“I’m an awkward person so it’s hard for me to deal with any reactions to my existence,” says Jessica Lea Mayfield, laughing slightly, but undoubtedly with complete sincerity. I had just asked her about her favorite responses to her latest project, which has the indie singer/songwriter — best known for a morose brand of alt. country that she’s been putting out since 2008 — teaming up with Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers to celebrate the music of Elliott Smith, the late singer/songwriter that many consider to be the premier of his generation. Next Tuesday, March 17th, see’s the release of Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, which was produced by Seth himself. However, the duo are currently on the road and will be appearing at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA tonight.
Jessica tells me that this project has been in the works for quite some time and that even the album itself was recorded piecemeal, over the past three years.
“It started because me and Seth realized we were both big Elliott Smith fans. We’re longtime friends and one time we started talking about From a Basement on the Hill and totally geeked out over it [laughs]. And then I was opening some shows for the Avett Brothers in 2011 and backstage he just started playing ‘Twilight’ and I just started singing along and that was it. But in terms of our collaboration on the album, it just came down to figuring out when we could get together, because it’s not like we’re next door and we each had difference things going on. I mean, I went to North Carolina and worked on it in his garage studio and he came to my house in Kent in Ohio and we recorded in my living room.”
The album itself is very clever. While the music of Elliott Smith is honored in a very sincere and admirable manner, Jessica and Seth embrace their own, Americana-based, backgrounds and in no way attempt to recreate the originals. The songs span Elliott’s career, from the title track of his debut, “Roman Candle,” to singles like “Baby Britain,” and a number of tracks from the previously-mentioned, posthumously-released album, From a Basement on the Hill. Jessica tells me that the particular selection of songs that they recorded was largely based on their own personal favorites, but that the final tracklist was something she left Seth to decide on and that there were plenty of recordings that just didn’t quite fit, but that you may very well hear in the live show.
When I spoke to Jessica it was prior to the start of the tour, which is currently in progress, and she told me that she was both excited and curious to see how things went with these shows, as it’s a live setup that’s new to her: she, Seth, and bassist Paul Defiglia as a trio.
“This is a really different thing for me. I love every Elliott Smith song ever recorded and I love getting to sing with Seth. And Elliott’s songwriting speaks for itself. His songwriting was so emotional. He was such a great songwriter and some people seem to be more of entertainers than songwriters, but he just put his feelings out there. It’s just going to be the three of us and an intimate portrayal of what happens on the album and a reworking of some of my solo stuff and some of Seth’s stuff. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m very excited.”