For decades now, the late Elliott Smith's music has shaped people's lives. Among the converted are Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield. Three years ago, the duo got together to record an album of Elliott Smith songs to celebrate what they felt was one of the under-appreciated collection of music that helped define '90s alternative rock. The album, simply named Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, takes his songs and reworks them into new but still familiar forms.
The duo will be at the Fitzgerald Theater on Sunday evening to show the care and detail they put into their interpretation of songs conceived long ago.
Gimme Noise: Where am I reaching you today?
Jessica Lea Mayfield: I'm in Ohio at my house.
Seth Avett: I'm not in Ohio -- not at Jessica's house. We're both at our own homes. I'm in Concord, North Carolina.
You guys toured together a while ago, but can you tell me how you initially met?
JLM: We met at the Kent Stage in Kent, Ohio. I was 16 or so, and a lot of the venues around here put me on bills for shows they thought I would be good to open for. I opened for the Avett Brothers about 10 years ago, then I got to know you all and did a bunch of dates with the band.
SA: Yeah, I think of my friendship with Jessica in terms of different chapters by her hairstyles. I remember at that point, in that era, her hair was jet black and chin-length. The next time we saw her, she had a blue mohawk at this festival.
I lose track of our friendship in there, but I can tell you my brother [Scott] and I were blown away by her voice. There was always discussion about Jessica's age -- about how old she really is. It's gotta be tiring for her at this point. At the time, you couldn't ignore that she was 16 and had so much talent with songwriting and performing.
In terms of music, how did Elliott Smith enter the picture?
SA: We both have our own personal stories of how we were introduced and fell in love with his music. I don't remember how we started talking about Elliott. It might have been because Jessica has a dog named Elliott, maybe?
JLM: I trace it back to when I adopted my dog six years ago. I was telling you on the phone that I adopted a dog, and his name was Elliott, and you said, "After Elliott Smith?" I was like, "Yeah." Then we started talking about Elliott Smith.
SA: There you go. Basically, it was her dog's fault -- her wonderful, expressive dog somehow got us on the same page and talking about Elliott Smith. Then it was always a point of interaction for us, and almost four years ago, we were touring together and naturally just started learning some of his songs -- finding out it felt really natural together.
JLM: Singing together was so fun. It was a mutual love for his music.
Why did you feel such a deep connection to Smith's music -- enough to make it an album?
SA: I think that I initially responded to the same thing in his music that he responded to with the Beatles. I read something on his take to their music. At first, I think I was drawn to it because it was really melody-based. I don't think I initially really absorbed the depth of Elliott's lyricism or even some of the pain or darkness that was in the aesthetic, so when I first listened, it was because of the melodies.
JLM: It was the opposite for me; it was a one-two punch when I started listening to the melody and realizing I just always loved his lyrics and finding him akin to the weirdo and troubled teen I was. I'm still a troubled person and singing Elliott Smith, but then the melodies are so incredible. They're like my kids.
SA: The first time I heard his voice was that song "Say Yes," and I guess it was from that time period. I really despise music where the singer sounds like they're singing for you and putting on a show. I despise insincere singing. I hate it in a way I can't even describe. I don't like to hear music acted; I don't want it to be an act. I want it be a real conversation.
The thing that happened for me when I first heard Elliott's voice was something else. The very first line from "The Morning After" -- "I'm in love with the world through the eyes of a girl" -- that hit me straight away, but it was obvious that it was 100 percent he believed what he was saying. You were looking in on someone rather than them singing out at you.
I think another aspect to his story is how sad his story is and how profoundly he lived his life.
SA: Right, but I think our position and involvement is only with the music. I think it would be highly disrespectful to try and speak on what his life was like or on how he lived his life. Our only connection is through the songs, and they are very profound for us. That's something I can say for both me and Jessica.
JLM: Yeah, a lot of people take songs and put their own feeling or meaning to them. I think there's a lot of speculation about what he was like based on what he left behind. At the same time, his honesty was what makes them feel like they know him and are close to him. They don't.
Do you ever run into that as public figures?
JLM: Yeah, Seth, I'm sure you probably do more than I do. I've had my share of people who think they know me completely.
SA: It's a weird thing. I think Jessica and I love music that's personal. We love music that is vulnerable. We present ourselves, our lives, that definitely are true stories. Imagine if you took a page out of someone's diary. That wouldn't tell the whole story no matter how much you read into it. We've both experienced it. If it's a sad song, then you get this weird stranger sympathy. Someone will want to take care of you or want to share their sympathy for you. You're like, "It's okay. That was just a moment."
How did you decide what songs you wanted to include on this album, and how did you deconstruct them and put them back together?
SA: Our general approach was, "Let's not overthink this." When we first started this there was not a grand design or a blueprint. It wasn't, "Okay, we're gonna come up with 12 songs," or, "We're gonna make a record and put it out." That was not on the table. It was more like, "Hey, let's sing this song," and it started with "Twilight." That song set the stage for me. I was playing piano; Jessica was singing. It was immediately a natural fit. It was all it needed to be. It was a piano and a voice. Immediately we both thought, "We just need to do what we need to do." When we sing anyone else's songs, we still have to be Seth and Jessica. We didn't try to reinvent the wheel. We basically decided on the ones that felt natural and stepped in with a very natural approach.
JLM: It was picking and choosing our favorites. The first one we recorded was "Angel in the Snow."
SA: With my very limited understanding behind the board, I stepped in as engineer and producer. We wanted to keep these songs intimate. A lot of Smith's recordings feel like you're sitting in a little kitchen or a little apartment with him. We didn't want to turn into a modern pop recording with a gigantic glass wall between the listener and the performer.
Have you done any live shows yet?
SA: We have not played a live show yet, but when we do, we are stepping a little outside of our comfort zone.
JLM: I think it's going to be a lot of fun.
SA: I think so, too. We're continuing on this path of an intimate setting. It will be very simple and intimate conversation with the audience. We're going for the beautiful moment; we're not going for a big, grand performance.
Where do you see this project in a few years? Or do you simply want to live in the moment?
JLM: Yeah, we want to live in the moment. It's weird to think about the future of music -- especially when it's something that you're a part of -- even when it's just an album. Once you've recorded something, it's there forever. It's a part of time in people's CD players. That personally is great for me.
Are there other artists you want to cover?
SA: I want to cover some Jessica Lea Mayfield.
JLM: I've been working on some Seth Avett music at my house.
SA: During the performances, we're doing Elliott Smith songs, and we're dipping into our own solo work. We learned each other's songs; it's been fun. Like Jessica said, we need to look at the moment. That's the healthy way of living your life. I also think it's a healthy way of looking at your musical endeavors. This just needs to be a snapshot of time. We need to enjoy it. God willing we'll make more music together, but it's crazy to say what we think will happen. We don't know what's gonna happen in our lives today.
Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield will perform at the Fitzgerald Theater on Sunday, March 22, 2015.
$42.50-$47.50, 6:30 pm
Purchase tickets here.
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