Young and on the way

“Two years is nothing,” musician Jessica Lea Mayfield tells Xpress. She’s projecting how much time it will take before touring is easier and more affordable, before her fan base fills out the theaters she prefers over noisy bars, before she’s hand-picking her openers.

Sacred and profane: Mayfield has a sweet voice, an ace band and a penchant for the words “God” and “damn.”

Two years is something. For 19-year-old Mayfield, it’s more than a tenth of her life—but she’s both an old soul (the songs on her current album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, penned when she was 15 and 16, are a mix of lovelorn angst, bittersweet melodies and biting agnosticism) and a seasoned performer. Septum piercing and enviably trendy haircut aside, Mayfield can see the big picture.

“Building a career is a surprise,” she says. “Even now, I’m seeing that it takes a lot of work. Some people don’t know that.” Take the guy she met en route from her recent Belgium dates back to her digs in Tennessee. Spotting The Black Keys sticker on Mayfield’s guitar, the guy struck up a conversation. When Mayfield pointed out that she grew up in Black Keys-central (northeast Ohio) and has worked with Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach (whose father introduced him to Mayfield’s songs, resulting in Auerbach producing Blasphemy), the guy chalked Mayfield’s budding success up to a simple case right-place-right-time.

Sharp-tongued Mayfield isn’t having it. “To build this takes constant touring and phone interviews,” she says. “People think the only reason I have a career is because of [Auerbach]. He was more or less like a guide—someone to help me out, not do everything for me.”

In fact, Mayfield comes from musical roots. She grew up touring with her parents’ bluegrass band, One Way Rider, on a 1956 tour bus once owned by Bill Monroe. (“It’s special; it’s pretty much my home,” she says of the bus, which the family plans to donate to a museum.) Her brother, bluegrass musician David Mayfield, tours with her when not on the road with his band, Cadillac Sky. (“My brother and I are pretty close,” Mayfield notes. “I spent my entire life traveling and playing music with him. He looks out for me more than anyone.”)

But Mayfield’s current touring band is comprised of more than relatives. Newly added drummer Anne Lillis, a rare female percussionist who puts on a brilliantly emotive performance, came through a connection with The Avett Brother’s Scott Avett. And Mayfield’s roster of guest players on Blasphemy includes Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken and Frank McElroy. Though the teenaged singersongwriter is still learning the music business, she’s come a long way from recording in her brother’s bedroom: She’s already landed songs on songs on Gossip Girl and CSI:NY, and was named best new artist of 2008 by Blurt Magazine.

Add to that impressive resume opening gigs for high profile bands like the Avetts, the Black Keys, Cake and 11 dates this spring with Ray LaMontagne (while there’s no sound correlation between these headliners, there is a beard theme in the works). “A lot of bands will have a list of artists they’d like to play with,” Mayfield says. “I got on that list.” For example, she came through Asheville in February as support for Annuals because “the bass player for Annuals was a fan of my music.”

Though she wasn’t a LaMontagne fan before being picked for his tour, she now says, “I think he’s good” and looks forward to the folk-soul musician’s string of shows because “they’re in theaters so people will be listening.” For Mayfield’s particular brand of Americana-noir, an attentive audience is important (one reason her act wasn’t an easy fit with the more raucous Black Keys).

So, who’s on Mayfield’s list of potential openers as she moves from supporting act to headliner? “In Europe, I had a lot of local openers,” she remembers. “When I go back, I know some bands now and would like to pick someone.”

But as far as American groups: “I don’t know any bands that have a smaller draw than me,” she says. “My draw is still growing.”

Just give her two years.

who: Jessica Lea Mayfield (opening for Ray LaMontagne)
what: Indie singersongwriter
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Friday, April 24 (8 p.m. $34. 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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