Punching a Wall

From Jessica Lea Mayfield's first utterance, it feels like talking to a fairy. Impish is the word that immediately leaps to mind. Or maybe that voice belongs to Peter Pan.

The impression is furthered by YouTube videos where Mayfield looks like an innocent waif almost too fragile to be walking the emotional high wire of performing in front of an expectant, demanding crowd.

But appearances — and voices — can be deceiving. Only 22, the diminutive Mayfield is a battle-tested veteran by any standard.

"My mom and dad were bluegrass musicians and they had their own tour bus, so I lived that scene," says the native of Kent, Ohio, who notes she was home-schooled and had no formal musical training.

"I just learned from watching other people," she laughs. "My brother or someone would show me where to put my fingers. I played a long time before I actually knew what the chords were called."

While Mayfield's childhood might have been filled with bluegrass, little in her quavering vocal delivery hints at such a musical upbringing.

"People ask me my influences and I always say Elliott Smith and Doyle Lawson," she says. "Kind of a weird combination, I know. And I'm a big fan of Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters. I used to do lots of Foo Fighters covers."

Mayfield is still a huge fan of bluegrass, but says she feels many acts in the genre seem to have lost their way.

"I saw a lot of Doyle's shows when I was in that scene," she says. "Of course I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back now I get that he is just such a real deal, a genuine badass.

"It's sad to see a lot of bluegrass acts turning themselves into something acceptable to Branson or Vegas. That's why Doyle's such a hero of mine — he keeps it real."

Mayfield discovered Elliott Smith as a teen and immersed herself in the late singer-songwriter's music. Shortly after, she began to write dark, melancholy, Smith-inspired songs about "whatever I was feeling."

"I just started writing songs about what was bothering me or what I was obsessing about, boyfriends, stuff like that," she explains. "I actually write for selfish reasons. For some people, writing a diary or punching a wall makes them feel better. I write songs because it makes me feel better."

Soon she was trying her songs out at open-mike nights in Kent, and by the tender age of 15 had recorded an EP of original songs, White Lies. While she printed only 100 copies, in a story similar to that of San Antonio rockers Hacienda, one of those copies landed in the hands of fellow Ohioan Dan Auerbach.

The Black Keys guitarist and vocalist jumped on board to produce Mayfield's first full-length, 2008's With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, which popular online magazine Blurt named its Best Album of 2008. At 19, Mayfield found herself with an exploding musical career, which included tours with The Black Keys.

"Dan has been so supportive," she says. "He likes to help people. And we've worked together so much, he can drag stuff out of me I didn't know I had."

Mayfield and her introverted songs hardly seem the stuff major record labels would covet, but Nonesuch Records released her most recent album, Tell Me (also produced by Auerbach), earlier this year. This puts her on a roster alongside major national acts like Wilco, k.d. lang, Sam Phillips and The Black Keys, and Mayfield says she couldn't be happier with the arrangement.

"Creatively, they've been totally hands-off," she says. "But they've been really great when it comes to things like sequencing the songs or picking radio singles. They've just been very smart and helpful. It's been a good match."

So it wasn't some Nonesuch marketing angle that caused Mayfield's numerous changes of hair color? Her dark, pixie-ish pageboy cut has gone from chestnut to black to a Carroll Baker-ish platinum blond on Tell Me's cover.

"No, that's all me, I'm in charge of that," she laughs. "I get bored easy. So one thing I do is change my hair color a lot.

"Sometimes when I get in from the road, my dog and cat look at me like, 'What have they done to you?' — like they don't ­really recognize me. Poor things."

While touring is the bane of many ­artists, Mayfield actually seems to enjoy ­being in a van with a bunch of guys.

"It's like being in a kennel with some other dogs," she laughs. "But this is what I've been doing almost all my life, so I've found ways to live with it."

Mayfield seems like the sensitive-artist type, and we noticed quite a bit of crowd noise on some of her videos that seemed to distract her, so we felt it was our duty to warn her about Houston's reputation for noisy, talkative, even inattentive crowds.

"I just try to ignore it if I can and concentrate on my job," she says. "But it can work two ways. I was singing the other night and suddenly I notice this crowd of 3,000 people is completely silent, and I just went into shock.

"I thought to myself, 'Wow, they're really listening!' But on the other hand, it can be like, hey, interact with me, I'm not a painting up here."

Mayfield's career got another major boost earlier this year when Spin named her one of its 11 emerging stars of 2011, describing her as a "goth-blues drama queen."

"It was fun to do the photo shoot, New York City, all that stuff," she says. "And I kept my cool until it was all over. Spin was my absolute favorite magazine when I was a kid. I got every single issue and I'd lay on my bed and read it cover to cover. I read some of those so many times I literally had the articles memorized.

"Of course I always fantasized about being in it, so it was pretty mind-blowing to open it up and there's an entire page with nothing but my face."

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William Michael Smith