After his second record, David Mayfield already had a metaphor for his third: the Indiana Jones trilogy.
“I used to say … that my first record was Raiders of the Lost Arc and Good Man Down was Temple of Doom, so my next record will be Last Crusade,” he jokes. “It will be fun and exciting, and it will have Sean Connery.”
Thematically, his newest collection, Strangers, is more dark and self-deprecating than fun and exciting. And, spoiler alert, there’s no Sean Connery. But the album is undoubtedly his most earnest, and Mayfield says it’s been a relief to set aside expectations and write from experience — in this case, a breakup and a move. “With Good Man Down, I think I was trying to hit live show points,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, I need a song like this for the live show. Fans like this song, so I’ll write another one in that sort of vein.’ And some of it’s a blast, but now it feels phony to me. With this record, I kind of circled back around to ‘I’m just gonna write what I’m feeling and see if people like it.’”
Mayfield will be the first to admit that he was feeling pretty bleak during the writing process. Strangers is a tough ride, full of heartbreak and harsh self-evaluation. “The One I Hate,” a standout ballad, relates a typical sentiment for the collection: “Don’t tell me you love me / I warn you, you’ll seal our fate / How could I love the one who loves the one I hate.”
Musically, however, Strangers is not quite the doom and gloom its lyrical themes might suggest. The 12 tracks are full of climactic peaks, tempo changes and surprising arrangements that often betray the darkness within. It’s not unusual for Mayfield to fade from a traditional folk ballad into a noisy instrumental break that builds to poppy synths and drums. The collection is a classic Mayfield roller coaster in the sense that it’s rooted in bluegrass and folk instrumentation but rife with new sonic layers. The musician, who produces his own albums, says that a lot of the most interesting things are lucky accidents.
“I have a very sort of ‘try everything’ mentality when recording, just because you never know where something fun is going to show up,” he says. “An example is the song ‘Ohio is Fake,’ where it’s this melancholy, almost spooky kind of song, and then it kicks into this pop ending. We were playing around in the studio, and I sat behind the drum set. Just as a joke, I started playing a disco beat. We started singing that song sped up like a disco song, as a joke, and I was like, ‘This actually kind of works. After playing it the other way, this feels so good to play it this way. It’s almost like an explanation point.’ And I thought, ‘We need to try to do this.’”
Mayfield’s live show has undergone some major shifts as well. The performances have always included comedy and an element of old-fashioned variety shows, but the bandleader says it’s been difficult to keep a steady lineup, and the turnover has made things more rigid than he’d like. “When a new bass player comes on, we can only do the songs that they know,” he says. “I send them the list of songs, and by the time they learn them and I’m ready to introduce new songs, they go to somebody who can pay them more money.”
To get around this perpetual dilemma, Mayfield made a simple deduction: fewer people equals more money per person. So he dissolved his five-piece backing band and put together a trio (“Me and two gorgeous, 6-foot tall women who sing like angels”) with Cassie Taylor on bass and vocals and Angie Hayes, who handles drums, keys and vocals simultaneously. “I feel like with this new setup, I have to focus more on my guitar playing, and there’s less to fall back on than when I [had] a five-piece,” says Mayfield. “I think also we’re focusing more on the songwriting on this tour.”
That said, Mayfield is adamant that comedy will always be a major part of the show. “That’s my security blanket,” he says. “I discovered a long time ago that if I walk onstage and instantly make a fool of myself, then there’s no way that I’ll do it accidentally.”
WHO: David Mayfield Parade and Two Man Gentleman Band with Curtis McMurtry
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 12, at 9 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show