"Most people don't get so lucky, to just be born into their career, bred for it like a horse," says Jessica Lea Mayfield.
The 21-year-old Ohio native isn't exaggerating. She's been performing since the age of 8, first in her parents touring bluegrass band and soon after as a solo singer-songwriter, including a bar residency at the tender ago of 15.
At 16, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach discovered Mayfield's sparse, country-leaning home recordings on MySpace and invited her into his studio in nearby Akron, Ohio. The pair hit it off immediately and spent the next two years crafting what would become Mayfield's debut.
Shortly after her 19th birthday, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt was released. The record is a dark and moody collection of mostly acoustic, heartbroken love songs, many of which were penned before Mayfield was old enough to drive. It made an instant splash and, despite her age, comparisons to legendary female songwriters like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris abounded. Pitchfork lauded Mayfield for her plaintive drawl and lyrical insight and Asheville-based music magazine Blurt even named Blasphemy the "Best Album of 2008."
Cut to the present: It's a dark, dreary Tuesday, and Mayfield is "having the worst day ever" driving from her home in Ohio to pick up the band in Nashville. She’s just stopped to pick up her third set of temporary tags (the last two got wet and blew off), but this time, she “didn't even have to cry or nothin', luckily.”
The inconvenience is a minor setback, however irritating. They're headed to Austin for the South by Southwest music showcase, and this year Mayfield and Co. are in high demand: 10 shows in four days. Her sophomore album, Tell Me, was released in early February; once again, the young singer is all over the pages of major music Magazines.
In less than two months, she's become a regular fixture on the pages of Rolling Stone and Spin, been featured in Uncut and American Songwriter, appeared on NPR's All Things Considered, Late Show with David Letterman and the BBC, and landed a track on iTunes' "SXSW: Featured Artists" playlist.
Needless to say, the reception to Tell Me has been warm.
“I’m always surprised,” she says. “You’d think I wouldn’t be, and most people that work with me aren’t as surprised as I am. But ever time I see a glowing review I’m like, ‘Oh wow! They really like the record!’ Someone will have to remind me that 90 percent of people like the record.”
It's easy to see what all the fuss is about. Mayfield's minimalist take on the vulnerable heart has been replaced with an aggressively unapologetic perspective, one that's often downright mean. She sings in a world-weary tone with wisdom beyond her years, evoking a siren-like magnetism. With the new attitude also comes fuzzy electric guitars, drum machines, keys, and powerful backing vocals that make it clear: Mayfield is no longer the victim.
"[Those songs] are about the first fight I ever got in with my first boyfriend, you know," she says of Blasphemy. "I'm kind of done with rehashing the same argument I had with some dude when I was 16. The new record is me being less naive I guess. I'm not going to be a teenager getting my heart broken on every song. It's sort of just me being an asshole for the most part."
Still, she says, it's hard to escape first impressions. People expect certain things, and they tend to interpret songs to fit those ideas.
"There's a lot of songs about me being an asshole or songs that are not love songs, but they come off as love songs," Mayfield observes. "It’s really weird; I've been trying to consciously not write love songs. I've been writing songs about myself and the struggles that people have with themselves. But people think that when I'm singing about me that I'm singing about a boy. It's really funny."
After the flurry of dates at SXSW, Mayfield won't be heading home to rest. She and the band are booked through the end of May, including a month-long tour of Europe. While she's excited to get out and perform the new material, Mayfield says being on the road is not all its cracked up to be. She just bought a house last year, and so far, there hasn't been time to make it a home.
"It's hard for me, because it still has a lot of renovating that needs to get done," she says. "I come home to a house where one wall is white, one wall is pink, one wall is half pink, there's still stuff in boxes. In the four days I'm home, the last thing I want to do is paint my ceiling. I come home to a house that is a little uncomfortable."
Still, she says, touring has become a stabilizing factor in her life.
"I can't not travel and play music. I'll lose my mind. I need the routine and the insanity a little bit to keep me busy. If I have too much time on my hands, then I just end up doing stupid stuff. I end partying or going to bed a different time every night and waking up at three in the afternoon doing an oil painting in my underwear while listening to Metallica at an insane volume. I kind of need routine to keep me from being a total nutcase."
— Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Jessica Lea Mayfield, with Daniel Martin Moore
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, March 27 (8 p.m. $10/$12. thegreyeagle.com)