Jessica Lea Mayfield

In Defense of Jessica Lea Mayfield: She’s Not Depressed

Just because someone makes depressing music doesn’t mean they’re unhappy. Case in point: Jessica Lea Mayfield.

Mayfield’s murky, dark pop that’s drenched in blues and twang has the press buzzing – and they’re all talking about how cynical and moody she must be. At only 21, Mayfield is the media’s walking country noir. But Mayfield isn’t depressed.

There’s evidence that she’s only as emotionally wrecked as the next singer-songwriter, and it’s more than just a personal statement. You can tell in her voice, her attitude. She’s no self-loathing musician.

As she prepares for the next day’s Europe and U.K. press tour, Mayfield was driving in the snow to her Kent, Ohio, home with her dad, who’d taken her to Walmart in his truck.

“All I have are two 15-passenger vans, and you cannot drive those things in the snow,” she says.

Mayfield learned that the hard (but adorable) way in a Vermont snowstorm not long ago. After playing a solo show, she and her manager got stuck in a McDonald’s parking lot, and an unlikely rescuer emerged: a children’s hockey coach.

“He put all the kids in my van for weight,” she recalls. “And my tour manager pushes the van and they get it unstuck. But I have this, like, van full of children hockey players – it was kind of amazing.”

Mayfield says the kids were somewhat star-struck when she told them she’s a touring musician. She gave them each a CD.

Her latest, Tell Me, released in February, was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. He’s often credited for discovering Mayfield – he also produced her 2008 debut, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, after hearing her home-recorded EP. That kind of long-term guidance reads as a mentorship of some sort.

“More than anything, [Auerbach] just doesn’t want me to censor myself. I’m the kind of person who is always worried about if what I’m doing is good,” she says.

Auerbach, Mayfield notes, has been one of her biggest encouragers.

“I’m the kind of person that always needs that second opinion, or that little push to kind of get out of my cocoon,” she says. “I’m not the kind of person who writes a song and is like, ‘Oh, man, I love it.’ I write the song and I’m my own worst critic.”

Mayfield says that over time, Auerbach’s help has stretched beyond music.

“He’s a little older than me, and it’s been an advice-riddled friendship, whether it’s musically or otherwise,” she says. “He’s told me he didn’t like my boyfriends and stuff. I dated this one dude that he just absolutely hated, so his advice was for me to break up with him.”

Mayfield says she took Auerbach’s suggestion, but mostly because the guy “was a douchebag.”

Her troubles with men – or boys, if you’re referring to the content of her first full-length, all of which was written when she was a teenager – is another favorite subject of the press. And though Tell Me is as much about heartbreak as her first work, Mayfield doesn’t sound as obsessed with love as her music implies. It’s simpler than that.

“I just had to get old enough to see that I just have really awful taste in men,” she says.

The songs on Tell Me mirror complete relationship normalcy: unrequited love (“I’ll Be The One That You Want Someday”), mismatched love (“Our Hearts Are Wrong”) and, in true country fashion, the cheating, sex-driven kind of love (“Sometimes At Night”).

Naturally, with three years between releases, Tell Me is a more grown-up record than her first. The complexity of sound has eclipsed the minimalistic feel of Blasphemy. There are a few stripped-down tracks, like the mostly acoustic “Sleepless,” but the occasional heady, bluesy guitar riff is hard to ignore on “Somewhere in Your Heart,” a similarly-minded track. More often, the songs are backed by lush and layered instrumentation. There’s even drum-machine style beats on the polka-like pop tune “Grown Man.”

The lyrics, however, are still trademark Mayfield: matter-of-fact and often rife with near-cliché lines that dodge sounding trite when sung in her sweet and sluggish subtle drawl. But this time around, Mayfield’s more often the heart breaker than the heartbroken, like on “Trouble”: “I lie ’cause it’s what I know how to do/ Should have listened to my friends and the words they told you/ That girl is trouble, she’s a player and she’ll play you.”

Another result of her growth between albums: Mayfield was finally able to collaborate with her older brother, who she grew up playing music with and names as her best friend.

“I feel like I had to mature as a person and a songwriter before I could [work with him],” she says. “Collaborating is a really touchy thing, because it’s like, here’s my unfinished piece of work. Here’s my unfinished song…It’s like an artist painting half of a painting and then showing it to someone else and going, ‘Here, finish it.’ It’s like, what is it supposed to be? It’s just hard. I’m sensitive and shy when it comes to that kind of stuff.”

Whether it was her brother’s influence or the familiarity between she and Auerbach, Tell Me is quickly exploding into the mainstream, unlike her stellar debut that, sadly, didn’t quite register for media heavy-hitters. Billboard and SoundScan numbers aren’t much of a concern for Mayfield, though. In fact, they seem to piss her off a little.

“People will tell me, ‘Jessica, you’re above this person on this chart.’ It’s not a football game,” she says, adding that bands and musicians are often competitive about numbers. “There’s enough fans for everybody and everybody needs to quit saying they’re better than everybody else.”

Instead of gauging her success by sales, Mayfield says, she relies on the satisfaction of the people she cares about.

“It’s the happiness of the people that work with me and around me, and my family and friends,” she says. “Like how excited my brother got when he found out I was doing Letterman, or my parents getting excited.”

Another marker for Mayfield is materialistic: “Just being able to have the things that I need to be comfortable,” she says. “I’ve got a house that I got when I was 19.”

Mayfield is content with where her music is moving her, even if it means her life is chaotic. After the promotional stint across the pond, she’ll be home for only five days.

“I haven’t been able to clean my house in forever. There’s, like, mold in my coffee cups,” she laughs.

She’ll then conquer SXSW with 10 shows, which she says “sounds like a small miracle.”

“I think I’m playing a showcase for everything. I think I’m playing every stage. Whatever’s going on, I’m doing it, from the sounds of it,” she says.

Mayfield laughed about a friend entered to win a trip to the Austin festival on Facebook.

“I looked over at my brother and I was like, ‘Should I tell him that he doesn’t want to go to South by?’ I don’t want to go to South by. Can I enter to win a trip to just stay home with my dog?” she joked.

She really is kidding – she actually seems grateful to be so busy.

“It’s good, because when I have too much off time I never know what to do by myself anyways,” she admits.

Maybe Mayfield would rather be spending time with her dog and shooting guns with her dad (he hosts barbecues every summer where “he just breaks out 20 or so guns and we all just shoot,” she says), but everyone has to work – and Mayfield isn’t ambivalent about how lucky she is. And she certainly doesn’t seem depressed.

It’s true, emotional lyrics and a voice that exudes sadness have to come from somewhere. But that doesn’t mean she’s miserable. She’s generally happy, albeit not completely satisfied.

“I’m really hoping sometime this year to get a really big, street-legal monster truck,” she says plainly. “I think that once I have that, I’ll be fully successful in my mind.”

Photo by Michael Wilson.