Jessica Lea Mayfield has grown up on the road. Listen to her 2008 debut album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, and you'll hear a shy, self-conscious teen from Kent singing bittersweet boot-gazer pop about breaking up with her boyfriend.
Today, Mayfield is approaching 21. She's toured across oceans, played with the Avett Brothers, and transformed from a wounded songbird into a chanteuse with claws. Sitting in a Kent Starbucks, she's sporting a bold new hairstyle (bleach-blonde bangs and a mullet) and wearing plastic pistol earrings and stonewashed jeans.
"Right now, I'm going for a cross between a Ricky Skaggs '80s mullet and Carol Brady bangs," says Mayfield. "It truly is the most rebellious hairstyle I can possibly do. People are like, 'Oh mohawks, or indie kids that shave one side of their head with a braid, or lightning bolts.' No! The most rebellious thing you can possibly do is a fucking mullet, and I'm going to make it look good."
We're expecting similar results on Mayfield's sophomore album, which she just finished recording with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Like Blasphemy, the still-untitled record features 12 indie-folk tunes, full of personal inner monologues. But this time she's playing a grown-up vixen.
"I can't be 16 and get my heart broken again," says Mayfield. "The tables are kind of turned now that I'm older. I'm not so vulnerable. I'm just afraid that's what people like about me — my vulnerability. I have so many people come to my shows and say, 'I fell in love with you when I broke up with my ex or got a divorce.' I'm like, 'Oh, so you sit around and cry when listening to my music? That's nice.' But this new album is different. It's about me breaking hearts. It's about me making other people cry."
Mayfield started making people cry when she was eight, playing with her family band One Way Rider. They were a traveling bluegrass group from Tennessee that toured festivals, churches, and concert halls across the Midwest. By the time she turned 15, Mayfield recorded her first solo album, White Lies, in her brother David's bedroom in Kent (David is a member of Cadillac Sky), under the alias Chittlin'. She printed only 100 copies of the EP; one of them fell into the hands of Auerbach, who ended up producing With Blasphemy So Heartfelt.
Their relationship has grown since then. It took them only two weeks to record the new album. The first one took more than two years. "We definitely know each other better," says Mayfield. "I was really comfortable, so that made the process go so quickly. It's like going to your mom's house or your buddy's house. You walk in the door, prop up your shoes, open the fridge, and say, 'Ah, I'm going to have some of this.'"
Mayfield isn't sure when the new album will be released, but she says it has two faces: slow emotive stories like the ones on her debut (which recalls Cat Power and Lucinda Williams) and edgier pop music ("ear candy without the ear-candy lyrics," she says).
You may even get to hear new songs like "Grown Man," "A Nervous Lonely Night," and "I'll Be the One That You Want Someday" at Mayfield's show this week. Regardless of her redefined persona, crazy hairstyle, and evolving sound, Mayfield is sticking to what she does best: singing heart-wrenchingly honest ballads that float like poems about her most personal experiences.
"There's at least one conversation per song that is word-for-word what someone said to me or what I said to someone else," she says. "If the person I wrote the song about heard it, they would be like, 'She's singing exactly what I said to her in complete confidence, alone in the dark, when we were in bed together. I said that and now she's singing it at Bonnaroo.' It's almost evil, I guess you could say, and I feel bad sometimes. But there's nothing I can do because it's my career, and if I write a good song, I have to record and play it, regardless of how personal it is."
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