Lapsed folkie Jessica Lea Mayfield finds a new muse in ’90s grunge
Although she’s been performing for two-thirds of her 24 years, Jessica Lea Mayfield is starting over with third album Make My Head Sing…(ATO).
Mayfield joined her parents’ bluegrass band when she was eight. In her teens, she sang Foo Fighters covers at coffeehouses in and around her home of Kent, Ohio, and did some recording with her brother, privately releasing an album under the alias Chittlin’ in 2007. That led to recording with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and her official debut, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, which came out in 2008, when she was 19.
That well-received album presented Mayfield as a moody, rootsy singer/songwriter of precocious talent, confirmed by its follow-up, 2010’s Tell Me, also produced by Auerbach.
But then Mayfield became disillusioned.
“I was touring for Tell Me, and in one of the most awkward stages of my life,” says Mayfield. “The age when everyone doesn’t really know who they are, when you’re in your early 20s. I was out there, and I had to kind of front. I didn’t even know what kind of clothes I liked to wear, but I was out there every single night, just trying to be myself and not even really sure who that was. It just got real tiring. I realized at one point that this isn’t the kind of music that I would put on and listen to.”
Mayfield considered giving up on music altogether. She married fellow musician Jesse Newport, and they settled in Kent. Newport was eager was to record with her, but she had little interest.
“We got married, and I was on the downspin from Tell Me,” she says. “He was like, ‘Let’s just record for fun,’ and I would be like, ‘I fucking hate music. I don’t want to play anymore. I give up.’ I want to have an old folks’ home for animals, anything. I was so done. I was so fucking bored. I like all kinds of music, but I took the wrong pill or something and went down the folk alley. Now I feel like this record is the first record that I ever made. I started really getting into playing guitar, and the record kind of just wrote itself.”
Make My Head Sing… will surprise listeners who expect a third set of Americana-style folk rock. Produced by Mayfield and Newport, it’s a grungy power-trio album that places Mayfield’s calm voice in a squall of her electric guitar. The crackling, distorted guitar line of “Oblivious” opens the record, and it sounds like a declaration of purpose: This is hard rock, not Americana. Although it includes a few restrained moments that recall her past work—the reverberating “Standing In The Sun,” wistful love song “Seein* Starz”—the dominant tone is heavy and aggressive.
“What got me into music was ’90s alternative, bands like the Stone Temple Pilots,” says Mayfield. “I never got big into learning all the guitar tones that I loved so dearly, but now I’ve realized that I can make those sounds in my pajamas in my house, and it’s really become a passion of mine and something I really fucking love.”
She calls the album “a tribute to what I sit around and listen to.” The reference points are bands such as Soundgarden, Queens Of The Stone Age, Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Without slavishly imitating them, Mayfield has mastered their visceral energy and metallic power chords. It’s also ominous and eerie on songs like “Party Drugs,” the first she recorded for the album, which she calls, “just me and guitar and getting into making things sound fucked up.”
Mayfield still professes a fondness for the old-time country of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, but claims, “there’s not a lot of new music that I like.” She’s a purist and has little patience for electronics.
“I get so pissed off when I go out, if I’m watching a band at a festival and I hear things that I don’t see onstage,” she says. “I don’t want to hear this magical computer shit. I just want to see a band: I want to go to a show and I want to see a fucking band.”
For this record, Mayfield also wanted to be in control, to be the one taking the chances and making the decisions, to create something that reflected who she is now.
“I’m not going sing about the shit that a teenage girl would sing about—I’ve got to make something that’s a little more coherent with my life,” she says. “I turned 24 years old in August. This is the year I’ve figured out that life is about working hard and enjoying the work that you do. If you’re not doing those two things, then you’re doing something wrong.”