Jessica Lea Mayfield

Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Grunge Resurrection

Annie Zaleski

By Annie Zaleski

on 04.17.14 in Features

When I reach the singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield on a recent April afternoon, she’s in Akron, Ohio, attempting to enjoy one of the first warm days the city has seen in almost six months. Sadly, however, a dead battery has thwarted an attempt to hit the road in her Mustang.

Fortunately, this automotive hiccup is about the only setback for the Kent, Ohio, native at the moment. Her new album, Make My Head Sing… is a stunning progression from her previous work. Made primarily with her husband/bandmate Jesse Newport, the collection eschews Mayfield’s twangy, acoustic tendencies and country influences. Instead, it’s a spacious rock record dominated by crackling electric guitars and plaintive vocals; songs take cues from lumbering stoner metal (“Anything You Want”), foggy shoegaze (“Pure Stuff”), Smiths-like indie-pop (“Do I Have The Time”) and seething blues (“Oblivion”).

The characters on Make My Head Sing… are as compelling as the music. Mayfield’s lyrics describe deeply flawed protagonists that crave love and find it in intoxicating — although not necessarily healthy — ways. “The flawed characters are me and the people in my life,” Mayfield says. “It’s hard for me not to write about things that are going on in my life, and I wish I could write about different stuff. But in a sense, [it's] how I get those things off my head. If something’s really troubling me or bothering me, and I write a song about it, it’s out of my head and somewhere else after that.”

Your new record feels like a big step forward. Why was now the right time for this?

There was really no deciding when this record could come out. By the time I started working on this record, it started writing itself. I had to make this record, or I wasn’t going to make music. I had this whole record planned out in my head, and I had to see it come to fruition.

How did it all come to you? What spurred it on?

I started really getting into playing the guitar. I would write all the fun guitar parts first, and they would inspire what would come next in the lyrics.

What was your inspiration for picking up the guitar and writing these parts? Was there any particular player?

I always had a lot of favorite guitar players [ever] since I was a young girl. But what was around me was predominantly acoustic music. I never really had anyone around to mentor me on things like electric guitars or guitar amps and pedals. It took me a little longer to catch on to that stuff. I took the initiative recently to figure it out on my own. My husband [Jesse Newport], he’s into repairing tube amps, so he gave me this amp that I fell in love with, and then I bought this guitar that I [also] fell in love with…

What kind of guitar is it?

It’s a Gretsch Baritone, which I just love. It’s real low; it sounds like Satan’s basement. [Laughs.] That’s what made me fall in love with it. I was just like, “Oh, this guitar is so cool.” I found it at the Guitar Emporium in Louisville, Kentucky, for $420. I just had to come home with it. I wasn’t real big on buying a lot of gear then — and now it’s what’s most important to me. I used to go buy clothes and makeup and all that stuff, and now I’m always trying to have money for the gear. If I buy something new or even used, I gotta save up my money for whatever old piece of broken gear I want to buy [laughs].

Those pieces have such history. And the sound on vintage instruments is so much richer.

I’m a big fan of vintage guitar pedals, too. It makes it difficult, because if I break one of my pedals, I can’t go to the store and buy another one. But at the same time, they [produce] more unique sounds — classic sounds that haven’t been too polluted. Some of these newer guitar pedals all have this real digital Guitar Center vibe. I guess I just miss the past and the sounds from the past, and I actively seek them out.

Was making the record different with that attention to detail with gear in mind?

I think that with this record, I was in charge of things. It was me and my husband, and he knows me well and knows what kinds of sounds I like and what kind of music I’m into. He would definitely help me figure out what it was I was looking for. It was really fun getting to discuss that kind of stuff with my husband and finally have a gear buddy [laughs].

‘I had to make this record, or I wasn’t going to make music.’

Were there any particular bands or artists you were listening to while putting together Make My Head Sing…?

I’ve listened to the same bands forever. All the bands I basically discovered when I was 11, 12, 13 years old are the same bands I listen to today. Basically, the music from my time or before that is where I’ve gotten stuck, in a sense. I feel like there’s something that’s been lost in newer music, a certain sense of artistic vision that was around when I was young. There’s no Nirvana and Soundgarden. Stone Temple Pilots. I feel like there haven’t been any replacements for them. The bands that are still around are still doing their thing. But there’s been no one who’s really come up and changed that for me. I turn on the radio and 90 percent of the time I’m like, “What the fuck is this? Oh no!” [Laughs] No!

On this album, I also think you sounded much more confident as a vocalist; you really disappeared into the characters in the songs.

I felt like I was more comfortable for sure. It was nice to be able to take my time with this record, and just be in the studio. [Most of the time it was] me and Jesse, my husband, just the two of us. Whereas with the last two records, [it was like] the whole rest of the band’s in the room, and we’ve got from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it’s a little less loose. [This time] if I wanted to relax in the studio when we did the records, it’s like, “All right, let’s dim the lights and I’m going to take my shirt off.” You know, I’m going to be comfortable — and just do whatever the song needs.

Lyrically, I sensed a theme of illusions as they related to love — whether it was an illusion of sanity, of a happy relationship, of an honest relationship.

This record plays on a lot of the negative aspects of people joining together. People ask me, “Oh, you’re married now. Are you going to write all happy songs?” And it’s like, even if a couple is happy together, there are still a lot of struggles and adjustments and situations and feelings and doubts and all those things you have to confront. The things I’m writing about now have more meaning than they did [in the past], because I’m writing about the most important relationship that I’ve ever had in my life, and the most important connection I’ve ever made.

Are the stakes a lot higher as a writer?

It’s special for us that this record could be about us, and we could make it together and we can go out and tour it together. It makes it a lot more intimate. We’ve been calling it our record baby, because it took us nine months to record it, and we both care about it so much.

How has playing music together with your husband deepened your relationship?

Me and Jesse, we get closer for sure, every day. We spend every day together, and I feel like the more we know each other, the more connected we get. Having the person you trust the most as part of your touring and working party is really comforting — having him up there [on stage] and knowing he’s going to do his best to make sure everything goes right. We have each other’s backs. It’s different working with your husband, because it’s not just some dude that you hired who only gives a shit about themselves.

You really were able to take a lot of time off the road to make this record, which is something you’re not necessarily used to. What kind of perspective did that time off give you?

For me, the time off was a little longer than it might have been had I been in a different headspace. But I was definitely in a weird point in my life. I wasn’t really even enjoying making music. It was before I had gotten back into playing guitar. I was in a place where I was really trying to figure out who I was. With the first record [With Blasphemy So Heartfelt], it was songs I had written when I was 15, 16. The record came out when I was 17, 18, and then I toured that record as a 19-, 20-year-old. And then I recorded Tell Me, and I was still in my early 20s for that record. I was so busy touring I hadn’t really gotten a chance to stop and figure out what it was I wanted to do.

You know, most people at that age are in the time of their lives where they’re figuring out who they are. And I sort of already had a, “OK, this is me and what I’m doing.” But I didn’t even feel like that was accurate. I was just doing whatever I could, and not necessarily exactly what I wanted to.

It was good to find time for myself during the off time. I felt real awkward for a while, and then I fell into my own skin and who I was. This past year, since I turned 24…I don’t really get embarrassed anymore; I don’t care if I sound stupid; I don’t care what other people think about me. When you get to that point, you’re like, “I’m married, I got my life and what I like to do. And I have things that I’m passionate about and that I find joy in. Screw everybody else.” My life doesn’t hinge on what other people think about me. Like, when you’re a teenage girl, everything’s the end of the world [laughs]. I don’t like to deal with all those intense feelings anymore, so I’m happy about that.

I was homeschooled and I started touring with my mom and dad when I was eight years old and playing in their band. I’ve been a touring musician for 15 years or so, and I guess this is the graduation period — or the period maybe where I’ve figured it all out.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve discovered in this whole process?

Just what I’m capable of — what my own abilities are. To not be embarrassed or too shy. And don’t ever let being embarrassed stop you from living your life or doing things. It’s those feelings that you kind of grow out of. I’ve always been a little more awkward than most people, because I didn’t go to school and I wasn’t forced into a lot of social situations. I was always used to playing shows and being onstage, and not staying in one place long enough to have a core group of friends. It’s interesting to have to learn how to not be a complete freak when I’m in groups of people.

And when you’re a kid and spend a lot of time with adults, too, it’s such a different experience.

Everybody has always told me that they thought I was an old soul. Even when I was 12 and 13, people would think I was 16 and 17. I was a taller, bigger kid. Nobody ever thought I was my age; I always got away with being older. I didn’t want people to know how young I was [laughs]. I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, you’re really talented for an 11-year-old.” I wanted someone to go, “Oh, I think you’re really good” — just as a person.