Considering the knowing way that 21-year-old Ohio native Jessica Lea Mayfield punctures male egos and hearts in several songs on her new album Tell Me, you'd think it would be mostly female fans — especially those who've found themselves played by a guy one too many times — clamoring to meet her after shows. But that's not what she's been seeing at all.
"I definitely feel like I have more male fans than I do female fans," she says. "I'm surprised by it, especially with the new record. ... I meet guys at the merch table and they all kind of flirt with me. It's their dream to be the next song."
Masochists perhaps? She laughs, "Right. They want me to break their heart, kick their ass."
"Basically," she adds, "I'm just getting men who want to be suitors, potential suitors, for me. But I'm good." That is, "good" as in, not interested.
In Mayfield's songs, the suitors are often beaten at their own games. During "Our Hearts Are Wrong" — a moody British Invasion-style number and a pivotal track on the album — she warns a guy that he won't be getting the emotional upper hand: "I know how you work / I am just like you." The subject of the disarmingly perky electro-pop "Grown Man" might like to find himself a malleable younger woman, but in Mayfield he's met his match. And she turns the tables on pop music's gender stereotypes during the clouded country song "Trouble": She — not the guy — is the one who can't be tied down.
Part of the reason Tell Me has grabbed attention everywhere from Pitchfork to Letterman is that Mayfield has a gift for confessional songwriting. Her style of expression — cynical but not humorless, introspective but not indirect — feels very of-the-moment. There's also the fact that her take on love isn't necessarily the sort of thing people are used to hearing from a female singer-songwriter, especially one influenced by country and bluegrass.
But she says she's not really conscious of the fact that she's doing something different: "I kind of get overwhelmed by certain feelings and have to write about them, and if they end up being unique or not, [it's] out of my hands."
For Mayfield, catharsis takes priority. "Most of the songs that are really about giving people kind of a taste of their own medicine or being a dick [are] me just trying to get those feelings out," she says. "Maybe it has to do with a little bit of guilt. I'm kind of writing about the wrong that I'm doing. A lot of people don't want to fess up and say, 'Hey listen, I was a jerk.' "
And between her 2008 album With Blasphemy so Heartfelt and the new one — both produced by Dan Auerbach — her part in the romantic storylines has taken on noticeably more bite. "I can't always be getting my heart broken," she says. "I can't always write songs that are, you know, I'm the victim. That's not realistic."
Mayfield's readiness to guard her heart is reinforced by her singing. There's the slightest touch of vibrato and Midwestern drawl to her delivery, but more than anything, it's strikingly even-toned and unruffled. The coolness of it can cut to the heart of the song, and the listener. "I can't watch American Idol," she says. "A lot of people can sing and a lot of people can't sing. Maybe I'm somewhere in between. If I really wanted to, I could over-sing. And sometimes if I'm bored I might. But I feel like it takes away from the music."
Mayfield and her older brother David Mayfield — a rootsy artist in his own right and the producer of her pre-Auerbach recordings — grew up home-schooled and traveling in a close-knit family band. Not that most people would guess that from her music. "They think I'm normal," she says. "And then they start talking about the school they went to or the house they lived in. I'm like, 'Oh, I didn't go to school. I lived in a bus. ... I played four shows seven days a week with my family's bluegrass band.' "
It says something that Jessica Lea Mayfield has a dog named for one of the 1990s' darkest singer-songwriters, Elliott Smith, and a cat named for Doyle Lawson, a bluegrass-gospel giant who's been at it since the early '60s. If that comes across as an unexpected pairing, Mayfield's not surprised. "No one ever gets my influences," she says. "And I always get compared to people that I've never listened to."
One song Mayfield did listen to — and thanks to her brother, learned to play on guitar — was Stone Temple Pilots' angsty grunge hit "Creep."
"He showed me that one song," she says, "and then from that song I learned how to play other songs with the same chords. And then I started writing songs."
She was 11 at the time, and she'd already been touring and performing for three years. That, she theorizes, has more than a little to do with the romantic dissatisfaction she writes about these days. "I'm usually the one who has more life experience than the men that I meet. It's almost destiny that I'm going to end up breaking up with them. Because it's like, 'You're a little kid. Get a few years on ya and find me again.' "
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