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Jessica Lea Mayfield Is All-In With Music

Jessica Lea Mayfield
Jessica Lea Mayfield
Courtesy of the artist

Don't let the name fool you. Or the bluegrass pedigree developed playing in the traveling band that was her family. No, Jessica Lea Mayfield is an out and out rocker, owing as much to the Foo Fighters and Stone Temple Pilots as she does Bill Monroe.

While her first two albums, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt and Tell Me -- produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach -- admittedly had a slight county flair, her latest, Make My Head Sing... channels '90s alternative rock. Full of fat chords and powerful riffs, atmospheric vocals and dreamy layers, sonic overload and stripped down acoustics, the album is both brash and soft at the same time.

It fits Mayfield's persona perfectly. Despite the brooding look and heavy make-up of her publicity photos, she's also pretty giggly, as Up on the Sun discovered during a recent phone interview discussing traveling around with her parents like "wild gypsies," her opposing rock influences, meeting her future husband at a music festival and how he eventually became her bassist and producer. Not everything we talked about made it into our feature on Mayfield. Here are the outtakes from our interview with the singer, who is performing at Pub Rock Live in Scottsdale on Sunday, June 22.

Up on the Sun: First, is it Jessica or Jessica Lea?

Jessica Lea Mayfield:

Jessica is fine.

Everything I read about you says you're a singer/songwriter, which, in my eyes and many others, is more folky than rocker. The immediate fuzz and heaviness of "Oblivious" surprised me. Is that label bothersome?

I have no control over what people say about me, including you. Then there's the opinions about all my work on the internet from journalists. I don't know what I'd call me and I can't necessarily let it bother me. What people think what I do shouldn't effect what I do or my mental state. It would be a tragedy. I've seen it happen to people. I've seen people turn themselves upside down based on what chart number they are. If people let all that stuff into their heads it can''t assist the art they are making. I think it's a tricky thing when people let it effect their self-worth and their creativity.

Fill me in a little bit on your background. How did you get to this point? Where did your career start?

I've been playing music and touring my whole life. I started out playing in my family's bluegrass band. We toured around in a bus that was owned by Bill Monroe at one point. We lived on this antique bus like wild gypsies [aughs]. I've been a musician for about 15 years. Got my start playing with my mom and dad [then] started doing solo shows that were just mine when I was 15 or 16.

When solo, was it mostly bluegrass-y or country?

I've been inspired by a lot of different music. The stuff that inspired me the most was '90s alternative. It would be covers of songs like Stone Temple Pilot songs and Foo Fighter songs. Then I started writing my own songs. It's the same thing with Elliot Smith. I'm a huge fan of his and a lot of people called him folky because he played an acoustic guitar. I think that I changed the type of guitar I was playing and it changed the genre. It's important to people what the genre is. They can't just listen to something and go, "I like it or I don't." If I had to change genres all the time that wouldn't be fun.

I agree... that just pigeonholes an artist.

It's not like I sit down with an instrument and think, "OK, I'm going to write a polka song -- here I go." I sit down and see what happens and create something. I'm not even sure what anyone is going to say it is until it's out in the air. Whatever's going to help you with your iTunes search [laughs].

You mentioned '90s bands and listening to your new album, Make My Head Sing..., I noticed that heavy '90s thickness, not quite grunge, but powerful and emotional. There's the simplicity of a straight-ahead rock vibe, mixed with a lot of complexity, nuance and fillers. When you're writing, what are your goals; what are you trying to achieve?

I don't necessary have a goal in mind, but I'll have an idea and go from there. If I have a lyric or a line I want to use I'll get that in there. Or I'll take out the guitar and come up with a melody. This last record, a lot of it was first coming up with stuff on guitar and becoming inspired by that.

The whole record is just me, my husband on bass and this guy [Matt] Martin on drums. Most sounds you're hearing are guitar and me interpreting guitar sounds in different ways and having fun with that.

I read somewhere that you're trying to get back to the basics of rock music. What do they mean by that?

I wanted to make things simpler for me in general and also wanted to downsize my operation. A lot of my all-time favorite bands are guitar, bass and drums. It's just a sound I'm really looking for. These days I'll be at a festival and pop over to check out another band and they've got so many members you can't even tell what's going on. Then you hear some sound and realize it's not coming from the stage but that they're playing along with a computer. And the drummer has headphones on so he's playing to a click track. Suddenly, the music's lost it's naturalness and has no feel and rawness.

It's not real. It's not what rock is all about.

Raw is what a lot of music should be about. You should see what you're hearing. Have fun with specifics and sounds, but don't take the moment out of it.

 

How is it working with your husband? A lot of husband/wife teams work well together for awhile but then they get torn apart. How is it in this case since it's not really a band, but your band?

When I met my husband he was the sound engineer for this other band. We were at this festival and we hit it off really well. Long story short, I ended up hiring him to do sound for me. After my tour ended we had really hit if off. So I hired him to come back for the next tour and he cancelled his gig with the other band so we could spend time together. From there, we realized we could spend every free moment together, and working together was great because it worked so well. After a few months touring and working together we realized it was right and got married.

We didn't record together for a long time. We were almost a year into the marriage and we were both afraid if we didn't click in the studio it would be terrible. Then it came to me it needed to be just me and him. When I started writing this album and it started coming together I knew I wasn't going to make it unless it was just me and him.

We call it our "record baby." It took nine months to record it. It was a really great project working on it with him. What makes it better is getting out there and touring with someone who really cares about you. Usually, you get out there and everyone is more in it for themselves. It's nice when you really love each other and have each other's back.

Your husband performs strictly with you?

Right now he's just working with me. He hadn't played music in a long time. I didn't even know that. He didn't play for like eight years. My friend was like, "You know, Jesse can play bass in your band." What? And I inquired about it and he's ended up being my most favorite band member I've ever had.

I suppose if you had a big blow up, he is your bassist, it is your band, and you could always fire him, right?

[Laughs] We're pretty good at not letting things get in the way of our dreams and goals. We know no one else is crazy enough to do this.

Is there any track on the album that reflects this crazy love?

I think a lot of the songs are inspired by things in our relationship, but it's really multi-faceted when you're putting your life together with someone else. There's a lot of serious emotions that come along with that. It's all in there.

You did some backup vocals with the Black Keys, then Dan Auerbach produced your albums.

He produced my first two albums, and I sang harmony vocals on Attack & Release. He's from the same area I'm from in Ohio. I just met him when I was teenager and we started working together.

Dan these days seems to have a golden touch. He knows some good things about the music world, he's an excellent guitarist. You said you were a teenager when you met, and it's hard to be a teenager in the music industry. Did he offer an good advice or words to send you on your way?

Oh, I don't know. Guy doesn't say much [laughs].

The new album is out and you're off on an extensive tour. So where do you hope this will take you?

People ask me this a lot but what they don't realize is that they go to work everyday to do what they do, but this is what I do. It's like the carnival going from town to town and people come and pay to see the freak show. People think that I have other options that this, but this is what I do to live and survive. I don't have a fallback plan. I didn't go to school. But I get to do what I love and have been playing music my entire life. As long I have people food and dog food and a roof over my head and places to go play music then I'm happy.

[But] you barely make enough money to live on anymore. People don't pay for music anymore. They don't treat music like it's special anymore. It's lost its value. Of all the decades to live in and be a musician in, this is the wrong one if you want to make a profit.

Yes, those days are gone, but you're doing what you love.

You better be doing what you love right now. Anyone who spends all their time doing something so they can buy their dream car when they're 65, they're doing it wrong. You have to live your life now instead of saving up for the end. This is it right now.

Jessica Lea Mayfield is scheduled to perform at Pub Rock Live in Scottsdale on Sunday, June 22.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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