“Does it have to be a place that exists, or can I make it up?” It’s lunch time in mid-January, and Jessica Lea Mayfield is at home in Nashville. She’s just returned from the barren expanse of California’s Salton Sea, where she shot a video for her next single, “Offa My Hands,” and the 28-year-old singer-songwriter is describing her ideal venue.
“I'm picturing a stage that's got all this real candy you can eat, and everything is pink and purple. The audience is all dogs, and they're all really good, and they're all really cute, and they're looking back at me, and they're really interested. They're all just sitting there watching me, then afterwards, I get to meet every single dog. That’d be amazing," she laughs, "that’d be my dream, dogs and candy."
Mayfield grew up in a musical household, and began singing in her parent’s bluegrass band at just 8. The family home rang with grassy and pop country sounds, but as a self-described “rebellious kid,” she gravitated more towards Metallica, Soundgarden, and ‘90s alternative. At 11, she learned to play Stone Temple Pilots’ “Creep” on the guitar, and by her 18th birthday, she was working with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach on her first album, the haunting With Blasphemy So Heartfelt.
On “Too Much Terrible” from fourth album Sorry is Gone, Mayfield describes herself as “extremely unstable, and unsocialized.” But conversation with her is disarmingly easy. She loves Gummy Bears. She kills long hours on the road listening to Jeff Foxworthy’s cornball comedy. She gushes about Elliott, her 9-year-old mountain cur, who she named after Elliott Smith, and calls her “sweet little man.” For anyone entranced by her hypnotic, Southern Gothic-styled ballads, yet struck by their conspicuous pain—see the pistol she points at her head in the “Kiss Me Again” video—it’s a potent reminder that it takes a brilliant light to cast a pitch-black shadow.
Last year's Sorry is Gone was produced by John Angello, known for his collaborations with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., and Mayfield is enthusiastic when describing recording with the legendary engineer. "The best part about working with him was not having to worry if he was going to do something uncool, or if he was going to have a bad idea," she says, “because I just loved all of his ideas, and he totally understood my vibe.”
During last year's first press interviews, Mayfield was upfront about the fact that Sorry is Gone chronicles the hellscape of her abusive marriage, and unsurprisingly, the isolation, physical agony, and psychological trauma of domestic violence are all on stark display. So before it was released, she found herself considering how that would impact listeners, even given the darkness which already underpins her catalog.
“I worried the lyrical content of this album would be too dark,” she says, “a lot of people have said the opposite though. They've said they expected it to be dark, but it's more empowering. It's like I'm on the other side of the bad things, and I can sing about them, and talk about them, more clearly.”
One of the first songs she wrote for Sorry is Gone was "Safe 2 Connect 2," where gut-wrenching lines like, "Any tips on how to feel more human?/ Or how to un-dehumanise someone?/ I'm only asking for a friend," lend the acoustic cut’s cold cadence a heartbreaking weight. On "WTF,” Mayfield’s angelic vocal strains tackle her doomed relationship’s attack-apology cycle, and "Maybe Whatever" opens with the chilling image of a shotgun stashed under a futon.
But even when she’s singing about fading bruises, and how she can't trust herself, she still manages to hope for happiness for everyone she knows. Ultimately, there's far more triumph that tragedy here.
The title track is an unrepentant goodbye to empathy-averse parasites, the assertive "Bum Me Out" embraces strength and solitude, and "Offa My Hands" finds her banishing "every single DNA strand" of her ex from her life. “Sorry is Gone is like a big conversation with myself,” she explains. "It just so happens I'm in a place where I'm standing up for myself, and speaking up for others, and being more aware, and I think that shows."
Show it does, and with her latest album, Mayfield has once again pressed coal-black themes into sonic diamonds. These songs are sure to sparkle live, so don’t miss the opportunity to see this dazzling talent at the Tractor Tavern.