Backstage at an Avett Brothers show in 2011, Seth Avett began plucking the chords to Elliott Smith's "Twilight." Kent native Jessica Lea Mayfield, who was opening for the roots rock band, recognized the song and started to harmonize. The unexpected moment ignited their bond over the late singer-songwriter who amassed a cult following before he tragically took his life in 2003.
The duo spent the next three years collaborating on Smith covers for their album, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, which debuts March 17.
For fun, Avett recorded "Memory Lane," a somber, aching ballad, on his phone and sent it to Mayfield. Then they began to playfully record and exchange voice memos of Smith covers whenever they had time between shows. They soon realized these recordings could become an album.
"[Smith's] music is sacred to me," says Mayfield, who relates to his withdrawn, introverted demeanor. "I'm a bit shy too. I did feel that Seth was trying to break me out of my comfort zone a little at times."
For Avett, the experience of working with Mayfield was a natural fit, especially with a muse like Smith. "Jessica sometimes has this bit of hesitance in her voice, which is very human and very beautiful," says Avett. "It has a purity, a timidity, that you can't imitate."
To maintain the level of intimacy found in Smith's original work, they surrounded themselves with familiar faces: the Avett Brothers' backing band and Scott Avett on banjo. The majority of the recording took place with the Avett Brothers engineer Danny Kadar in Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, North Carolina. The rest was done in Mayfield's and Avett's own homes.
"The music would have suffered if we did anything that took us out of our realm of experience. This had to be made among friends," Avett says. "It truly was a labor of love."
Spanning Smith's entire catalog, from the Roman Candle title track to the posthumous release From a Basement on the Hill, the duo's record never strays far from the haunting tone of the original songs.
"Anyone who has a love for Elliott Smith knows it's this very intensely personal, almost untouchable thing," Avett says. "All the sessions felt very trusting, as if we were taking care of each other's respect and appreciation for the material. On top of that, we were really taking care of each other as performers."