Q&A: Jessica Lea Mayfield Talks Step Mothering, Dropping Out and Punching Ex-Boyfriends
Perhaps the cruelest irony of a typical American adolescence is the way it tends to make the young feel especially alienated from other young people. Sure, you're all in the sample zit-faced flag flyin' boat of awkward misery, but who can see that at the time? To an extent it's hard to feel kinship with anyone during that transition from youth to adulthood, but it's, somehow, particularly hard to relate to the other people you know going through the exact same shit. Sure, kids could band together and make everyone's misery a little less, heeding the call of Christian Slater in that suburban Phoenix-set 80s classic Pump Up the Volume, but they never seem to. Why? Well, let's just say a Nobel Prize doesn't mean John Nash knew shit about Game Theory compared to a high school Mean Girl lining up her homecoming date.
So, in a way, it's refreshing to hear 19-year-old singer/songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield talk about how different she has always been from other young people. In another way, one gets the sneaking suspicious that though this incredibly talented prodigy of The Black Keys Dan Auerbach has gotten rave reviews from The New York Times and Pitchfork, Pitchfork's reviewer was on tio something when he wrote, "As jaded and adult as she comes across on 'Call Me' and 'Bible Days,' Mayfield still sounds like she's describing the tribulations of young love, although that assertion may be due to her age prompting preconceptions in the listener."
Calling from a California Taco Bell last week in advance of her show at the Rhythm Room tonight, I talked to the Ohio-bred Mayfield about her BFF Caitlin, being a "home-schooled high school dropout," being a quasi-stepmom at age 17, and our experiences growing up in the suburbs of Akron, Ohio. First, though, I admonished her to never work in an office, that way she will never deal with bum long-distance codes, like the one that delayed our interview for 30 minutes.
UP: What would you do if you weren't doing the music thing?
JLM: It's weird because I've never really had any other jobs. Ever since I was a kid it wasn't like 'I could do this, or I could do that,' it's always be music so I'd probably, you know, die.
UP: You say 'since I was a kid,' but you're so young now, you're what, the age of a lot of college freshmen and sophomores?
JLM: I'll be 20 in August.
UP: So maybe, maybe college juniors, or college sophomores?
JLM: I never even went to high school so I have no clue about the grades and ages. All my friends are men in their 30s.
UP: So you didn't go to high school?
JLM: I went to elementary school in Ohio for a few months and public middle school. But I was home-schooled. I label myself a "home-schooled high school dropout."
UP: A home-school high school dropout? Funny. I'm actually from Tallmadge, Ohio. And you're from, what, Stow or Kent?
JLM: Kent, yeah.
UP: Well going to high school at Kent Roosevelt you're not going to learn much anyway.
JLM: Yeah, there's really no reason to go through that. None of that would have effected my career in a positive way.
UP: Do your parents ever worry that you've got all your eggs in one basket? Is that a lecture you've gotten before?
JLM: My parents are really supportive of anything. My parents have been supportive of my brother (her bass player) and me our whole life, with the music and how we wanted to do things like that. They pushed it even more than us, if we would question it. I think if we'd wanted to do something else though they would have been supportive of that too -- they think we're capable of doing what we want.
UP: How old is your brother?
JLM: He's 26.
UP: I know now he plays standup bass for you, what was he doing before that?
JLM: Well he plays with this band Cadillac Sky, a Bluegrass band, as well. They're a pretty popular and productive bluegrass band. He plays with me now when he can, but he's pretty busy with them as well. He plays with a lot of country artists too.
UP: Is it weird touring with your brother? I mean, he's five or six years older than you, so he's an older brother. Is that weird?
JLM: No. It's actually weird not to have him on tour with me. Like on this tour, he's going to leave a few days early... Then it'll be weird not to have him around. Because, like, we grew up playing in our family bluegrass band, and like the idea of playing music without him.
UP: It's weird, you're from a college town, but it seems like you feel alienated from that life path. Kent, obviously, is overrun by kids from Cleveland or Akron or wherever and they go there for a few years and they learn to be an accountant or whatever, and that's just a stop they make. And you were around that all the time, but like you said you couldn't imagine working in an office. It's interesting to me that you would feel so separate from that.
JLM: Definitely. It's something that inspired to be different, if anything. Wanting something different. Plus, I was more around my family, and playing music and touring. Most of the friends I would make playing festivals and things like that. Even now, I have like one friend that's my age, and she dropped out of high school because she got pregnant and had kids, so all of my friends are very mature, and the one friend that's my age has kids so it's like, I have my career and she has her children.
UP: Where did you meet her?
JLM: I met her in Kent. When I was younger -- 11 or so -- my parents wanted me to make friends so they had this play group where, like, home-schooled kids did acting. And she wasn't home-schooled but she knew the people putting it on and wanted to be involved, so that's how I met her.
UP: So is it fair to call her your BFF?
JLM: Yeah, she's my best friend.
UP: Forever? Because if it's not forever, it doesn't count.
JLM: Yeah, we, me and Caitlin, who is my best girlfriend and my brother, who is my overall best friend -- always says BFF Forever, which doesn't make any sense, but it's really funny.
UP: And she has a kid or kids?
JLM: She has twin girls.
UP: And she had these kids when she was like 18?
JLM: When she was 16.
UP: 16? Wow. Does talking to her give her a persecutive on things other than your own? It's tempting to think that someone who's so young but singing roots music is pulling influences from other places. Do you ever write songs about things she's going through?
JLM: Actually that's a sore topic because I can't really write songs about anything that hasn't happened to me. I can't write about other people's expierences. She's always saying, 'you should write a song about me, and how hard it is, being a young mom' and I always say, 'I can't do that, because I can only write songs about me, and what I'm going through.' My own troubles. I think as I get older there's only room to grow, and I think as I grow and get better, I think I'll be able to draw my writing from more places, but right now it's very personal. It's like a public diary, if that makes any sense, because I can only write my personal feelings.
UP: That's funny. So Caitlin has asked you write a song and you've said 'No, sorry, I can't do that, it has to be about me.'
JLM: Well I do try. I'm sure I will someday, that I will write the perfect song for her. But right now I just write songs about boyfriends and stuff.
UP: So what's it like working with Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys)?
JLM: It's interesting. He's my complete opposite. I've never met anyone who is so much the opposite of me, and it's interesting how our creative minds work together because he thinks of things I would never think of.
UP: That's funny to me, because, you know, I've interviewed Dan and Pat before, and obviously followed their careers. And it always struck me how different those two were, how they were kind of opposites too.
JLM: Yeah, they're definitely, definitely different. And I think I relate more to Patrick, personality-wise, though I have not spent as much time with him. I've toured with The Black Keys, but that's the only time I've been around Patrick. I think, Dan, his personality is so laid-back.
UP: I wonder if Dan is just drawn to working with people that are opposite of him.
JLM: I like it as well. You come up with so much more if you find someone who's different than you who you can work with. Like me and my brother, we work together all the time and we're so like-minded. We write songs together and stuff like that, but we pretty much share the same brain, so he knows what I'm thinking... Whereas, with Dan, when he comes up with an idea it's something I'm never expecting and when I come up with an idea it's something he never would have thought of in a million years.
UP: So what will the new record sound like?
JLM: Well the things I am experiencing are a lot different than the things I was experiencing when I wrote the last record. It will have lost some of the innocence, if that makes sense.... I think Dan is progressing in different directions as well. So I'm excited to work with him because I think we're both more accustomed to working with one another. So I'm interested to see what we can come up with.
UP: So Dan basically discovered you? I don't know if I've ever heard the story of what happened? Did he, like, find your MySpace or something?
JLM: Oh no, someone who had my first record gave a copy of it to Dan's dad and he liked it and gave it to Dan and he sent me a MySpace message saying he liked it and wanted to meet up so we could work together. I was 16 at the time, and we kind of met up and hung out for fun, and he'd record some of his songs and I'd sing harmony on them and whatever... And we really enjoyed that, just kind of hanging out and then we had all these songs and didn't know what to do with them. And he wanted to make me a solo record out of them, and that was With Blasphemy So Heartfelt.
UP: Do you think he felt weird hanging out with a 16-year-old girl? I mean, obviously you're very mature and you're not a high school student or anything like that, but he's my age, and if I was hanging out with a 16-year-old girl I'd feel weird about that. Like 'why do I have so much in common with a girl this age?'
JLM: From listening to my music and even meeting me he wouldn't have known me to be that old if I hadn't told him. People always thought, when I was younger, that I was in my 20s. It's something where I guess you don't even believe it until you meet me, because I've never had high school girl experiences. I've always dated older people, my boyfriends have always been in their 20s and things like that, so it's something where I just don't act my age, I guess I could say.
UP: This is a question you might resent, but do you ever think someday you may feel like you missed something, you may look back on this and get nostalgic for something you didn't expierence?
JLM: I really don't get along with people my age. I've always kind of looked at people my age as kids. The idea of being trapped in a building for eight hours with a bunch of kids sounds like my own personal hell. So I don't think I've missed out on much... I have so much more life experience than the average person my age. I've seen more than the average person your age, you know? So, yeah, people my age are kids.
UP: What is the root of life experience, just how your parents raised you, or?
JLM: Yeah, how my parents raised me and I've have two serious relationships. One, the guy I most recently dated, we lived together and he had kids. So it was interesting for me to be almost in a stepmom role at the age of 17, going on 18. Then all the traveling and touring. And I've been working since I was eight years old.
UP: What were you doing when you were seven or eight years old?
JLM: Well I toured with my family Bluegrass band.
UP: How old were these kids that you were almost a stepmom to?
JLM: Seven and eight.
UP: Wow. Seven and eight and you were 17 going on 18?
JLM: Yeah, and it was definitely interesting for me. It was another experience for me that I don't necessarily regret having but the dude was a total loser and a douchebag and I dumped him on his ass. And I'm glad that I did... And if he walked in to the Taco Bell I'm sitting at, somewhere in route from Sacramento right now I'd punch him in the face.
UP: Wow. So you're not too angry about it, it sounds like...
JLM: Total loser. Probably homeless. I don't know how he's living without me.
UP: This is a grown man we're talking about.
UP: And your parents were totally cool with this.
JLM: They look at me as an adult... My whole family has always kind of come to me for advice. I have a much older sister, she's 32, and she comes to me for advice. Sometimes my parents come to me for advice. My brother comes to me for advice. Because I've always been very perceptive and very logical and reasonable. I have good reasons for things and if I like someone they've always respected that... They trust my judgement.
UP: Even though in this case it proved to be wrong.
JLM: Well, it's very hard for me to date, in general, because of my career.