Talk Talk: An Interview With Jessica Lea Mayfield

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Jessica Lea Mayfield was brought up on the road, playing live with her bluegrass covers family band on tours across America at an age when most children are just beginning to sing into a hairbrush microphone in front of the mirror to their new favourite pop song. 

While it is perhaps a slightly odd passage into the music business by today's standards, it has echoes of traditional frontier time exploration near the birth of recorded music before record label time lines and ad campaigns.

Like the great musically inclined story tellers of the past, much of the content of her new album Sorry Is Gone comes from a place of deep personal pain but is told in a way that resonates with a wide audience.

Recorded with producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Kurt Vile, Phosphorescent and Dinosaur Jr.), Sorry Is Gone is a raw document of what became of a poisonous marriage. We spoke about a childhood spent on tour and how much of a cathartic experience artist expression can be.

Order the album here via ATO Records.

What was it like to get into music from such an early age?

A lot of people think it’s weird. It made made me different in a lot of ways. I didn't go to school, I was going around on a tour bus with my parents and living in various parking lots playing for tips. So it was definitely weird but I think maybe more traditional way, way back in the day when people played for their supper.

If anything that instilled in me the way of thinking about living off your means and off the land and finding ways to survive because we were very poor. A lot of thoughts revolved around how we were going to eat that night and tomorrow. It was very day to day which is something that has stayed with me. 

How has that affected you musically?

I played bluegrass with them (my family) so I come from a folky background which affects the way I write. A lot of bluegrass songs are forthcoming and put everything out there. A lot of people don’t realise that because the melody might be happy but they have lyrics like “I took her down to the river and then I slit her throat”. So I definitely grew up listening to a lot of really dark music that was set to happier melodies. 

Was it difficult to transition from going around with your family to becoming a fully fledged recording artist in your own right?

No, I recorded a lot with them too. If anything what that did for me is it made me want to do my own thing. I had the desire to do my own thing because they were playing covers and old bluegrass songs and I wanted to go out and play the songs that I wrote.

I started writing songs when I was 11 and started touring when I was 15 with my own music. I was making a living doing this by the time I was 15. I was playing residencies and different shows several nights a week and making money doing that. Some kids have normal jobs and I was playing music. 

Do you look at music or the industry in a different way from when you started?

I’ve been doing it for well over 10 years and I hear other people talk about it and I kind of laugh because they have all these ideas or expectations. They think it’s something glamorous and don’t realise how hard musicians work. I have friends who are on a much bigger level than I am and they work even harder but people think things must be easy. 

People have this outlandish idea of what it must be like. I just got boxes and boxes and boxes of merch from Sony dropped at my house and people don’t realise that I have to deal with this crap. They probably think someone deals with this for me. 

Was making the album a cathartic experience?

Yes, absolutely. It needed to be written. I was writing about things that I was pushing really deep down. As I started writing it all came out and I realised that I couldn't not sing about it and then I realised I’m going to have to talk about this. People are going to ask me what the songs are about and are they going to make assumptions? I would rather avoid the assumptions and tell it in my own words. 

Do you feel better?

Yes, but it’s worrisome to talk about these things. I feel safer and more free but also at the same time I worry about my safety a little bit because of some of the things I’ve been talking about. But I’m definitely happy to have the freedom to speak. 

Obviously it’s very personal and it’s your story but a lot of the themes are universal. People will have their own version of what you’re talking about. When you were writing were you aware of that?

Yes, I’ve been writing for a long time and people always apply songs to themselves. I really like songs where people aren’t afraid to express their emotions. I’m a huge, huge Elliott Smith fan and I’ve always applied his songs to my life. I don’t know exactly what was going on with him or what he was thinking but people do that and I realise that. People come up to me and they’ll say “this is what this song means to me” and I’m like well that’s not what it’s about but cool! 

How does it feel to play these songs live in front of people for the first time?

I have a lot of fun playing them. I think that some of them are a little darker than others and people seem to like them. I have fun playing them just because they’re new. Although I’ve had them for so long, to get the chance to play them live, there’s something refreshing about it. I really enjoy playing Sorry Is Gone and Meadow. They’re two of my favourites on the album. 

Is there anything from recording this new album that you’ve learnt technically?

With this album and the last album I played a lot of guitar and I’ve gotten really into guitar tones and pedals. I became more of a guitar player in general. With this album Cameron Deyell (Sia, Streets of Laredo.) and Patrick Damphier (The Mynabirds) played along with myself so I’ve brought more to the table guitar wise than the first two albums.

Is there another medium that you find can be as powerful as music in terms of expressing feelings?

Art! I definitely think that in a painting you can express a lot and there’s a lot to think about. When I look at painting there’s a lot of emotion immediately. Depending on who did it of course! Even I’ll paint and I feel like it’s not that great but when I do I’m almost more shy about it than my music. 

I’ve done album art and stuff like that before but I always feel there’s definitely something really raw when I translate something that’s in my head onto a page, whether it’s lyrical or visual. Sometimes if it’s visual it scares people!

I made this one painting after a time that I was beaten up. I was going to take photos of my bruises but instead I sat down with a giant canvas and painted a picture of myself with all the bruises on my body. I still have that in the corner of my house and sometimes I think, 'why did I do that?' but at the same time it’s helpful, it’s therapeutic. People really, psychologically, dig through visual art.  

What’s the thought process behind it, is it more deliberate or does it come out naturally?

Things bubble up and make their way onto a page. It’s almost like a panic attack, I have to get this out right now. Out of me and off of me. Once I write something it helps me to get it out of my head. If I’m not talking about it and then I write about it, at least I’ve spoken and I’m not buried in my own thoughts. 

MusicJamal Guthrie