For better or worse, music has been a learned experience for Jessica Lea Mayfield. When she was just a child, the 24-year-old from Kent, Ohio grew up inhaling experiences from the road touring with her family’s bluegrass band, One Way Rider, in a vintage 1956 tour bus once owned by legend Bill Monroe. “When I was 8, I decided that I would be a touring musician for the rest of my life, and I forced my way into my mom and dad’s band.”
By 13, she was taking public transportation to open mic nights and playing covers of discovered grunge acts Stone Temple Pilots and Foo Fighters (she still counts Dave Grohl as one of her biggest influences) before starting to write her own music, curiously linking up with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach after releasing her first EP, White Lies, at the tender age of 15. Although his production leadership would steer her for an alt country debut in 2008 on With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, her follow-up, this year’s Make My Head Sing, was a collaboration with her now husband and bandmate Jesse Newport. While it’s been a good number of years since she has released music, the new album shows a crunchier, grittier side of Mayfield, a musician and person coming into her own.
“[The break] was the first and only time I can remember that I stopped moving. I’m the kind of person who is always doing something,” she says. “I was touring a hell of a lot my whole life and when everything died down, I had just gotten married and wanted some time to fucking chill and re-evaluate things. Before I was too busy touring and playing shows to even know what I liked and wanted. But I’m at the point where I’m an adult now, and I took that time to get to know myself.”
We catch up with Mayfield on her way from Asheville, North Carolina to Washington, D.C. to learn more about her journeys and the paths still yet to take.
The new album sounds really good, and I wanted to start there. It’s a little bit of a departure for you, a bit harder, more grunge and alt-rock leaning. What inspired you to go this route?
“I like all different kinds of music; for me I look at music as creating sounds with instruments. I’ve been inspired by a lot of different things, but all the same things have always inspired me in my songwriting. It was unintentional really. I guess I just stuck with it and created the album I wanted to create, and it came out the way it did.”
You have said that Dave Grohl is one of your biggest influences – it seems that harder rock style is starting to come out of you now.
“Yeah when I was a little girl I was really into Foo Fighters and played their covers at my first open mic nights. I saw the music video for ‘My Hero’ when I was 7 and thought that was cool and wanted to make my own music forever.”
Growing up in your parents bluegrass band, were they strict or open to you finding rock music as you got older?
“My parents were definitely open. They always just sort of trusted my instinct and my opinions and wouldn’t discourage anything. They might be afraid of the new record because it sounds different from what they’re into. They like the music, but my dad was never into heavier stuff. I do remember he and my brother tried to talk me out of listening to Metallica when I was a little girl, but I was like no I know in my heart this is amazing.”
Tell us about the experience of growing up on the road as a touring band – it sounds very Carter Family.
“Our whole family is musical, and when I was 8 we moved from Ohio and bought a 1956 bus for $3,000, and the family piled on. We decided we’d make a go of it. One of the differences between me and other people is that I was home schooled. In most families, the parents take care of the children and buy them things they need and send them to school and all that crap. But I guess in our family my parents always treated my brother and I as equals. Every time we played a show, everyone would split the money and we’d play for tips so we could eat. The whole goal was to play as many shows as we could so we could make enough money to survive and we took care of each other.”
What was your role in the band?
“In the beginning, I would sing. We would do bluegrass and gospel quartets, so I’m really into harmonies and I think I’ve always been a huge fan of the a cappella quartet because I loved that when I was a kid. By 11 I was playing guitar but then left to do my own thing. My parents tour now as a duet, David and Valerie Mayfield. They just completed a Kickstarter and released a new album titled Steal My Heart, and it’s great. They’re really fantastic musicians, and I would say that if they were someone else’s parents.”
So, at 15 you started honing your own career and releasing your first EP. Who first helped you branch out in the beginning?
“My brother. He’s actually a Grammy nominated producer, and so he’s always been obsessed with recording so he helped me record that EP. He was one of my only friends because we were both home schooled. We spent our childhood doing kid stuff like putting our voices into a can and recording it and just figuring out the process.”
I hear this so much from Ohio-based bands, but with you too, somehow your EP magically ended up in the hands of Dan Auerbach. How does that actually happen?
“Dan’s dad Chuck had gotten a copy of that EP and then Dan sent me a Myspace message that had said, ‘Hey, my name’s Dan and I play in a local band The Black Keys and I was wondering if you want to come over and record sometime.’ He told me to come meet him at his studio but I didn’t have a drivers license because I was 15 so he came to pick me up and we just started having recording sessions.”
You guested on a Black Keys album before too. Have there been other notables you’ve worked with along the way?
“I’m sure I have, it’s hard to think of right now. I would have to Google my Wikipedia page but I’m on the phone (laughs). I’ve got a lot of friends in music and so I’m always collaborating and working on things. This new record is what is most important to me right now, though. It’s the record I made with my husband, Jesse Newport. It’s our baby. We might not have a baby with flesh and bones and blood, we might only just make record babies and this is the first one so it’s special.”
How is it working with your husband and being with him all the time on the road?
“We joke that we’ve probably broken some Guinness World Record for people that have spent the most time together. We’re almost like fucking conjoined twins we’re together that much, but it’s really great and cool that I get to spend all my time with the coolest person I’ve ever met. It’s our rebellious choice too –screw what’s normal, we’ll spend all our time together if we want to.”
How did you guys meet?
“I met him in July 2011 when he was doing front of house for this band The Generationals that I had been on a festival bill with. Jesse and I hit it off really well, and he ended up canceling the rest of the gigs he had with that band and started doing sound for me. When I started creating this album, everyone told me he played bass but hadn’t in like eight years. I wanted him to be involved and not just playing but creative aspects as well.”
With the sounds you have on Make My Heart Sing, the crunchier and louder stuff, do you think you’re getting away from your bluegrass roots?
“I don’t ever write songs dictating what genre or style I’ll create. The songs come out organically in their own way, so it’s not always the things I set out to portray.”
You released a music video for the single, “I Wanna Love You.” Since music videos were important to you growing up, how do you plan out your own concepts?
“At this point, I only have two because I’m awkward and they involve my face, and I don’t want to see that. The new one is great, I really like what was done with it but it was put in someone else’s hands. I was such a huge fan of music videos that I feel like any that I’m ever involved in would never be good enough in some ways because I do hold a high regard for music videos and music television, which is something that is gone.”
Are there any newer bands you’re really into now?
“I really just have my all-time favorites. I don’t have a massive music collection and I’m not one of those people who knows everything there is to know about music, but I know what I like. If I take the time to listen to music rather than take time to make my own, I’ll go to what I know rather than something totally new.”
Growing up were there any women in music that you were really into?
“Honestly growing up I didn’t even want to be known a girl. That’s something that always bothered me my whole life, the way that men and women do get separated. I just don’t see the difference and don’t like the idea of it. Nobody is better at something because what’s in their crotch. I can’t perform music with my vagina. I mean I’ve tried.”
Photos by LeAnn Mueller