It started with a dog.
When singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield called up her friend Seth Avett in 2010 to tell him about her new black, white and brindle squirrel dog Elliott, he immediately asked whether she’d named it after Elliott Smith.
“Of course we both went into that ridiculous mode among artists,” says Avett of the geeking out that proceeded.
Avett and Mayfield kick off a 13-date tour to promote the upcoming album “Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith” (out on Ramseur Records March 17) Tuesday at McGlohon Theatre. They managed to squeeze in dates between Avett’s busy touring schedule and the birth of his first child with fiancé Jennifer Carpenter (best known for Showtime’s “Dexter”), who is due later this year.
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The duo first met when she opened for the Avett Brothers at Kent State – at age 15 – in her hometown of Kent, Ohio. The Avetts were so impressed they invited her to open more dates.
“She had these very simple, soulful, vocal lines and this over-the-top vulnerability,” Avett says. “All the songs we wrote when we were younger were horrible. I don’t feel like I really wrote a quality song until I was nearly 20 years old, whereas Jessica as an adolescent was writing very worldly, emotionally complex songs.”
They didn’t bond over Smith until five years later. The seeds for the album were sewn backstage in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Mayfield opened for the Avetts.
“I started plinking out the chords to (Smith’s) ‘Twilight’ and she started singing,” Avett says.
“I had something close to a musical epiphany. A sensitive, female, delicate, but strong and beautiful female voice singing his words felt very right,” says Avett, calling from Austin, Texas, where he was filming a guest spot on “Austin City Limits.”
Avett became a fan four years before Smith’s 2003 death.
“I discovered Elliott Smith when I was in art school at UNC Charlotte in the late ’90s,” he says. “A close friend of mine was learning guitar at the time and wanted to see if I could help him transcribe a song from one of his favorite artists. He put the song ‘Say Yes’ on a cassette tape. Like all people who like Elliott Smith, I fell in love with it immediately.”
Mayfield, 25, discovered him much later.
“That was the most devastating thing when I went to go look for more Elliott Smith music and found out he died two years before,” Mayfield says. “People relate to the honesty in his lyrics. He had a really good way of painting his emotions in a way other people could take from it what they wanted.”
Says Avett: “The great majority of pop music we hear is overproduced and is very clearly attached to some commercial agenda, where you get the most numbers and make the most money and all this nonsense from sponsorship. There’s a huge glass wall between you and ‘artists.’ You don’t feel like you’re getting the sentiment of a human. ...
“Listening to Elliott Smith is the polar opposite of that. You are more or less stepping into a little room with a person and their heart, and it’s unfiltered and genuine and not altogether pleasant. Knowing someone that’s singing to themselves – feeling pain or joy or anything and are able to share it with you – there’s something that makes you feel less alone.”
Courtney’s blog: cltsoundbites.blogspot.com
Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
WHERE: McGlohon Theatre, 345 N. College St.
TICKETS: Sold out.
DETAIILS: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.