an interview with jessica lea mayfield
  • MONDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2009

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Jessica Lea Mayfield is tall. That was the first thing I noticed as she approached me on the balcony of Webster Hall two weeks ago; she looked so much shorter on stage. This meeting occurred minutes after her stunning set, consisting mostly of the heartfelt songs from Blasphemy So Heartfelt, her impressive debut record. Being younger than me, I guess I naturally assumed she'd just be shorter. To be fair, I am not a basketball player. I'm more like Billy Crystal. And although young, Mayfield has a rustic, powerful voice. Musical talent always tends to seem taller in person.

Jessica Lea Mayfield was born to a pair of music lovers. Her parents met at a Bluegrass festival, and were immediately inseparable. By the time she arrived, they had formed a traveling band together, and already had a first child; her older brother David. When he turned 13, he began playing bass with his parents. When Mayfield turned 8, she became impatient for her turn. "I'd run into the living room, singing everyone else's parts" she told me. "Begging to join. I wanted to be a part of it."

Mayfield's brother's band, Cadillac Sky, is worth a listen if you're a Mayfield family fan. Although a bit more true Bluegrass, the two come from a true family of musicians. And in a genre of music that values heritage, tradition, and roots, growing a musical appreciation organically makes a big difference.

Wasting no time, Mayfield began writing at 11, and recording at 15. It was at this stage of her life that she met Dan Auerbach, the member of the Black Keys who would become a mentor and friend to Mayfield. She didn't even know who he was. "He contacted me through Myspace" she said, of their first encounter. "I was only 16, but he was really down to earth."

I don't find it surprising at all that Auerbach sought out Mayfield. In a dreary sea of songwriters, her writing encapsulates that special certain emotive quality that is tough to find and even tougher to put into words. "Writing just happened" she said. "I was always playing other peoples songs. Then I had this experience, and I sat down with my guitar. I wrote my own song about how I felt, and it became a way to purge myself of sadness." It seems simple enough. "I'm so appreciative of it too, its interesting, its really sensitive, my most personal sad feelings."

Sincerity is a term often tossed around when discussing a songwriter, but rarely is it so painfully true than on Blasphemy. "I can't write a happy song, a song about somebody else, I can't make up a story about a guy who was in the war. It's just what I do and I'm gonna do it regardless." Mayfield spent several weeks in the studio recording new material with Auerbach, and during that time the isolation from her then-boyfriend inspired a lot of writing.

Only two songs from White Lies, the original demo she made with her brother in her bedroom in Ohio, made it onto Blasphemy, but it seems that the back and forth studio sessions between Auerbach made Mayfields debut more well balanced than anyone could expect from such a young musician writing about her sadness. While many of her songs are indeed gloomy and personal (in fact, all of them have a subtext of melancholy), fan favorites like "For Today" have more of a quality of optimism. Auerbach and Mayfield operate on "two different levels," and she attributes his helpfulness to their often differing opinions about instrumentation and motif. "It's good to have different perspectives."

On a more personal level, I had to ask about a specific recording. "I'm Not Lonely Anymore," a short, punchy waltz in the middle of Blasphemy, is one of the most bleak musings of Mayfield; and one of the most powerful. "It's my favorite song to play live" she told me, and I was happy to be picking up the right vibe of raw authenticity. She played it first during her set. "Lonely" is a love song dredged in misery, and ironically, it stems from the same experience as my other favorite cut, "I Can't Lie To You Love." Many people seemed surprised when they discover, Mayfield told me, that some of her songs stem from the same experiences. "Two songs can be about the same moment. But they are still two different songs."

Things have changed significantly since those first sessions with Dan. Mayfield has been all over the world with the Black Keys and the Avett Brothers. She has played in a variety of situations, including Botanical Gardens and even people's backyards. And although she is no stranger to touring ("I toured constantly with my family"), she is beginning to feel a pull towards home. "I just bought a house" she told me, "and it's waiting for me." Although she will eventually settle in Kent, Mayfield has a lot of Southern qualities she attributes to her time spent in Tennessee as a youth. Her music definitely possesses this twang. The family moved back to Ohio to take care of a sick family member, and that is where Mayfield started her career.

Mayfield plans to record again, but this time around it will be different. "I'm recording with Dan in January" she told me, "and I don't know how this process is going to go." The first time around the environment was definitely one of improvisation and collaboration over time. "We just recorded a bunch of stuff and then Dan was like hey, let's put them all together and make an album." This time around, the two have more on their plates, and may not be able to commit as much time to exploration. However, Mayfield hopes it will be a lesson in preparedness. "It's definitely not going to be the same and it might be better."

"I always write but I'm really picky about what I play out" Mayfield said, of her songwriting process. With numbers like "Lonely," it is no surprise Mayfield has to be careful about what she brings to the table. "A lot of people are pumped up after they leave the stage" she said, "but I'm almost depressed, suicidal." The songs are so real for her, playing them rouses a certain amount of emotion. And the audience can sense that sincerity, especially in the live setting.

As for the future, Mayfield has lofty travel goals. "Now I want to see Antarctica." We laughed about it, but something tells me there will come a day when Mayfield will visit the arctic. And when we hear her song about it, we'll know she was really there, and exactly how she felt. - joe puglisi


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