INTERVIEW: “He was and still is the soundtrack to my life”—Jessica Lea Mayfield talks Elliott Smith tribute

Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers and Jessica Lea Mayfield have embarked on a new musical journey together celebrating the life of the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. The two musicians grew up sharing the same passion and love for Smith’s music and through their friendship, they decided to record and release an album of Elliott Smith covers. Substream spoke with Mayfield about the project with Avett.

SUBSTREAM: How did you and Seth Avett meet?
JESSICA LEA MAYFIELD: I met the Avett Brothers when I had opened for them in Kent, Ohio, at the Kent Stage, when I was about 15 or 16 years old. A lot of the local venues around the Akron, Ohio, area would call me to be an opening act for the nights that they felt suitable and I was able to meet a lot of people in my teen years that way. It took a bit longer before Seth and I really hit it off. I became a fan of their music and had ended up touring with them a bit.

Whose idea was it to start the project?
Seth and I had talked about Smith’s album, From A Basement On The Hill a bit. I was opening for the Avett Brothers in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Seth and started to play the song “Twilight,” and I started to sing along. After hearing that, it inspired Seth to start this project. It started off very slowly and we never made any major plans for it. I didn’t really know what it was going to turn into, but we both started working on it when we could.

How did you go about choosing what songs you were going to cover for the album?
It started with personal favorites, for the most part. It started off with, “Oh, we need to do this one!” and “We have to do that one!” Every Elliott Smith song is so well written, and each song is so great. It just became an excuse to dive into each song. It was definitely hard to narrow it down and choose each song.

Did you have a personal favorite song to record?
It’s hard to pick just one—being such a big Elliott Smith fan, and being able to record these songs that I adore so much was a pleasure in itself. Singing alongside Seth, who has a huge amount of talent has been great, and he is such a fun person to perform live with. I really enjoyed working on this album.

When did you first come across Elliott Smith’s work?
The first time I listened to Elliott Smith was probably around 10 years ago—I was 15 when I first found out about him. At that point, he was already not with us. I went on the internet to find his music and see where he is going to be performing live next, but I of course I came to find out that he had passed. His type of music was what I was already listening to at that point, and at the time I spent a lot of time listening to Hank Williams and Nirvana. When I found Smith’s music, I was so sad to find out that he was dead, too. Nobody that I was listening to was going to be putting out new music or going to be going on tour anytime soon, and that was a bummer. He was and still is the soundtrack to my life. There is always a song or an album of his that can match whatever mood I am in. I’ve found myself singing one of Smith’s songs in my head when certain feelings begin to grow.