"This is a cruel joke" she says staring at the tour van bench seat in the green room. "She" is Jessica Lea Mayfield, lead and namesake of the trio that just performed; frailly thin, soft-spoken, black roots showing under now-blonde hair at her crown. She takes a seat on the bench anyway. It's after midnight. We're here to talk about her tour, her music, her album. Her dog. Whatever. But first we talk about glitter.
I've always liked glitter, ever since I was a kid. It's beautiful. And in the winter-time, in Ohio especially, I love it when the snow looks like glitter, when it's got the moon or the sun on it. I can't help it.
She shuffles her glittering golden boots, looking down with glitter-ringed eyes. On stage she plays guitars that glitter: a pink 12-string and black baritone. The only time she doesn't, is when she lifts a big white hollow-body to play old songs. Ones written before Make My Head Sing.... Before The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach produced her albums Tell Me and With Blasphemy So Heartfelt. Really, before she started to discover who she was.
That is what can be heard on Make My Head Sing.... The sound of a young artist making the first bold split in the back of her image, beginning to wriggle free from the confining past and grow.
Around the time that the tour cycle for Tell Me was ending...I was just starting to get to that point where I needed to figure myself out. I've been travelling my whole life, and I'm 24 years old right now, and I feel like I've just started to get a grasp on what I like and who I am. And not giving a s -- is something that comes with getting a little bit older. You know, what I enjoy doesn't hinge on what other people think.
As a result, she approached this record differently: bought the black baritone, wrote the guitar parts before the words, lost the outside influences and found out what she really wanted to sound like. After 9 months of writing and recording, what came out is far different and far more real than anything she's released before.
Make My Head Sing... opens with a grinding, squeaking grunge riff that leads a ketamine drumbeat by the nose, and from there dives only deeper into the world of distorted chorus and stripped-down songwriting. The 10 tracks are muddy, shimmering, odes laden with unrest, delivered by the one part of Mayfield's music that hasn't changed: her voice. Light as ever, she calmly spills dissociated thoughts darkly into the microphone, singing of sorrow, overdose and dissatisfaction, as sweet as a sip of antifreeze.
Let her outta her cage
She's been dead in there long enough
The smell is filling the air
Of ya'lls decomposing love
If you think you'll miss me
Then resuscitate me
My mouth is turning blue
It tastes like blood and barbecue
- "Do I have the Time"
Replacing the more rigid song structures of past albums, Make My Head Sing... is loosely bound together, written in a style that sounds simple but has the intelligent turns to prove its un-gilded gist purposeful. (You hate my child-like qualities / I hate the meanie in you). There are occasional touches of lightness, like the repetitive "Standing in the Sun," where the the title-refrain splits up a message of hope and support for someone (I would like to see you live....Not survive but really live).
That someone could very well be her husband and bandmate, Jesse Newport, whom Mayfield met, toured with, and married all within 10 months of releasing Tell Me. Listeners who are tempted to trace the blacker sound to some negativity involving him would be sorely mistaken: Mayfield credits their meeting for a vital, brighter shift in both of their lives. One that got each off of drugs and both out of fatalistic futures.
It's like the switch kind of flipped and we wanted to take care of each other and be alive, and I don't think either of us really gave a s--- about being alive before we met each other. And one of us probably would be dead had we not found each other.
On a smaller scale, had they not found each other this album wouldn't have existed either. Mayfield and Newport produced and recorded it together in Nashville, though she did the writing herself: composing the songs at the home they share, the lyrics never being revealed until the day he sat down to track them.
When he would hear me working on the songs at the house he would never hear the lyrics. And then when we got in the studio we would do guitar and bass and drums and then the first time he would hear the lyrics is when I would go in and sing the vocals...There would definitely be some interesting times where he would hear me...express these feelings for the first time.
In some sense, Mayfield taking more control of the process is what leads to the best feature of this album: that without Auerbach's production touches, without any other voices singing, she is the centerpiece more clearly than ever. And with that, Make My Head Sing... achieves a level of intimacy and immediacy not often heard.
On-stage that night, Mayfield stood and sang unforgivingly, making endless eye contact with the crowd. She stepped gently side-to-side with the music, barely swinging her dress, head held steady like a serpent. Behind and to her right stood Newport, seemingly determined to avoid the spotlight. Head always down. Silently holding cables when needed. Darkly bringing bass to Mayfield's music, but beaming brightly in the songs.
Heels over head I'm fallin' hard
I'm sa sa sa sa seein' starz
When it's just us two in the dark
You've got a strangle hold
On my heart
Follow Paul R. Byrne on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Sound_Sponge