Jessica Lea Mayfield on the road with sad songs

Dan Kane

Just 20 years old, singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield already has done four European concert tours and two more in the United Kingdom.

“I tour a lot,” she said the other afternoon, riding between gigs in St. Louis and Newport, Ky., in the back of a van that her guitarist was driving.

“As far as being well known, it depends on where I am,” she said. “My shows are super-packed, sold-out in some places. Others, hardly anyone shows up.”

Mayfield recently finished recording her second full-length album, to be released later this year. Like its predecessor, “With Blasphemy So Heartfelt” (2008), the album was produced by Dan Auerbach, vocalist and guitarist for the Black Keys.

Mayfield’s music straddles the line between country and folk-rock. Her songs tend to be somber, sad and haunting, but also melodic and resonant in their simplicity and directness.

My favorite lyric of hers remains “White Lies,” written and recorded when she was 15: “I’m not perfect and I don’t want to be but it seems like everybody has an opinion of me.”

Q. I’ve read that you grew up in a musical family.

A. I started touring when I was 8; my parents were in bluegrass, newgrass and gospel quartets. I never really had stage fright as a kid, I just wanted to get onstage. I would always go to shows to watch my parents play and I’d get up there and do whatever. I never cared about being prepared or whether people would like me. Even now, I’m more uncomfortable in social situations than I am onstage.

Q. When did you start writing songs?

A. I started when I was 11 and I was pretty prolific from 12 to 15, when I recorded my first album (”White Lies EP”).

Q. How did you meet up with Dan Auerbach?

A. He had gotten a copy of “White Lies” from his dad and he sent me a MySpace message that said, “I really like what you’re doing.” From that point, he seemed really interested and there was a desire to collaborate.

Q. You are opening for the Black Keys in Cleveland in July. Have you played with them previously?

A. I’ve done one American tour and one U.K. tour with them, and I toured with Dan Auerbach solo.

Q. The Black Keys’ music is so full-tilt and yours is so low-key. How do you go over with their crowd?

A. Some shows go well and some don’t. I tell Dan he seems to have a frat following. Everybody’s so rowdy and rocking out.

Q. Tell me about your new album that Dan produced.

A. It took us six days. The band and I went to Dan’s house and knocked ’em out, one after the other. Stylistically, it’s in the same vein as the last one, but it’s different. It sounds like my live show, with something I can’t even explain. A direction I’m more excited about.

Q. Tell me about the music you listen to.

A. A lot of bluegrass, especially growing up. My favorite band is Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. My favorite all-time band is Foo Fighters. Elliott Smith. Hank Williams is a big inspiration. Those are the core ones for me.

Q. Your music is often very sad. What can you tell me about that?

A. The old country music and bluegrass music is really dark and depressing. Even a lot of the songs that might seem upbeat really aren’t. So that’s part of it, but it kind of started as a way for me to get rid of sadness. A form of self-therapy I guess.

Q. For not even being 21 yet, you’ve come a long way. You must be pretty excited about everything.

A. I’ve never had a real job. Never not been on tour, really. I’ve had songs in TV shows. That’s how I make a living and I own a home because of it. I never wanted to do anything else.

The Repository