Jessica Lea Mayfield doesn’t hesitate to label herself a scatterbrain, something that’s both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, multitasking comes easily, making it possible to flit from project to project. On the other, having trouble focusing means being unable to tell what you’ve got—a mess or a masterpiece—during the creative process.
When Mayfield was finished her standout fourth full-length, Sorry Is Gone, she saw connecting threads in the songs. But that wasn’t always the case when she was writing the record, which is as harrowing and unflinching as it is uplifting, empowering, and ultimately beautiful.
“I never sit down to write down anything specific,” Mayfield says, on the line from Dallas, Texas. “Because I’m a scatterbrain, things sort of happen like ‘Oh—I gotta write this down.’ There’s no real thinking about things—it’s more ‘Okay, now would be a good time to do this.’ Things are definitely not planned.”
Despite that, the 28-year-old veteran musician eventually birthed a record that’s important for reasons that transcend the music. That’s saying something, considering the collection of songs that Mayfield has come up with, country-gold dust thick in the grooves of “Meadow”, undiluted Emerald City sludge coursing through “Wish You Could See Me Now”. The dream-hazed “Sorry Is Gone” makes one wonder if she’s mildly fixated on the classic French pop of Françoise Hardy and Jane Birkin, while “Offa My Hands” suggests Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura at their most wonderfully twee.
Mayfield isn’t new to the music industry, having performed in her family’s bluegrass band as a kid. High-wattage boosters include the Black Keys; in addition to providing vocals on the duo’s Attack & Release, Mayfield collaborated with the band’s Dan Auerbach on his 2009 solo debut, Keep It Hid. Auerbach in return produced Mayfield’s first two records, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt and Tell Me.
There’s evidence on those releases to suggest that relationships have been challenging for the singer. Consider lines such as “But I have ruined everything that I’ve ever loved” and “I’ll talk to whoever I goddamn wanna” from Blasphemy, a debut she recorded as a teenager.
“That album came out 10 years ago,” Mayfield says, “so when I hear anything about it, I think of it being the work of a little girl. It’s someone who didn’t know who they were yet, who wasn’t even old enough to drink.”
Her lyrics on Sorry Is Gone continue to address themes she’s explored in the past. Except that this time lines like “He shook me and he cried and he said ‘please stay’/So I stayed a little longer,” from the punishingly heavy “Soaked Through”, are very much tied in to real events.
In July 2017 Mayfield took to Instagram with a message she admits she struggled with, reading in part “Last week, I had a surgery for a broken shoulder related to a domestic violence incident. I had been suffering with this injury (and others that still require surgeries) for 3 years. This is not uncommon. I want to tell anyone who is protecting their abuser that it’s not worth it.”
One might understandably posit that the back story of Sorry Is Gone overshadows one of 2017’s great artistic triumphs. The singer—who is now separated from her husband—doesn’t sound concerned about that in the slightest.
“I wrote the songs that I needed to at the time,” Mayfield says. “It was nerve-racking. I had a lot of deliberation about whether I wanted to come out and be this person. Once you talk about this stuff, everyone knows your business. The question was ‘Do I want everyone to know this?’ The answer was no. But the reason I do is because of the bigger picture. It’s a positive thing to talk about, even if it is difficult and scary.”
Jessica Lea Mayfield plays the Cobalt next Friday (February 2).