Jessica Lea Mayfield's "For Today" begins with a wistful remembrance that hints at what might have been. Far from a melancholy love song, though, it's a kiss-off. There's a dark mournful lope to the music and a vaguely ramshackle tone that persists despite the rich orchestration. A tinkling xylophone, Mayfield's heavily reverbed vocals, and the peals of bluesy guitar and organ (courtesy of producer and Black Key Dan Auerbach) echoing in the distance all contribute to the haunted overtone. As the memory ends, Mayfield tosses dirt on the relational grave as the music swells around her: "While these words may sound so sweet, I could care less about you."
We caught up with the teenager Mayfield at her home in Newton Falls, Ohio, a week before she leaves on tour.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Was there a particular inspiration for "For Today"? Is it autobiographical?
MAYFIELD: Yes. All my songs are. It's pretty self-explanatory as well. It's just about some dude I knew.
It begins with a sweet moment that would fit in a love song, but that's not what this is.
No. I wrote it all at once. Exactly how I was feeling. I didn't really know this guy that well. I had known him when I was younger, and then we kind of just caught up. It was just really funny because we had this little moment that just happened, and it didn't really mean anything. Just like, the whole point of the song is that I was thinking the whole being single, things were just easier that way. I had no interest in being his girlfriend at all.
You have a line in the middle, "Here I am crystal clean." Was there a sense of disappointment in the idea that things fade so quickly into the past?
I think that it's more about how I get into the worst situations, but my hands are clean. It's more about how I am not doing anything wrong. I'm one of those people that always seems to find a way—no matter how good a person I am—to be doing something wrong. I've got a secret from somebody, I'm doing something wrong. Always. And I'm not.
It just has such a wistful tone. I thought the idea of getting away clean, no matter how strong that feeling was at that particular moment or how crazy the situation, it retreats eventually.
I'd say my songs generally aren't that deep. [Laughs.] It's more straight-up how I feel.
How did the song's music develop? Was there always a cello in the plan?
No, that's Joe Kwon. He plays with The Avett Brothers. We were on tour with them, and I was like, "Hey, Joe, we've got a computer, you should lay some cello down." He was like, "That'd be awesome." But I wrote the song when I was 15, and recorded it on my first album [2005's White Lies]. When I met Dan [Auerbach]. we decided to record it again. And I recorded it with just me on guitar, and then he added all his musical ideas and then I had my friend put cello on it. There wasn't an elaborate plan. It was more collaborative on the music part with me and Dan.
How was it working with Dan?
I met him when I was 16, and he got a copy of White Lies through his dad who got it through my friend who at the time, was my boyfriend and my guitar teacher. He had sent me a MySpace message saying we should hang out and play some music, so we just started. I didn't know who he was or anything. A lot of people talk to me about it like, "It must've been so cool because his band's all famous and stuff," but like, I don't look at him like that. It's like, "Hey, this is some dude that I met and play music with." He's just one of my friends now. So I don't know how to answer that question. It woulda been cool if it was some big deal to me, but it was like I started hearing more and more about him because I knew who they were. A lot of people I knew liked him. But he's a really talented guy, so it's great working with him in that aspect.
Did you learn much about recording from him?
No. I think Dan's the kind of guy where's he's always still learning about recording. [Laughs.] He's always got new stuff, and he's trying to figure out how to use it. With me, especially when we first met, I think he was just trying to get into recording. He didn't even have a studio in his house when we first met.
So you were a bit of guinea pig?
Yeah, I think so. That was my impression. [Laughs.]
So you've been playing music for a long time with the family? What were some of your inspirations?
I started playing with my family. My family had a band, still do. I'm actually playing with them this weekend in Cleveland.
What do you play?
I play guitar and sing. I started singing with them when I was 8 years old, and then I started playing guitar with them when I was 11. I just grew up in a musical family, and always had different personal inspirations, aside from my family, really different. My favorite band was the Foo Fighters, still are, and jus that kind of stuff. Rock. I was always inspired by the time I was old enough to think and have rational thoughts. From the first moment, when somebody said, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" "I wanna play music." [Laughs.]
So what's with the change in names, as White Lies came out initially under the name Chitlin'?
That was a nickname. You know how nicknames happen and kind of just stick to you? I decided for With Blasphemy, Me and Dan talked about it, I would be a little more accessible without a nickname. A lot of people see nicknames and mark it off in their own kinda way. You gotta get to know people before you understand why they have a nickname. I get asked a lot less about it, which is good. If I still had a nickname, every interview would begin, "So, how'd you get your nickname? [Sighs.]
Tell me about "I'll Never Be Free" the phrase painted on your car's hood?
I have a lot of things going on, especially with my career. The more you get into it, and the more you start like getting into things for real and things get more and more professional, you have less control. It kind of puts you through bouts of insanity, and I feel like as I progress in the direction I want to progress, I'm going to lose more and more freedom, and there will be more and more people making decisions for me. More and more people handling every different aspect. It's definitely hard giving up that control but it's necessary to get if you really want to get anywhere. Because I could just stay in Kent and play some weekly gig, like everybody else and sit there and wonder, "Why isn't anything happening?" But instead I'm out working and touring. I'm busy with super-long tours and working and putting myself in this routine. I'm never going to have freedom from that. And sometimes that's good. It's a sacrifice you have to make. But sometimes you go insane.
So you grew up as something of a rebellious young woman?
Yeah, I'm definitely rebellious in a lot of aspects. I have something of a punk mentality when it comes to what I'm thinking and when I talk to people. When somebody says something to me, I'm the type of person that will just come out, "Well, fuck you. Fuck off dude." I just come right out and say what I'm thinking a lot of times and it usually works to my advantage. Sometimes I offend people, but usually they're like, "She's speaking her mind, cool."
How much has your parents' roots music inspired you?
My music has tons of bluegrass influences and undertones. For one, it's sad, and 90% of all bluegrass songs are sad. They might be upbeat, but somebody's being drowned, or somebody's killing themselves over someone else, or they're getting stabbed.
Could you imagine doing something else—happy songs, perhaps?
No happy songs. Lately, I've been writing angry songs and writing a lot of shocking songs. I've been changing it up, but I'm really not that happy of a person. I'm not really going to write that happy a song. I only think about things that I feel personally or hear about. If it's something that really grabs me and gets me, it's going to be sadness, anger, or a one-night stand that I had. Because if I'm happy, I'm going to be out being happy. I've never been so happy that I sat down and wrote a song: "Things are beautiful, I'm happy." I hear that shit, and I'm like, "Really? You're trying to base a musical career out of singing about trees and how pretty it is outside and being happy." I think that's a little ridiculous.
But some people just have that mentality. They're born happy, and they'll be happy no matter what goes on in their life, but I'm the opposite. I'm the kind of person that looks at everything in the sad point of view, or looks at everything like, and sees what could go wrong. I just had a relationship, and it's like I'm a little bit happy. "Oh cool, I met this guy," but I'm like, "This is going to happen, and then that's going to happen, then I start writing songs before we break up about us breaking up."
That's a bit cynical for such a young woman, Jessica.
I'm very cynical. My brother talks about what I'm going to be like when I'm older: "You're already five times more cynical than George Carlin." [Laughs.] That's a good way to put it. I definitely share a lot of ideas with him. I've read his books and stuff. That's the kind of person I am.
Jessica Lea Mayfield plays Cat's Cradle with Annuals and What Laura Says Saturday, Jan. 31, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12.