before my 16th birthday. I was playing every Monday at a bar called “the Euro Gyro.” The gig first paid in pizza and then they started paying actual money. I would play for about three hours and do all sorts of country covers and whatever anyone wanted to hear.
I met a gentleman, a college student who was mostly homeless that had a Weezer tattoo. I snuck him into my bedroom and he quietly started playing very wordy and whiny originals. He was old enough to buy alcohol so I looked past that, but at some point in the night he played “Clementine.” I didn’t know who Elliott Smith was and flipped over the tune. He rode his bike over to my house the next evening with an Elliott Smith CD and a bottle of Captain Morgan.
What do you admire the most about his songwriting?
I search for honesty in most everything, almost to a fault when it’s so hard to find. People lie about their own personal happiness and don’t want to shake you or make waves, but that’s unrealistic. Smith had this refreshing air of openness, real life sung over these dark, infectious almost pop-like melodies.
Has playing his songs made you appreciate him on a different level?
I’ve been obsessively listening to Elliott Smith for a decade and still found myself listening to him differently for this project than I had previously. It’s been interesting picking him apart musically with Seth, and making the songs our own without changing them too much.
How did you approach covering these songs? There seems to be a fine line between respecting the song as it’s played versus making it your own.
It really just started as two friends playing songs together by an artist we both admire. We tried things a lot of different ways and stuck with what felt like natural choices for us.
What are some of the challenges/differences with this tour compared to touring on your own?
You get used to doing your own thing, and with the amount of respect I have for Elliott Smith there’s been an added amount of pressure to get it right. I’ve been walking out on stage thinking, “I really can’t fuck this up.” I just want so badly to portray his lyrics correctly and do it right.
In your young career, you’ve already played with some outstanding musicians—Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), Scott McMicken and Frank McElroy of Dr. Dog and now Seth Avett. How did these connections happen?
I’ve been a touring musician since I was eight years old. My family toured around on an old bus called the “bluegrass breakdown,” and a lot of times wherever it broke down was where we would live. I grew up playing for tips to eat and have always been doing music.
Dan Auerbach is a fellow Ohioan who I met in my teens around the time I had my weekly gig in Kent, Ohio. He produced my first two studio albums.
You’ve been very busy this year, touring in support of your latest record, Make My Head Sing. What else is in store for you this year?
I’ve been planning on a tiny hiatus, honestly. I’ve been writing in puzzle pieces, one line at a time, a melody here or there. I want to disconnect from the outside world and put the pieces together.
This will be your second gig here in San Francisco this year. Is there anything you especially look forward to in this city?
Oh dear, California is one of my favorite states. San Francisco is an amazing food city with so many great music venues—the Great American Music Hall, Slim’s, the Independent, Bottom of the Hill and the beautiful Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival held in Golden Gate Park! I’m very excited to perform at the Palace of Fine Arts this month as a part of this project.
Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield perform the music of Elliott Smith at the Place of Fine Arts on March 29. More info.