Jessica Lea Mayfield released her third album, "Make My Head Sing ...," in April, and in some ways it seems like she is an artist reborn. "This is the record I've always wanted to make," says the 24-year-old singer-songwriter, who began her career at the age of 8. "I don't think I could have made it at another time. I think I had to grow to be able to make this record. This is the record I want people to know me by."
So what is it about this record that gets Mayfield going? Part of the reason might be that she has traded in some of the folk rock and alt-country strains that marked her previous efforts — "With Blasphemy So Heartfelt" (2008) and "Tell Me" (2011) — and replaced them with a growling alternative sensibility that recalls the glory of '90s-era grunge. Think Garbage's Shirley Manson if she were even grittier and even more devil-may-care in her approach to life. But beyond this, it is because "Make My Head Sing ..." is not simply the album she has always wanted to make, it is also a record she made on her own terms.
"This is the first record I have made myself," Mayfield says. (Her first two records were both produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach.) "Just having the full rein of control was healthy, instead of working with someone else at their studio. That's like making a painting for somebody else. It's like, 'You can use my canvas, but you can only use it from 2-6 and you can use red, blue, black and green paint,' you know? I needed the opportunity to be free to say, "I'm going to paint with my fingers if I want to."
As a result of being the master of her musical destiny, she was free to let the album go wherever she wanted it to. First you have the distortion-heavy sludge metal of a track like opener
"Oblivious," with Mayfield's vocals rising over the noise like a disaffected voice of reason, and then you have the more melodic alternative track "I Wanna Love You," where she sings "I'm insane/I wanna love you" over and over in an oddly hypnotic way. Toss in some shoegaze-style guitar work on "Unknown Big Secret" and a somber electric guitar ballad ("Party Drugs"), and you get a sense of how Mayfield's creative streak was functioning during the recording process.
Having the freedom to make sure she got the album right meant that she did not have to knock it out in a matter of days or months either, which was refreshing considering that was how things went on her previous releases. She and her husband — bassist Jesse Newport — had such a good experience making the album that it was almost like the album became a member of their family.
"It took us about nine months to record the album, so Jesse and I refer to it as our record baby," Mayfield laughs, "because it is. Making this record was one of the most intimate experiences of my life and neither of us wanted to be finished with it. It was one of these things where I didn't want the process of recording it to end because it was so beautiful."
Mayfield, whose brother is David Mayfield of the David Mayfield Parade, started her career performing in her family's band, so music is in her blood. You could be forgiven for not predicting that Jessica would progress from playing bluegrass and folk songs to being a full-on alternative rock artist. Her evolution, however, has been more than artistic. These past few years have been about discovering and accepting herself, and allowing herself to be happy. Part of that happiness has come from being married.
"It's a really amazing thing when you realize you've met the person you want to spend the rest of your life with," Mayfield says. "It's the most curious thing in the world. I always wrote about relationships in a sort of 'I'm going to be single forever' sort of way. There's so much more to it now. These songs are so much more important because I'm singing about the most important things that are happening in my life. I value life more, and certain things have greater importance now than they did when I was a teen."
This perspective about life is not something Mayfield came upon easily. She notes she has spent over half her young years on the road and going through many of the ups and downs of the music life. For Mayfield, there were certainly some down times.
"I don't feel like I was completely there a lot of the time; I was just sort of floating along and didn't care if I was dead or alive," she laughs. "Most of the time I wished I was dead. I was crazy and a wild party person, but I feel like I've found my perspective. Now I know you have to work as hard as you can, but you also have to enjoy the work that you do."
"Sing ...," while not a summery pop record or anything, finds Mayfield in her element and enjoying the hell out of it. All the attitude, solos and raucous rhythms you would expect to find on a rock 'n' roll record are here for sure. But despite stepping out confidently into this new musical direction, Mayfield is not at all ashamed about her previous releases and is not trying to distance herself from them.
"I feel like people misunderstand me, like they think I don't like the last two records or something, but if anything, the only thing about the last two records is that I'm just younger," Mayfield says. "No one wants to hear their voice as a teenager, right? I do think that the last two records are great and they have this great aesthetic, but I like to push myself, and that's what I got to do with this record."
Jessica Lea Mayfield will be at the White Water Tavern 9 p.m. Thursday, June 26, with Dylan LeBlanc. Tickets are $12 and available at lastchancerecords.com.