Jessica Lea Mayfield: ‘By No Means Am I Trying to Be Elliott Smith’
On March 17, Jessica Lea Mayfield and the Avett Brothers' Seth Avett are releasing the aptly titled Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliot Smith, an album dedicated to the timeless work of the late singer-songwriter. While Smith layers his delicate vocals on always-changing arrangements throughout his catalog, Avett and Mayfield don't set out to replicate that sound; instead, they stay true to their folk roots, creating a new aural experience around the songs' original emotions.
While enjoying a cup of coffee in her home in Ohio, Mayfield opened up about the beginnings of her and Avett's monumental task of covering Elliott Smith; how they picked the 12 tracks that made the cut for the album; and what fans can expect from their upcoming tour in support of the disc. Check out our exclusive interview below:
Why now? Why is this the time right to release this album?
For me, this whole timing thing seems so personal to Seth and me. We were just working on it -- it started as something out of fun and respect for Elliott Smith’s music. For me, I’m just excited it’s finally come to completion. At the same time, it’s a bummer I’m not trying to make time to work on Elliott Smith songs anymore. It’s such a fun thing. It’s so different from what I normally do, so exciting.
When it was announced, the album was described as a "labor of love." How did this compare to creating your own original albums?
It’s so strange, there’s something nerve-wracking about trying to record someone else’s songs, and at the same time, you don’t want to offend people. Elliott Smith was so iconic, so many people latch on to his music. Fans of his latch onto who he was and his lyrics and his music. Everyone develops such a personal relationship to the songs. It’s hard to record, you know? It’s hard doing it with that in mind. That's just completely different than what I'm used to.
One of my favorite Elliott Smith songs is "A Fond Farewell" from From a Basement on the Hill. You and Seth cover the song, but aside from the lyrics, it really doesn't sound like the original. How did you two approach recreating these songs while staying true to both the original and yourselves?
A lot of it is just about what comes naturally. Naturally, we sat down and tried to play the songs. The way we both take our spin on things in general, it’s hard not to let that come through. I think it would have been extremely hard for us to make something that sounded like Elliott Smith. It sounds a lot like Seth Avett and a lot like me. The lyrics, the sentiments, those are Elliott Smith ... and we tried to respect them.
How did the idea for Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith start?
I’ve been trying to trace this back to where and when it started. I remember Seth and I having a conversation about Elliott Smith -- I can’t remember if it was the first conversation we had about him, but we just realized we were both really big fans of that album, ‘From a Basement on the Hill,’ and we started going on and on about different aspects about that album. The next time that I saw him, we were playing some shows together -- I was opening for the Avett Brothers -- and we were backstage in Idaho and there was a piano. He started playing "Twilight" and I started singing it. Then in Oakland, we played "Twilight" together live, acoustically. We started sending each other Elliott Smith songs on voice memos, and shared ideas, and so it just came about that way.
How long ago was that?
That would have been around 2011 that we started taking this Elliott Smith music trip together.
What was it like narrowing this record down to just 12 tracks? Smith has such a vast and important catalog of work.
We tried a bunch of different things. We recorded other songs that didn’t make the cut, and we recorded alternate versions trying to peg the right ones down. It was too hard for me, so I didn’t have much involvement there. After the tracks are recorded, I’m horrible at the process of elimination. Seth made the final order, and there is definitely other stuff that we did that isn't on there. I get your question, though, it is hard. How do you decide something like this when every Elliott Smith song is great?
I think fans will appreciate the song selection.
Some of the tracks are just personal favorite songs for us, too. I have a habit of responding to people with, “You can do what you want to whenever you want to,” so it seemed appropriate to definitely put "Ballad of Big Nothing" on there. I use that several times a day as a catchphrase. [Laughs]
Do you remember the first time you heard an Elliott Smith song?
Yeah, I would’ve been around 15 or 16 years old. I used to play at this bar in Kent, Ohio, every Monday night, from when I was 15 until I was 18. All night long with an acoustic guitar, bar songs, that kind of stuff. I met this older guy there and thought he was cool. He had a Weezer tattoo or whatever and that made me think he was cool because I was a teenager. [Laughs] He rode his bike to my parents’ house at three in the morning once and I snuck him up to my room. He’s quietly playing me these songs on the guitar and I’m thinking, “Alright. Whatever, this guy’s original songs are okay.” I wasn’t too impressed. Then he played "Clementine." He covered Elliott Smith. I was like, “Whoa, dude, you really got something here!” And he told me it wasn’t his song. I hadn’t heard of Elliott Smith until that moment. The next day, that same fellow came over with a pint of rum and the Elliott Smith self-titled release and that was the first time I heard Elliott Smith. This was in 2005, so I go to find more of his recordings and I find out that he’s dead. Everything that is out there is it. That was how I found out about him, this closed catalog of music. That’s a lot different than everyone else I know who actually got to see him live.
How do you think that impacted your approach to this album? You recorded a covers record for someone you never met or even saw in concert; it's a unique perspective.
I think it puts him up on a pedestal even more. For me, I put him up there as a Hank Williams, just a complete and total songwriting legend. For people who know him and have stories about him, I don’t have that. He’s one of the only artists out there, for me, that I have this fantasy in my head of who he is and who he was. He’s not just a person to me, so I kind of get to have that imagination about knowing him through his music in my own way. It’s probably not even right, but I guess everyone relates to music differently.
What can fans expect from the live show between you and Seth?
It will be intimate. It will be me and Seth and Paul Defiglia on upright bass. It’ll obviously be mostly Elliott Smith songs, but we’ll do a few of our own solo numbers too, and maybe another cover or two. It’s interesting because I have my own expectations, but I’ve never done anything like this. Even when I talk with family members, I don’t know what this run will be like until it’s over. We’re going to play songs by one of my favorite artists in a different setting, and I’m doing it with a good friend of mine. I’m not dealing with the pressures of my own music -- this is almost like a break from that.
Four years ago you and Seth started the conversation about Elliott Smith that would grow into a 12-song album. Is this something you've had on your mind before that initial conversation -- have you always wanted to record a proper Elliott Smith cover?
Oh no. I had never personally covered Elliott Smith, and I never even thought about it. He’s one of those guys where I’m like, “I can’t do that.” It’s one of those things that I never tried because he is just so talented. It was definitely not something I thought of. But, I absolutely wanted to jump on board when the conversation started with Seth and when we covered "Twilight" at that show.
When you started out on this journey, did you seek feedback on your renditions of Smith's songs, or did you keep this close to yourself?
For me, it was me and my husband listening to the music. That was pretty much it for awhile. When we first started working on it, I wasn’t even sure what it would turn into or what it would become. I definitely didn’t want an outside influence, that would be unnecessary. Elliott Smith songs are perfect as they are, and by no means am I trying to be Elliott Smith. It’s Seth and Jessica. Fans can always go listen to Elliott Smith.
In the last four years, you've been working on this record, but you never stopped doing your own thing, releasing Make My Head Sing in 2014. After you release this album in March and you hit the road, what's next for you?
I’m hoping to get into the studio to get some of my new ideas down for the next record. It’s getting to the tail end of promotingMake My Head Sing. After this February run for that album, I go out in March with Seth and after that, hopefully I’ll have the time to get some new things down. Hopefully I can finish it this year. That’s where I’m at. I’m sure I could, but who knows? I never know.
Jessica Lea Mayfield is on the road in support of Make My Head Sing through Feb. 21 -- you can pick up her full tour itinerary at this location. Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith hits store shelves on March 17 via Ramseur Records. You can pre-order your CD or vinyl copy here.
Go Behind-the-Scenes With Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith