Jessica Lea Mayfield is losing track of days. It’s understandable though, the Ohio singer-songwriter is traveling from Charlotte, N.C., to Nashville, Tenn., during a small solo jaunt when she checks in with Fly, apologizing briefly for not remembering that she had an interview to do. She’s also in the middle of buying a new house with her husband and bassist, Jesse Newport, and unfortunately missed the inspection. However, Mayfield sounds completely at home on the six-hour road trip.
After all, she’s been doing this music thing for a long time.
“It’s a lot easier when you don’t have a ton of shows,” she says about her solo run, which brings her to Tellus360 in Lancaster this month. “I’ve also been wanting to drive around the country by myself a little bit,” she says. “It’s a little lonely, but kind of nice.”
As a teenager Mayfield caught the ear of Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach, and the fellow Ohio rocker went on to produce her debut album, 2008’s With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, and the follow-up, 2011’s Tell Me. Last year, Mayfield sat in the producer’s chair for Make My Head Sing before putting the finishing touches on an album of Elliott Smith covers she made with Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers.
“I’ve never done anything other than play music,” she says. “When I was a kid, our family was playing music for tips so we could afford to eat. I’ve always been playing music as a means to get by.”
Shawn Christ: How old were you when you got into the industry?
Jessica Lea Mayfield: Well, when I started [playing music] with my parents, I was eight. I started writing and playing shows by myself when I was 11. I was 15 when I really started hitting it hard.
SC: So by age 15, you already had all of this experience.
JLM: It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t go to school. I’ve never been to a high school. The only thing I do have experience in is being a touring musician. Which kind of makes me feel like an alien or something.
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SC: Looking back, do you see some pros and cons to starting out so early in music since, like you said, it’s all you’ve ever known?
JLM: There are times when I feel a social disconnect with people because I’m so different. A lot of people take the same steps and everybody asks the same questions like “where did you go to school” or “what’s your major.” The things people ask when they try to get to know you, they don’t even apply to me. In a sense, it’s a good thing because it’s helped me remain youthful in a way. And at times I get the opportunity to be a giant child. I mean, right now it’s just me and my dog going around playing music.
SC: What’s his name?
JLM: Elliott. After Elliott Smith.
SC: How did that album [Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield sing Elliott Smith] come together anyway?
JLM: I’ve known Seth Avett for 10 or more years by now, and one of the things we realized by just talking to each other and being friends was that we were both Elliott Smith fans. It started when we were on tour together and I was opening for The Avetts and he had started playing “Twilight” on the piano backstage in the green room and I started singing it. From there, we talked about it and he had the idea to record some Elliott Smith songs together so we went back and forth and sent each other iPhone voice memos of different songs and it came together.
SC: How long did it take?
JLM: Probably over the course of a year or two I bet. We started it and then they got busy and I got busy and it was really hard to find windows where he and I could get together and work on a record. We did it a couple of days at a time. I went to his house for some of it and then he came to my house for some of it.
SC: Since you were balancing that out with your own stuff, did working on the album bleed into your material at all because you were recording all these songs you loved?
JLM: I’ve been listening to a lot of Elliott Smith since I was 16. I listened to him all the time. It’s one of those things where if I get sick of something else that I’m listening to, I can always go back to listening to Elliott and never get sick of that. His style and songwriting have always been a really big influence on what I do.
SC: Make My Head Sing is also a great album. It’s a little bit of a heavier sound for you compared to your previous records.
JLM: It was the first one that I was in the producer’s seat for, so it was nice to be able to hear what I wanted to hear because a lot of times when you’re working with somebody else and you’re in the studio, you’ll have an idea and there will be time constraints. There was just more time to experiment and get exactly what I wanted.
SC: There were some great riffs and guitar work on the album. It had to be pretty fun to just plug in and wail away.
JLM: I’ve always been really obsessed with electric guitar and guitar players. I’m a huge Dean DeLeo [of Stone Temple Pilots] fan. It’s hard because when I was growing up, as a little girl, it wasn’t ideal for me to idolize Dean and want to be him. It was kind of more like “oh, well girls play the acoustic guitar.” There’s still a ton of sexism in music. I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot, but my mindset around it changed enough to do it regardless of the weirdness that comes about. Like the things that people say and the way I have to be put into a female rocker category and not just a musician. It’s like I’m a female musician so I have to be lumped in with other females. And there’s this thing where people will write about me and there would be articles that would say like “Jessica Lea Mayfield has a new hair color and a new husband.” And a new album! Write about the album. It’s not about what color my hair is or that I got married or what color pants I wore. It’s about the art I’m making.
Animal House presents Jessica Lea Mayfield at Tellus360 (24 E. King St., Lancaster) on November 13 at 8 p.m. Click here for tickets.