Ohio born singer/songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield has come a long way from her days as the youngest member of One Way Rider, her family’s traveling bluegrass band. Mayfield released her third studio album earlier this year, Make My Head Sing, a dark, grungy reflection on friendship, change and the struggles of marriage. We caught up with Mayfield on tour with her brother David to chat about cheese and crackers, Elliott Smith and Alabama.
How long have you been writing songs?
I think the first song I wrote was when I was 11. I’ve always written stuff. It started when something terrible or terribly embarrassing would happen to me. I would go off by myself and write a song about it. I had this totally embarrassing situation where I went into this art gallery show when I was like 11. I was with a group of my friends and we stole a bunch of the snacks that they had, and on our way out one of the guys grabbed me, and even worse, I had set my guitar outside the door of the gallery when I was like, “Cool, they’ve got snacks in here, we’ll go sit under the bridge and eat cheese and crackers!” The guy pulled me back in and was like, “You think you wanna play some songs for the people here?” And I didn’t have any original songs at all, but he had totally seen that I had just stolen all the snacks for my friends, so I played like three or four cover songs and then went home and wrote a song about how embarrassing that was.
How has your style developed since you started writing songs, from cheese and crackers to now?
I guess it comes a little easier, as far as writing. I don’t know that it’s really developed as much as that I hope I’m better at it than I was when I was 11 years old. I think I am, but I don’t know. I feel like, if anything, I’m more critical of myself these days than I used to be. I used to just kind of write something and put it out there and now I spend a lot more time with my words to make sure I’m expressing exactly what I want to convey.
How many songs do you think you’ve written?
That’s a tough one. Usually it comes and goes. There are a few songs that I’ve written that I haven’t recorded that my brother has recorded. There are times where I’ll write something and not ever want to play it. I have tons of songs that I don’t want to play. I’ve written probably hundreds, realistically, over the course of a decade. I don’t really do anything other than play and write music, so that’d be a hard number to calculate because they’re laying all over the house on napkins and in voice memos on my phone. They’re everywhere.
How often do you write?
It depends. It’s hard for me to write sometimes if I’m on tour or if I’m in the van. I just started getting over not being able to write in a confined space with other people because everyone is like, “What are you doing?” Things kind of changed when I got married. I use to live in my house by myself and I would just kind of do my own thing completely, like a crazy person, just writing all hours of the night, making noises all the time, and it got hard for a while because he was always so interested in what I was doing and I was like, “Ahhh! I can’t do my weird stuff with an audience.” But now I’ve gotten comfortable enough. It’s like he’s part of me now, so it’s not as weird.
What inspires you to write?
Uncomfortable feelings, probably. I definitely do struggle with anxiety quite a bit. I guess for me, the only way that I can really help myself is to, if something’s really bothering me, get it off my mind musically and have it there forever. It’s like, it’s out of my head, it’s here, I’m singing about it, I’m over it, whatever it is. Sometimes you have that uncontrollable urge to tell someone how you feel about something that they did, and maybe that person is dead, maybe you can’t tell them how you feel, maybe you don’t actually want to talk to them, but you wish you could tell them how you felt. For me, I channel all that into music.
Do you write mostly about personal experiences or do you like to take on roles and write story songs?
I feel like there might be a time when I would try that, but I almost don’t feel like I’m a good enough songwriter to write about other people. I’m not like, “I was riding my horse in 1892…” No! It’s 2014 and I got in an argument with this person who exists and this is what they said to me and this is what I wanted to say, or this is what I did, or how I reacted.
What is your approach to writing? Do you write lyrics first or music first?
It used to be strictly lyrics first for me because I didn’t play enough guitar sometimes to know what would go or what melody I would use. I would do lyrics and just be like, “Alright! It’ll go like this.” But for the last record, I kind of started it all with the guitar and I was really, at the time… before I made that record, I wanted to quit making music. I was feeling kind of depressed and at a standstill and then I bought this baritone guitar in Louisville, KY and fell in love with it and its dark, weird sounds, and it got me back into writing and got me playing more. It helped me to be a better musician, which is something I’m still trying to do.
I really wanted to ask you about what influenced you between Make My Head Sing and Tell Me, because your sound got a lot darker and heavier.
For me, one of the main things was being able to make the album with just me and my husband. I could hear any sound I wanted to hear. I was renting a studio and I wasn’t on someone else’s time schedule, whereas with the last two records, it was definitely… when you’re working with other people, you have to go by a schedule. It’s like “Ok, it’s 5 o’clock now, I’ll meet you next Wednesday.” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve got an idea right now.” Whereas with me and Jesse, it’s like, “I wanna be more comfortable when I’m signing this vocal so I’m going to take off my shirt. I’m gonna turn off all the lights. It’s two in the morning and we’ve been here all day.” That was part of what influenced the sound, and I guess, lyrically, the struggles of two people merging together is a big theme on the record. The new direction that my life went, because I was used to being my own duck. When two people move in together and work together and do everything together. There’s that growing phase that I think we were going through just as I was writing stuff for the album.
Do you ever co-write?
I usually write all my songs alone. I’ve co-written with my brother David some. I’ve done maybe two songs in the same room with him, but with the way my shyness goes, I’ll usually send a lyric and be like, “Here, you got anything that goes with this?” I don’t want other people critiquing or changing things. Sometimes I like singing other peoples’ stuff, but I usually want my words to be my own.
Which song of yours are you the most proud of?
That’s hard. They all have different aspects. On this last record, I think “Pure Stuff” was really fun. That one was so much fun to write and it’s so much fun to play. It’s got a really heavy meaning to me. It’s about the struggles between people and the struggles between mine and Jesse’s marriage, or us just getting started and looking around at everyone around us. At the time that we were getting married, friends of his were separating and friends of mine were separating so it was really weird. That song’s about that, and it kind of has a little marijuana reference to it. The legality of marijuana frustrates me because I don’t understand how alcohol can be legal, as it kills people and destroys people. If I had my choice I would swap the two.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Elliott Smith. I have his name tattooed on me and I named my dog after him. He’s probably my biggest influence. Kurt Cobain was really a lyrical artist. Hank Williams. The things that that man thought of were just incredible.
Who do you think is an underrated songwriter?
I’m a huge, huge Stone Temple Pilots fan and a lot of people give me flack for that. I think they have some really great albums and some great music. Lyrically and structurally, they have a huge, influence on me, and I think most people would immediately be like, “Oh, fuck that. Forget about that. That sucks.” And it’s like, “No! Take these records and listen to them.” Alabama. Randy Owen is a big one. I listen to a lot of Alabama when I’m driving. They have some incredible studio albums. They have so many songs. I was telling someone, “If you ever have writers block, listen to Alabama because they can write a song about anything. They’ve written about every subject.” By the end of an Alabama song, you’re singing along and you’re like, “Alright! These lyrics! They’ve infected me!”
What do you consider to be the perfect song, written by someone else?
“A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” by Elliott Smith is a good one.