Seth Avett remembers the first time he heard Elliott Smith.
"I was in college, and a good friend of mine was trying to learn the guitar," says the Avett Brother. "He knew I could play, so he asked if I'd help him transcribe a song he really loved. He gave me a cassette tape with 'Say Yes' on it, and as soon as I heard that voice, I was immediately on board. It sounded very human, very relatable, even when he was whispering."
"It's funny," he adds. "My first experience with Elliott Smith was trying to learn how to play one of his songs. Maybe that subconsciously contributed to this project."
Avett is referring to Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, a one-off tribute album that hits stores today. Hatched during a backstage jam in 2011 and casually recorded over three years, it's a simple, harmony-filled tribute to a songwriter who, during an all-too-short career, spun his depression into bare-boned acoustic ballads and miniature pop opuses. Avett and Mayfield cherrypick 12 of those songs — many of which Smith originally recorded alone, creating gauzy harmonies out of his own double-tracked vocals — and turn them into unlikely duets, with Avett pulling triple duty as the duo's producer, multi-instrumentalist and occasional singer.
"We started recording at Seth's house, then did some vocals in my living room in Ohio, then finished things up at Echo Mountain in Asheville," says Mayfield, who remembers banishing her dog — a hunting mutt named, appropriately, Elliott — to a different room when he wouldn't stop howling along with the vocal sessions. "It felt natural. It was just two friends playing songs by an artist they both really admire."
Mayfield and Avett discovered that mutual admiration four years ago, when Mayfield joined the Avett Brothers' pre-Carpenter tour as an opening act. Hours before showtime at an Idaho pavilion, the two sat down at a backstage piano and began plunking out the chords to "Twilight." The chemistry was immediate. During the months that followed, Avett began scheduling recording sessions during holidays and tour breaks. Free time wasn't exactly easy to find — the Avett Brothers released two albums during the time it took to record the Elliott Smith tribute — but the pair pushed through, eventually wrapping up the album last year.
On songs like "Between the Bars," Mayfield sounds like the real-life Miss Misery, singing songs abut heartache and addiction from the opposite side of the gender divide. Elsewhere, she and Avett share the spotlight (and the microphone) more or less equally, a move that erases some of the fragility and isolation heard in Smith's early recordings. In their place, the two shine a light on Smith's melodies, from the breezy to the baroque.
"Elliott Smith never over-sang," Avett says. "I don't know if he viewed himself as a singer or not, but if you look at someone like Jimi Hendrix, who didn't think he was a singer, you can see he made really good choices whenever he was singing. There were no frills where they didn't need to be. That's attractive to me as a music lover, to not have a wall between me and the artist, just because the artist can hit every note in the scale."
Electric guitars and sloppy, slapdash drums push "Roman Candle" and "Somebody That I Used to Know" into grungy territory, but Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith hits its true stride during the quieter moments. "Ballad of Big Nothing" is turned into a tag-teamed folk ballad worthy of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and "Angeles" delivers Avett's best vocal performance in years beneath a smog of studio reverb, fingerpicked guitar arpeggios and synth pads.
"We were covering something very pure, so we didn't want to get in the way of the music," he explains. "If you're covering Sinatra or Elvis or Doc Watson, all three of those guys are interpreters. They're not really writers. If you're interpreting their songs, you're interpreting an interpretation already, so there's a certain amount of freedom there. But with Elliot, you're interpreting the source. Nothing can kill a song like overproduction, so we tried to focus on what was working on us: our harmonies, sparse instrumentation and Jessica's voice."