The same way high school kids may find their “people” through a mutual appreciation of Nine Inch Nails or Green Day or whatever moves them, Seth Avett (of the Avett Brothers) and singer/songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield are friends who bond through music.
“Jessica and I realized we’d both had an independent discovery experience with Elliott Smith,” Avett says. “We both really loved the last record of material he was working on, From a Basement on a Hill.”
Smith was a troubled singer/songwriter whose gentle, poetic music gained popularity in the mid-’90s when five of his songs were used for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Smith suffered from depression, and drug and alcohol addiction, and notoriety was no friend to his struggles. He died in 2003, at age 34, from stab wounds that authorities believed (but never proved) were self-inflicted.
Smith’s lovely music endures, however, and with luck new listeners will discover him through Avett and Mayfield’s tribute album, Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. This collection, culled from throughout Smith’s catalog, features tender, faithful interpretations, with both artists singing and Avett playing most of the instruments.
“I recorded the first part in my own studio with my computer—by myself as engineer, producer and musician,” Avett says. “Then we did some at Jessica’s house with her husband doing the engineering. In the final stages, we took everything to a proper recording studio. But I felt it was paramount to keep the most intimate sound going.”
Avett’s personal studio includes a Pro Tools rig and some multipurpose microphones. “I have used, pretty consistently, a pair of [Shure] SM7Bs for vocals, but just before we started working on this I bought a Neumann U 47,” Avett says. “I have a little army of [Shure] 57s on the drum kit.”
Avett and Mayfield traded voice memos and held collaborative sessions when their touring schedules permitted, until they felt they’d taken the tracks as far as they could get them. Then they brought their collection of songs, in various stages of completion, to engineer Danny Kadar at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C.
“I think Seth brought it to me because he wanted it to have a unified feel,” Kadar says. “The kernel of most of the songs was there, but we started a few from scratch. Most of what came in was vocals and guitars, but some songs had more. The first day or two we did a lot of putting in the rhythm section—drums and electric bass—all of which Seth played. Later, we did some upright bass on the record with Paul Defiglia, who is the bass tech with Avett Brothers.”
Defiglia also arranged delicate string parts for some tracks, played by Avett’s bandmates Joe Kwon (cello) and Tania Elizabeth (violin/viola).
Kadar often records analog in Echo Mountain, to one of the studio’s mint Studer A800 machines, but this album was captured to a Pro Tools/Aurora Lynx setup, as the sessions had already begun in the digital domain and each one would need different parts added and edited. Kadar set up stations in the studio where musicians could play whatever was needed to flesh out each song.
For vocals, Kadar put up two vintage AKG C12s—one for each singer. “Sometimes I would use that C12 in addition to an omni Josephson microphone for acoustic guitar,” Kadar says. “A lot of times when you have a big condenser in cardioid, it gives you too much low end. I knew I would have plenty of low end if the C12 was up, so the omni gives a natural feel to the instrument.”
Echo Mountain’s Yamaha grand was miked with a pair of Neumann KM 54s, and Kadar says drum miking was “minimal”: a Neumann FET 47 on kick, Shure SM57 on snare top, and a pair of AKG 414 overheads. Kadar’s room mics were Neumann U 87s.
“The studio has a ton of great mic pre’s—API 512s, Brent Averill stuff, and a couple of Tridents, which I used to record acoustic guitars,” Kadar says. “Then to unify the scattered recordings becomes pretty easy if you have a wonderful, big old Neve 8068, like Echo Mountain does. I knew I was going to be mixing on the Neve, so I didn’t put a lot of instrument mics or vocals through that [during recording]. But in the mix, add in some of the badass EQ on that Neve, and things starts evening out. The other thing that really unifies the tracks is the reverbs that I use. There’s a great EMT 140 plate that I used the heck out of.
“I also make chambers—actually in the bathroom,” Kadar continues. “You hear that especially on the vocals—a short, bright reverb. It’s so natural that it gets out of the way and sounds like you’re in an intimate space. The studio is in an old church, and it has a nice big reverb, but not if you’re Jessica Lea Mayfield; if you want any kind of ambience on Jessica, it has to be added, because she sings really quietly.”
Resulting from the artists’ and engineer’s thoughtful approach is a beautiful album that honors Smith’s quietly powerful legacy. “One of the elements of Elliott Smith’s music that so many people respond to, is you feel like you’re sitting down with him in a very intimate conversation,” Avett says. “It’s very personal.”