Q&A: Jessica Lea Mayfield

At just 21 years old, JESSICA LEA MAYFIELD knows pain and sorrow. She understands it’s ability to inhabit your conscience and almost too much as the Ohio songwriter has admitted writing about it has almost become an addiction. Before a headlining gig at The Drake Hotel in Toronto, the alternative folk singer opened up about her recent release Tell Me (produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach), her songwriting and the possibility of transferring over to the pop universe.

Rolling Stone called you a cross between Lucinda Williams and Wilco. Do you agree or disagree?

It’s so weird how people can make those types of comparisons and it is almost funny because I’ve never had the opportunity to listen to Lucinda Williams or Wilco. It’s not like I don’t know who they are. There’s just similar people out there who, for example, haven’t even listened to The Beatles. It’s always weird when you don’t get compared to the artists you listen to because then it means they hear something totally different.
How would you describe yourself as a musician?

I just recently started comparing myself to other artists and I never did it before because it’s all people want from you. If I had to use two musicians, I’d say I’m a cross between Dolly Parton and Elliot Smith. Honestly, I’d rather just be myself. Without comparison, I’m an artist who writes simplistic, relatable songs that may be a bit selfish because they are personal to me. Others enjoy them because they can relate to them on some level and they deal with feelings they might be reluctant to share.
As there’s constant praise for your songwriting ability, what was it like writing that first song and being able to channel emotion into music?

I wrote my first song when I was 11; I had gotten this feeling that I hadn’t really felt before and my very first thought was I had to channel it into music. Thank God the way I write isn’t unhealthy. It’s almost like an addiction for me because I have to write a song to negate how I feel and kind of get that emotion out of me and purge any guilt or sadness. If I’m happy, I’m just going to go and be happy. I’m not going to write a song about that (laughs).

I’m never going to write songs like Katy Perry. I’m never going to talk about feeling like a plastic bag drifting in the wind. I will always sing about stuff that has meaning.”

Was it difficult to get personal and even a bit aggressive over time?

It’s always something I have to think about. If I write a song and my first thought is of how personal it is, I have to sing it. I have to share it with others so they can relate as well and it just helps me get some of my demons and dark secrets out.
Has that changed your personality or character in anyway?

If anything it’s just helped me be funnier and happier. With my music, I have the opportunity to get most of my sadness out of me and it makes me more fun to be around. Like I still haven’t gotten arrested yet (laughs). I’m pretty good at staying out of trouble and even if I know I’m about to get arrested for something, I’m pretty good at getting out of things. I’ve yet to punch a cop or anything like that (laughs).
Going back to the material you write, you show you’re not afraid to get intimate. Where does most of your songwriting take place?

It really all depends. I’m on the road a lot, maybe at home for four days of the month, and a lot of different experiences will happen while I’m out there. Since I’m so busy, an experience won’t necessarily affect me until later on. For instance, just meeting you; a month from now, I could be at home and I’ll remember talking to you and the connection we made and then decide I have to write a song about it. In a sense memories just sort of come back to me and when they do, you know they’re worth writing about.
Have their been times when getting too personal makes you emotional?

I don’t think that’s been an issue. With the last record it was, but with Tell Me, it’s kind of about how I’ve lost emotion, like “man, why didn’t I feel bad about that” or “why didn’t I feel that way?”. I’ve become so hardened that it’s not really a problem.

Talking about powerful emotions that are personal, what would you say is the most depressingly beautiful song you’ve ever heard?

The saddest song I’ve ever heard? Oh crap (laughs). My brother David is one of my favourite songwriters in the world. Elliot Smith has a lot of sad songs but they’re not really sad to me because I don’t know what they’re about. That’s how I would feel about my brother if I had just met him off the street but hearing someone you love sing about their pain and their heartache.. it’s hard to handle. That interaction affects me because if I write a song about how I want to kill myself, I know my brother’s going to hear this and say “Oh, my little sister wants to kill herself”. It’s kind of the same thing with him.
With your 2011 release, you’re exposing the alternative country genre. Are you surprised you’re attracting different types of listeners?

I can kind of see what everyone likes about my music from a certain extent. Some people listen to us because of my songwriting and how personal I can be while others listen to us because they like the band. Since there’s so many different aspects to like, it doesn’t really surprise me that we are gaining fans from everywhere. It’s more or less kind of cool.
Do you think you’ll ever transfer over to the pop world?

I think the pop world is meant for the popular. It’s bubbly and whatever and the new record is upbeat in a musical sense, but I’m never going to write songs like Katy Perry. I’m never going to talk about feeling like a plastic bag drifting in the wind. I will always sing about stuff that has meaning.
Some say you’re not appealing because you’re not cheerful enough.

Well, they can suck it. I grew up playing bluegrass which does kind of derive from blues and I just write music for my own reasons. As an individual, I do get a little sick when I hear someone singing about walking their dog in the sun or walking on sunshine (laughs). It’s like, really? You’re walking on sunshine? My stomach turns a little when I hear pointless music.

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