THE ART of the cover song is often overlooked. It's common to dismiss a cover version as an easy grab for the listener's attention, a risk-free way to play something tried and true. But a successful cover can shift the room from the typical performer/crowd relationship to one where both are fans alike, and everyone basks in the light of a good song.
Singer/songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield and the Avett Brothers' Seth Avett recently came together to record a full album of songs by the late Elliott Smith. "A lot of my early songwriting was definitely inspired by Elliott Smith," Mayfield says. "I've listened to a lot of Elliott Smith but never really sat down and tried to play any of his songs. It's been really awesome to have a reason to get to know these songs a little better and go behind the surface."
Taking on even a single Smith song—let alone an entire album—could have been daunting, considering the cult following that surrounds Smith, who famously spent the formative years of his career in Portland. However, Avett and Mayfield kept the project simple, approaching it as two fans singing their favorite songs rather than putting emphasis on reworking the material. The arrangements stayed sparse, and even the song choices came from Avett and Mayfield simply trading their favorites back and forth.
"There was sort of an excitement in this collection, more so than trying to come up with the perfect list," Mayfield says. "I can't find anything wrong with two friends performing songs by an artist they really adore—celebrating the songwriting of this incredible artist. I just love these words and melodies so much, and I happen to have the opportunity to sing them, other than just in my house with the CD player."
The two deliver Smith's work with an accurate and respectful subtlety. The clean, simplistic style of Avett's vocals and guitar combine with Mayfield's more eerie tone, coming together to suitably honor the yin-and-yang nature of Smith's bright melancholy.
"There's kind of only a few ways I can do things," Mayfield says. "Taking these Elliott Smith songs, I have so many of my own emotions that I pack onto his lyrics, just as a lot of huge Elliott Smith fans latch on to his honesty and the way that he's so upfront about things. When we were recording, it dredged up a lot of feelings that I think a lot of people have that they might not necessarily announce as freely as he did."
What makes the collection beautiful isn't just Mayfield and Avett showcasing their own considerable talents. It's also the result of two artists honoring the timeless, transcendent songwriting of another.
"I've met two people that told me they didn't know who Elliott Smith was until this project," says Mayfield. "I was even at one of my own shows and someone approached me and told me that. I gave them a list of things they should listen to before they come to our show. Hopefully those people that've missed out on the works of Elliott Smith, it might bring him back up."