interview by RJ Cubarrubia
photos by Laura Totten
At 19, Ohio native Jessica Lea Mayfield has already toured with The Black Keys (it helps when you’re old friends with Dan Auerbach), been to Europe, and released a critically acclaimed debut album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, filled with beautiful folk music tinged with subtle sadness, dreamy melodies, and a voice that haunts and mesmerizes. So what’s it like being a respected and well-received artist at an age where you can’t even get into most of the venues you’re playing? Jessica and I met after her in-studio at KEXP (and before her February 27 show with Annuals and What Laura Says at Chop Suey), and while it was especially refreshing and exciting to spend some time with an artist closer to my age, our youthful inexperience got the better of us as we hysterically laughed at the ancient relic we were given to record the interview. As we tried to solve this puzzling artifact, we gathered its name (“DAT recorder?”) and noticed it had an archaic phrase no longer widely used (“Sony Walkman?”). Eventually, after some fun and goofy sound tests, we solved the mystery of the DAT and talked about Jessica’s upcoming tour plans, what it’s like being 19 in the music world, and hearing her own music on CSI and Gossip Girl.
You’re on tour with Annuals right now and then going to South By Southwest (SXSW), so what’re your plans after that?
I leave from SXSW for Europe for a headlining Europe and UK tour. Then, I have about a week off, and then I go out on tour with Ray LaMontagne.
Is this the first time you’ve been to Europe?
Oh no, I just did a Europe and UK tour in October and I did the UK with The Black Keys.
I think it’d be pretty interesting for the European fans. When I listen to your music, it really gets me in the mood and the mindset of that melancholy, lazy, middle America. How do you think the European fans connect with your music being so organically grown from where you grew up?
I think they like it because it’s really different from a lot of what goes on there. It’s different, I’m different everywhere I go so it’s kind of this newer thing. I can’t really put a finger on what it is that I do exactly, so I think people just find it interesting. A lot of people actually don’t think I’m American. I get a lot of “No, you’re not American, are you?!” when I go to Europe.
It’s pretty cool and kind of funny that here in Seattle you’re playing a 21 and up show and you probably couldn’t even get into the show; it’s interesting here in Seattle that the all ages community and the 21 and up crowd are pretty divided because the shows are just so separated. A lot of times the youth community can’t even go to the shows. When you were growing up, do you feel that the youth community really helped you as a young artist or did you really reach out to an older crowd in Ohio?
Well, I don’t really know anyone my age and I was always playing in bars and would just kind of ask the manager, “Hey, I’m 15, can I play here?” and they would say, “Yeah, just don’t tell anybody that you’re 15!” I had shows at bars I couldn’t get into, weekly gigs and things like that, speaking of which, I hope I can get into the show I’m supposed to be playing tonight.
A lot of times I’ll play and they’ll say, “You can come in and play but you have to leave immediately,” or “You’re not allowed in the green room.” It’s a pain.
That’s the price you pay for being so good at a young age. So your album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, was recorded over two years?
Well, I had met Dan Auerbach when I was 16 and we were just hanging out, recording for fun. Over the course of a few years, we had recorded an album’s worth of stuff and he was like, “You know, we should release this.”
I think your music now has a mature sound, a dreamy, melancholy sound. Do you ever think, “You know, I’m at this age. When I’m at the age of most people who are doing what I’m doing now…” Do you ever wonder how your music is going to change then, 10 years from now, 15 years from now?
I only think that I can get more so to where I’m into it and I don’t know, I just feel like I’m always progressing. I’m really trying to grow as an artist and a musician and I really hope so. I have so many friends who are in their late 20’s and early 30’s who are these amazing musicians and I just hope when I’m their age, 10 years from now, when I’m like 29, I just hope I can be up to their level.
It’s really cool that you have so much more time to progress. Seeing artists get older… Stephen Malkmus is one of my favorite artists and his newer stuff, with those psychedelic solos and jams where he’ll play for a really long time, is different than his stuff with Pavement, where he had those sort of tight yet sloppy but still put together songs, and even those changed. Do you ever think that when you get older, your music might change?
I don’t think it’ll drastically change. There’re a lot of different directions I plan on going in my life but I’ll always stay in sort of the same vein.
I know your music has recently been featured in some TV shows; I think CSI had it and Gossip Girl featured a song too. Have you ever watched the episodes your songs have been featured in?
I still haven’t seen the episode of CSI that had “Bible Days” on it but I was not on the road, I had two days off, and my manager was having a Gossip Girl party. He was like, “Well, it might be kind of awkward for you, but you’re invited. We’re having dinner and some friends over and we’re all going to watch this episode of Gossip Girl with your song in it.” And I was like, it’s free dinner, it’ll be cool to hang out with everybody, and I kind of felt like I should watch it out of curiosity because I had no idea how I would feel about it. I eventually just felt a little bit awkward and slightly embarrassed.
So I’ve watched that episode of Gossip Girl and I’ve seen a clip of CSI, only because I was on tour with The Black Keys and Liam Finn. EJ, a girl who plays with Liam, was like, “I just talked to Dan and he said one of your songs was on CSI. Have you seen it? Let’s find it right now!” She just sat down at the computer and we all just sat down backstage and watched it. If they hadn’t had done that, I still probably wouldn’t have watched it.
Not so much CSI, but Gossip Girl, obviously exaggerated and ridiculous, but it seems to have simple themes and situations at its core that a lot of people our age seem to connect to. Was it weird seeing your music used in that context, where it’s a realistic setting with somewhat unrealistic events?
It was just weird. I hardly ever watch TV as it is but now whenever the TV is on, I start thinking about the legalities and “I wonder how much they got paid for that clip.” I start listening to every little song in the background now and it’s like, “Who’s that?” Before I never really cared and it’s changed TV in that way. It kind of weirded me out. I mean, I can’t relate to anything, Gossip Girl even, I didn’t even go to high school.
Wow, I didn’t realize that. Thank you very much, Jessica. See you tonight and best of luck at SXSW and your European Tour.
Jessica Lea Mayfield’s debut album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, is out now on Polymer Sounds. For more information on Jessica Lea Mayfield’s upcoming SXSW dates, tour dates, and more, visit her MySpace page or website.