Words are like lollipops. To the taste they can be flavorful and succulent; or they can be bitter and unappetizing. Words can hurt and words can protect. When they are floated inside a melody, they can hum you to sleep or make you cry or laugh or jump in the air with delight. For Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter who passed away in 2003 at the age of thirty-four, he used his words to tell truths that bled out from open wounds. His words were his soul talking, even screaming, in a world almost too loud to hear them. But Seth Avett heard them. So did Jessica Lea Mayfield. And when Avett heard Mayfield singing Smith’s “Twilight,” it was a moment of awakening.
Spending the next three years recording Smith’s songs together, the duo has breathed a new life into some very poignant words: “Let’s Get Lost,” “Angel In The Snow,” “Between The Bars,” and “Twilight,” to name four of the twelve songs they recorded together. Forgoing any need to lavish the words with sparkly tinsel or in-the-way embellishments, Avett and Mayfield kept Smith’s words poignant and sad and bare. Mayfield in particular has a startling enchantment while Avett brings the umber solemnity that whether harmonizing together or singing alone, turns the song into a psalm.
Glide talked to Avett last week about the album he created with Mayfield, entitled simply Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, and why that man’s tomes called to him so deeply. Avett was quite excited to share his stories of discovering Smith and interpreting his music, as well as updating us on what his band, the Avett Brothers, have coming up in this new year. Avett and Mayfield are also planning some intimate shows together throughout March to coincide with the CD’s release on March 17th.
You have a new album coming out in March with Jessica Lea Mayfield. Why do an album completely of covers instead of doing all original songs?
Her and I were like, man, we need to make a record together. And if that happened, I think that would happen because of a song; like maybe a song would start from one side or the other and we would think, what this really needs to find completion is the other one’s voice or the other one’s personality or their treatment or their take or their vocal aesthetics or whatever. But this record happened because there was a moment of inspiration, the details of which I won’t go into too much, but basically her and I were playing a show together, she was opening for the Avett Brothers, and we went backstage in Idaho and there was a piano. I started playing the chords for “Twilight” and she started singing it and I just had a real moment, like this is right, this is a very, very good fit, this melody and her voice. Basically, that was sort of the sparking moment.
So there never really was a question of, should we make an album of covers or should we make an album that’s your songs or my songs or our songs. It never even entered the conversation like that, or even a thought process like that. We figured out “Twilight.” I recorded it on my phone, or whatever I had at the time, a hand-held recording device, and listened to it over the next week. And I was like, what if we tried this other Elliott Smith song? We started almost kind of joking about, “We should just make a whole album of Elliott Smith songs.” That kind of idea had come up hundreds of times in my life with musicians I’ve known. Like when I was fifteen, you always think things like, we should do a whole record like this or a whole record like that. And you never really follow through on stuff like that. But the more we talked about it, the more it seemed to make sense. So we had this gradual sort of process that led us to making the record. It wasn’t a grand plan. It was more like, I heard her singing “Twilight” and I thought, Holy God, this is a thing of beauty and I need to do whatever I can to accommodate more of this.
So it was like a goosebump moment
Absolutely, yeah, a major goosebump moment, like there is some similar spirit rolling through what her and I do and what he did.
How easy was it to whittle down his songs to put on the record?
Well, time did a lot of that for us. The making of this record was over like a three and a half year span but if you boiled it all down to actual time spent working on it, it probably wouldn’t be more than a month. But we gravitated towards songs that we loved, and there were a lot of those, but there are only so many hours in a day, you know. We would find the ones that were very natural fits. As soon as we found one of those, we just took note of it and started building it. There’s like a couple of outtakes but mainly these are the ones that we came to that sort of spoke to us in our sort of natural approach.
Was there a song in particular that you had to have on there or that Jessica had to have on there?
Yeah, I’ll answer for Jessica (laughs), “The Ballad Of Big Nothing.” I think in some way she was kind of born to sing that. Elliott Smith’s original recording of that was like her ringtone for a while. It’s like she wakes up in the morning and that song, the chorus of that song, is just in her mind. It seemed like for a couple of years every time I saw her, she was literally always singing that song, kind of under her breath. “You can do what you want to whenever you want to,” just on and on and on. I thought, if we made this record and did not put that on there, it would just be vastly confusing to me. So that was the big one that she really needed to sing, I feel like. Then I really wanted to sing “Memory Lane.” That one really, really blew me away. I mean, lots of his songs have blown me away but when I heard that one, I was like, my God. I was not as aware of his fingerpicking abilities until I heard that one. But that one I really felt like I wanted to sing it one way or another.
How did you discover Elliott Smith?
I had a close friend in college that turned me on to Elliott Smith. The song “Say Yes,” he let me hear that one and it was on after that. I think anyone that ends up really falling for Smith’s music has that initial moment where they hear some certain song and he is speaking straight to them, you know. That was the moment for me. I was probably twenty years old and, yeah, a close friend at UNC Charlotte, where I went and where I studied printmaking, showed me that song and then that opened the door to a big beautiful room.
Why did you choose to keep these songs subtle and not add a bunch of bings and whistles to them?
Well, that question is one that you have to answer for every song; there has to be a brand new discussion on every song. I’m coming up on about twenty years experience working in studios and I think only in the last few have I really learned about how to just stay the hell out of the way of the song. Working with Rick Rubin as I have over the last five or six years, I’ve learned a lot working with Rick on how to stay out of the way of it, how to approach something and keep it as simple as it needs to be. The songs were born out of me and Jessica playing them in little backstages or the little front room of the tour bus or her living room. So they were not calling out to become gigantic orchestrations with twenty instruments. Besides, my estimation of Jessica’s voice is that it is so, so beautiful and so pure by itself that it really doesn’t make sense to clutter it. I was really excited to get in kind of the producer role and to keep things at bay and keep things away from her voice, to let it sail along so beautifully like it does.
As a producer, is it easy to step back and look at yourself more objectively?
I think I’ve made some pretty good strides in the last few years as far as trying to take some of the personal, some of the hard feelings, about vocals. If you’re in the studio, Leslie, with the band you’re playing with and you run a tune down and someone’s like, “I think the guitar is a little out of tune,” it’s like, “All right” and then you tune your guitar. You don’t take it personally. But if your singing is off or something is not there and not as good as it could be, it’s suddenly like this really hurtful, personal comment (laughs). I think I’ve kind of done a lot of work recently through the years to make it less like that because the voice is an instrument, it is an instrument that is more multi-faceted and speaks to our hearts more. But it still is a sound and a sound that can be changed and shaped and pushed and pulled back and all that. So basically, not really (laughs). The answer to the question is not really cause I’ve always got an opinion. It’s hard for me not to produce. I really have to work at NOT producing more than working at producing really.
You did lead vocals on “Let’s Get Lost,” which is a very raw song. How easy or difficult was it for you to wrap yourself around those words?
You know, there is a fine line you always end up walking when you’re recording a song. This is actually a realm where there wasn’t much difference between recording a cover or one of my own, just that when you’re in the actual process of running a take down, like actually doing a take, performing with microphones actually in front of you in a studio setting where you have to be there, be living inside the meaning of the song, but like for me, if I go too far in that direction, I can’t even remember the chords and if I go too far in the other direction then the spirit of the song gets lost. So you’ve got to kind of be in-between the two. And for “Let’s Get Lost,” that’s obviously a very emotional song, like most of his are, like most of mine are, and most of Jessica’s are. And I think I approached it a lot like I normally do with a hopeful attempt at understanding it and understanding the emotion behind it but then also being present enough at that moment of playing the song that I am communicating it to someone who might be listening.
In terms of the guitar work on this album, was there one particular song that was a little hard to get down on guitar?
Yeah, Elliott Smith is like a master of the passing chord. For all the guitar players out there, the passing chord is obviously the chord that passes in between two of the more rooted chords of a song. But oh man, he could invent some chords. Things that I would never naturally put in one of my own compositions but I might now cause I’ve learned them from studying him. But yeah, I can’t think of an exact one now but top to bottom, that man would introduce chords that only barely exist in between the last chord and the next chord. He was a master of it, and I’m not, so that created a little difficulty but we came through it okay. Or if I couldn’t come up with it, I just simplified it (laughs).
When you are creating your own music, what comes first – the words or the melodies?
There is no real pattern for me. Sometimes it’s at the same time, sometimes it’s a theme without words or music, sometimes it’s music without any words. I try to keep myself as non-formulaic as possible. So it depends on the song. I feel like as soon as I come up with a process that I always do, it’s really going to negatively affect the process so I try to keep it at bay.
Who was the first artist or band that really made you want to make music?
That’s a good question. My dad was probably the first person I saw playing music where it registered to me that a person could sit down in a room with an acoustic guitar and play a song for you. That must have affected me very deeply because I’ve basically given my life up to this point to that. So my dad definitely was the earliest. Then in terms of what I later understood to be playing in a band and performing, The Song Remains The Same, the Zeppelin movie, was pretty much the only thing that mattered to me for a period of time (laughs). Just Jimmy Page with the Les Paul and all that mysticism and darkness and wildness and long hair and all that. So definitely my dad and Led Zeppelin.
Did you ever meet Jimmy Page?
I have not met Jimmy Page but I have had the pleasure of meeting Robert Plant and hanging out a little bit. I have kind of brushed shoulders with John Paul Jones. We played a couple of festivals together but I haven’t really spoken with him.
You’re going to be doing a short tour with Jessica. What kind of show can we expect?
It’s going to be kind of a sparse setup. We’re looking at only three musicians onstage – me, Jessica and a standup bass player, Paul DiFiglia, who actually contributed some of the strings to the record, some of the string arrangements. So basically a vocal and a standup bass, two acoustics, a piano, vocals, that kind of thing. The approach is meant to be very intimate, very pin drop sort of scenario if possible. I tried to pick the rooms in a way that would be given to an intimate kind of setup.
Which fits Smith’s music.
Right, right. Elliott Smith’s music makes you feel like you’re looking in on this person, just him in a tiny little whatever, tiny little kitchen, tiny little apartment. It is such an intimate experience. And we won’t be playing just Elliott Smith’s music. We will draw heavily from the record but there will also be some of Jessica’s originals, some of my originals, maybe another cover here or there that’s relative or relevant to the project. It should be fun.
I understand that you started out with punk leanings in the very early days. What made you turn?
(laughs) I still love a lot of punk music. I still like a lot of very heavy music. I think that it’s really just a question of expanding the scope and expanding the perspective. The older I get the more I desire more tools, more dynamics, sounds I’ve never heard, rhythms I’ve never heard. There’s a reason Paul Simon ended up where he had to make Graceland. He couldn’t make another very quiet, one guitar/two vocal thing like he was doing with Art Garfunkel and the reason is I think someone who is a songwriter or someone that really wants to create music, you have to keep a steady diet of new inspiration. So I’m still very open to full-on punk music, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, all the different areas that that goes into. I also really love just heavy rock & roll, Queens Of The Stone Age.
You sound like Luther Dickinson. He started off really punk and then came into more Americana music.
Yeah, if you look at Hank Williams’ music, like aesthetically, that’s sort of one of the roots of what country music became but his life was very punk rock. His life was very in line with the punk rock kind of life. I don’t know, I just love so much music I cannot get enough. I mean, it’s a full-on obsession I have about so much music so it would be ultimately ridiculous if I kept that relegated to one genre.
Other than the tour with Jessica, what do you have planned for 2015?
A lot of this year will be keeping an eye on the calendar and trying to carve out room to work on the new Avett Brothers record, which we’re over half-way through already. We started on it in California a couple of months ago. We are heavily into the process of making a new record so that’s very much on the forefront of my mind. I’m excited to get back out on the road. There’s going to be a lot of great shows coming up but I can’t help but wake up thinking about the next Avett record and digging back into it, getting in the studio any time we can to take this thing to the next level.
What was the difference in working with Jessica and working with Scott?
(laughs) I tell you, man, Jessica and Scott, God bless both of them, I love them so much. They have some major similarities. If you catch either one of them in a certain kind of mood, they will go off on some philosophical tangents. I mean, it’s just the most entertaining thing you could probably imagine. But Jessica is one of a kind. Me and Scott have thirty-five years of connection and understanding and collaboration and baggage (laughs) and me and Jessica only have like ten. That’s the difference.
But she’s more fun, right?
(laughs) That’s right. Jessica is a beautiful spirit and it’s a weird thing. You meet Jessica and the first time she speaks to you, you’re like, oh my God, what a wonderful soul. You just can’t deny it. It’s really been a joy to make a record with her and I think that I’m always going to be proud of it and proud to be a part of it.