Photo credit: LeAnn Mueller
“Fuck barbies, I gotta play music.” That’s been the mantra of Jessica Lea Mayfield since she was a 7-year-old, the moment she saw the video for Foo Fighters' classic anthem “My Hero” and realized that music was all she wanted to do.
Most people don’t have these kinds of epiphanies when they’re seven, but Mayfield is not like most. She grew up touring with her family’s bluegrass act. During that time, it wasn't uncommon for her and her family to sing for money to scrape together enough food for dinner. When the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach got a copy of her initial EP White Lies, her career took off and he helped produce 2011’s Tell Me. Back then she rocked a pixie blonde haircut and no makeup—now her she’s got punk pink hair, lots of eyeliner, and lots of glitter.
At 24, the focus is finally off her age, or her ties to the country music scene and family’s old bluegrass band. She’s opted for a darker, raw rock sound for her third full-length Make My Head Sing... that’s out on ATO Records on April 15. But Mayfield’s writing has always been straightforward and almost aggressive in its personal nature, which is illustrated in the video for "I Want to Love You," which Noisey is happy to premiere below. The song, which she wrote from the perspective of her IRL stalker, confronts a stalker by putting them on blast publicly. And, let's be real, that's possibly the most badass way to handle that type of situation. In our interview she explains the strangeness of stalking, how she met her husband, and why she’s done with party drugs.
Noisey: I really enjoyed your last record Tell Me. It seems like for this one you went a lot darker with the grunge, rock route.
Jessica Lea Mayfield: This record was definitely a really natural process for me. Anyone that knows me knows that what I listen to is ‘90s alternative and grunge, any anybody who’s ridden in the van with me on tour knows that. To the point where people will ask, "Can we listen to something that came out in the past ten years, Jessica?" [Laughs.] I guess I’ve really felt like myself. Finally I feel like this is me, I’m settling into who I am and what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s weird to have been playing music my whole life. I’ve basically been playing any type of music that I can. I’ve been trying to wear all these hats.
Do you think growing up playing in a bluegrass band from a young age held you back from making this kind of music? Did you feel like you couldn’t before?
I felt like I just always kind of did what was easiest for me. I can do the kind of bluegrass stuff with my eyes closed, I’ve been doing that my whole life, with my family since I was a little girl. I’ve never been able to do anything else other than play music. I’ve felt for the past few years that I’ve almost been inaccurately portraying myself. I was in the process of growing and I was in the transitional phase of being a kid to a teenager to a young adult. And now, I didn’t know what I was portraying because I didn’t even know who I was. And I made these records and I had fun making them, but they were definitely coming from a place of confusion. This is the first time in my life that I’ve had completely clarity surrounding the music that I’m creating.
What was the primary aesthetic you had in mind for the “I Want to Love You?”
“I Want to Love You” is a Cracker Farm video. I’ve known that dude for a while and met him through The Avett Brothers. With this video it was kind of a personal song—all my songs are I guess—but I think with all the other songs on the record I could’ve had a thousand ideas. But with this one, because it is literal it really needed artistic vision, and he’s someone that I trust on that, he’s got a great mind. I kind of just put it in his hands. Really, I was excited to see it. I didn’t know what it was going to be until I got it in my email. I felt comfortable enough for that. I’m never going to feel comfortable with seeing my face. That kind of stuff is hard for me! Listening to my music, for me, is like when somebody plays a voicemail that you left on their phone for you.
Is that really how you feel when you hear it? I feel you, because transcribing this interview will be hell for me because I hate listening to my voice recorded. Is that how you feel when you hear your songs?
It’s different now because at least if I’m hearing the new stuff then I get to hear all the guitar sounds. But hearing my voice and seeing my face are two things I’m still awkward about. I’m like, can I not be in the video?
I liked the parts that focused around you putting on makeup, but then the parts where his face flashes in kind of threw me off.
It’s basically the dude is portraying the stalker, which is what the song is about. The song is about someone else stalking me, and me writing it from their perspective, which is kind of a touchy subject and it’s something that I worry singing about. I worried about the song and then it was something that everybody at the label really liked this track. And I’m like oh man, the creepy dude I wrote this about is going to get the biggest fucking boner.
So this song is about a real dude that was stalking you?
Yeah. So it’s a little bit like, what’s going to happen? I hope nothing.
Is he still stalking you?
It’s on and off. Sometimes there are dry spells and then other times there’s a lot of unwanted attention from this fellow. But I think from what I’ve gathered and heard and figured out from all these things I’ve gotten in the mail is that he’s got a mental problem. It’s hard anyway, because I get that my music will [make people] feel really connected to me because I put everything out there. If something is happening in my life I’m going to sing about it—no matter how personal it is. And it might be something that I wouldn’t even talk about, ever. But I’ll sing about it. I think a lot of people feel like they really know me really well, and in this situation, it’s to the extreme. When people manifest relationships with you that have never existed is kind of weird and unnerving.
But in real life you’re actually married and worked on this album with your now-husband Jesse Newport. I wanted to hear the story of how you guys met and started working together.
He was on tour with this other band I was touring with. One of my bandmembers was friends with Jesse, and I had met him briefly maybe once or twice. This night was in Des Moines, Iowa at this weird street festival. Jesse asked if he could do front of house sound for me. I was like, "Sure, why not?" Thinking I’d let this cute guy can run sound. So I made him a copy of the setlist and then about four songs in, the power generator blows and everything dies, and everybody blames it on him. It’s like six o’clock and there’s maybe about 1500 people that are mad that the show ended and that no other shows could be performed that night either.
There were no hotels available so we all stayed in these campers, just partied and hung out. From that point on their band was one or two states ahead of us or behind us, but we couldn’t catch back up for the rest of this tour and we were trying and trying! Then at the end of the tour I still had two more shows and when Jesse got back to Nashville he drove to Birmingham, Alabama and I rode with him and we followed the van. Since we met, we’ve pretty much been inseparable. We’ve probably spent more time together than any couple ever, it’s why we got married I guess. We’re a lot alike and we can tour together. I hired him to work for me. Now we’re a team.
Photo credit: LeAnn Mueller
This is Noisey, so let’s talk about the song “Party Drugs.”
“Party Drugs” was one of the songs that inspired the whole record. At the time that Jessie and I met we were both kind of in a big downward spiral. We were both partying really hard and not taking care of ourselves. I was doing me and he was doing him and we were just going crazy. Then we met, and we kept partying together. Then we fell in love and had that instinct to take care of ourselves and protect each other.
We still think that if we had not met each other that one of us would’ve died. And it’s probably true because we were just going so balls out. So we’re trying our best to take care of ourselves, and work hard. We want to enjoy the work that we do and enjoy each other. There comes a point where you grow up and it’s sad, because there are still people in our lives who party until it hurts. When you see someone in their late '20s or their early '30s partying until it hurts, it’s like damn, dude! This isn’t cool, this isn’t fun.
Has the influence from Dave Grohl persisted?
I was more of a big fan of Dave Grohl when I was younger, I definitely have other influences now. Dave Grohl was one of the first artists, in the Foo Fighters, that made me want to play music in the first place. I wouldn’t credit everything I do to that, but when I was seven years old I remember that I used to love watching videos on TV. When I saw the video for “My Hero” I thought, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do that when I grow up. I’m going to just do that forever. That’s kind of what got me into wanting to play music in the first place, because my whole family played and I started playing with them. I knew that I had to play music and I had to tour. I had to play shows and I had to work on that. I had this sense of urgency even as a little girl.
Was there ever any sense that you wanted to do something other than music?
There weren’t really any other options. I pushed my way into their band! Both my parents are musicians they’re still touring now; we’ve always been gypsy musicians. I was homeschooled and I didn’t have all the opportunities that most people have. If I wanted something to eat I had to go play music for tips. It was definitely my whole family working together. Most kids, their parents are providing for them—we all provided for each other.
Did you struggle with people not taking you seriously because you were such a cute little blonde?
I feel like people always also made age a part of my identity and now that it’s not it’s a kind of a relief. I’m 24 and I can go out and be treated as an adult like everybody else. Those people think that I don’t take myself seriously or that I’m fake in some sort of way. I definitely have my haters. It’s like that fucking Dr. Seuss quote, which has become my mantra: “Today you are, that’s truer than true and nobody else can be youer than you.” I live for what I enjoy, who I am, and what I like to do and I share that with people. They can take that and do whatever they want with that.
Caitlin loves Dr. Seuss and Jessica Lea Mayfield. She's on Twitter — @harmonicait