Jessica Lea Mayfield's slow, countrified roots rock sounds distinctly Midwestern. Having spent the better part of the past three years touring globally, though, 21-year-old Mayfield has found that her aesthetic translates pretty much everywhere.
"I feel like I don't come off the same way in other countries," she says over the phone. "But for the most part, people get it no matter where they're from."
It's a Wednesday afternoon in July, and Mayfield is preparing for a gig at Idaho's Sun Valley Pavilion, where she will be joined by The Avett Brothers. Understandably, it seems as though the shy Mayfield seems intimidated by the prospect of unveiling her very personal songs in front of thousands of concertgoers. "Interacting with the audience is tough because a lot of people can't relate to my mannerisms or sense of humor," she says with a self-deprecating laugh.
The Kent, Ohio, native released her second album, Tell Me (distributed via Nonesuch Records), to resoundingly positive reviews in February. Pitchfork lauded Mayfield for her "unflinching songwriting," while others likened the album's stark, cerebral sense of atmosphere to that of Nick Cave or Wilco. Remarks like these bordered on hyperbolic at times, but there is something to be said for an artist who can extract such lofty consideration.
"The thing that bothers me is when I'm compared to other Americana artists. I don't listen to Lucinda Williams," she says with a laugh.
Mayfield earned her success slowly and diligently. She was born within miles of Kent State University, where Joe Walsh graduated and where the blistering anti-Vietnam protests of May 4, 1970, took place. Although small, Kent is a city drenched in history both social and musical. It makes sense, then, that the ever-precocious Mayfield still lives there today.
When she was a child, her parents strummed homely bluegrass tunes in a family band that toured throughout the Southeast. "What mainly influenced me creatively is playing bluegrass," Mayfield says. "I was really influenced by Hank Williams and Elliott Smith. I started singing old gospel hymns at 8. At 11, I started playing the rhythm guitar and writing my own songs."
It was Mayfield's adolescence, much of which she spent unhappy and isolated, that inspired her subsequent recordings. "I was home-schooled, so I feel like I missed out on being a teenager," Mayfield says.
"But I think I've had a slight advantage," she adds. "A lot of people go crazy touring, but I was used to it. I'm lucky to have had the lifestyle that I've had."
Mayfield's 2006 EP, White Lies, saw a limited release in northeast Ohio. At 18, she cut her debut album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, in the Cleveland suburb of Akron. She was joined by the Grammy-winning Dan Auerbach, who executive produced the album and lent his well-honed ear.
"We recorded anything: his songs, my songs, cover songs," Mayfield says of working with Auerbach. "He wanted to get me out of my shell because I'm so reclusive."
As one half of The Black Keys, Auerbach thrives at turning blues-informed 1960s garage rock into something rakish and dazzling. His sessions with Mayfield were a lower-key affair, however. With Blasphemy So Heartfelt is whimsically minimalist, with stripped-down acoustic folk in lieu of strident hooks and production trickery.
Tell Me is something different altogether. The songs are more polished, more intimidate — less the work of a bedazzled youth and more the work of an indelibly realized adult composer. It's an album that sucks the listener into Mayfield's fragile headspace.
Now that her music is more widely distributed and promoted, people are voicing their appreciation in droves. "I'm always surprised by reviews," she says, laughing. "I always think it'll be, like, minus two stars."