"Because your candle burns too bright,” Jessica Lea Mayfield sings on her latest release, with her collaborator Seth Avett joining in to finish the line, “well, I almost forgot it was twilight.” The words aren’t her own, but beloved singer/songwriter Elliott Smith’s, from his posthumous 2004 song “Twilight.”
Out of context, the line could be speaking directly about its original author, echoing the Neil Young lyric quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note, that it is "better to burn out than to fade away."
Comparing Smith to Cobain isn’t a leap, as both took their own lives less than a decade apart, after fighting addiction throughout their careers. Avett, best known for his hugely popular indie-folk outfit the Avett Brothers, makes the connection.
“It was devastating,” Avett says of Smith's death during a mid-afternoon phone call. “I never met the man, but it’s part of a tragic tradition of the super-bright dying young. When Kurt Cobain died, it was this huge thing, this great tragedy. And for me, when Elliott Smith died, it was the same.”
Avett discovered the music of Smith in the '90s, years before Smith’s death, when a college friend asked him to tab out the guitar part of a Smith song for him. Avett notes the irony that now, so many years later, he spends his time doing the same thing, figuring out Smith’s compositions, for his and Mayfield's Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith.
Mayfield came to Smith’s music later, after his death, when she was a teenager. Looking back, she laughs when she admits his music soundtracked her wild teens.
“It seemed odd to me that people wouldn’t know who he was,” Mayfield says in a separate call, “or that people in my small world hadn’t heard him. Recently, I was out playing shows and people would come up and say ‘I didn’t know who Elliott Smith was until I found out about this project that you and Seth are doing’ and that completely perplexed me. At one merch table, I made a fan a list of where they should start with Elliott Smith.”
This album functions as that sort of list, as both an entry point for new Smith listeners and a reminder of Smith’s greatness for the initiated. Collecting some of Smith’s best-known songs like “Fond Farewell” and “Between the Bars” along with deeper cuts, it is meant to showcase all of his songwriting strengths. But the lyrics always stand out.
“I’ve never immersed myself so completely in the music of someone else,” Avett says, “and after doing so, his lyricism and his poetry are just one of many aspects to his greatness. And I think that should be out front. The idea that songwriting is a poetic endeavor, that seems a little lost today, especially in pop music.
“One of the great things about Elliott Smith’s recordings is the intimacy,” he continues, “and that came from the performer. That didn’t come from the best, shiniest studio, it came from the man, his story, his approach, his feeling, and the performance.”
The album took more than three years to record. Mayfield describes the process as natural, never working from a determined song list, but just going with choices that suited their voices, with an eye toward not favoring any album too much or too little
“There isn’t an Elliott Smith song that I don’t like, but there came a time when Seth and I had to decide to stop recording songs, because we probably had enough,” Mayfield says, laughing.
“The process was a sincere labor of love,” Avett says, “and it wasn’t a convenient thing to do. It was expensive, and it took us almost four years because it matters. I hope people hear that, and I hope people are able to connect to it, and ultimately, feel less alone.”
“Twilight” has another line that exemplifies this idea, where Mayfield sings, “You don't deserve to be lonely,” with Avett harmonizing, “but those drugs you got won't make you feel better.” Smith’s songs are full of lines like this, words that the listener wishes Smith took to heart for himself. And even sung from different voices for a new generation of fans, they still ring as vital as ever.
Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith is out today on Ramseur Records. For more information, visit www.sethandjessicasing.com.
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Avett and Mayfield will perform the songs of Elliott Smith on Tuesday, March 31 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Tickets available here.