Interview

Q&A: Jessica Lea Mayfield On Recovering From Trauma And Her Courageous New Album Sorry Is Gone

When Jessica Lea Mayfield moved from Ohio to Tennessee a few years ago, it was not merely a professional decision. The relocation put her at the heart of the music industry in Nashville, but more crucially it gave a new start after some incredibly traumatic events in her life. A singer with a gracefully laconic phrasing and a songwriter with a gift for eccentric turns of phrase, she has long been identified with the Buckeye State: a fixture on the Columbus scene who made her debut on Attack & Release, the 2008 album by the state’s favorite rock duo the Black Keys. Dan Auerbach even produced her first two albums, 2008’s With Blasphemy So Heartfelt and 2011’s Tell Me.

“I was born in Ohio, raised in Tennessee, but went back to Ohio in my teens,” she explains from her home in the woods outside Nashville. “I have an interesting relationship with both places for sure.” So far, rural Tennessee suits her: “When I was growing up here, I was just a teen so I was like, eh whatever. But I like it a lot more now, especially the nature aspect. I never got to explore that part of Tennessee before, but now I’ve got my favorite parks and my favorite places to see the blue herons. Birds and shit — it’s nice!”

It was in this setting that she wrote most of the songs for her fourth and best album, the intensely harrowing yet ultimately triumphant Sorry Is Gone. Mayfield hinted at the album’s subject matter back in July, when she posted a photo of herself in a hospital bed. “I’ve struggled with posting this,” she wrote, “but feel it’s necessary. Last week, I had a surgery for a broken shoulder related to a domestic violence incident. I had been suffering with this injury (and others that still require surgeries) for 3 years. This is not uncommon. I want to tell anyone who is protecting their abuser that it’s not worth it. No one who hurts you loves you. No one should EVER hurt you. Don’t believe them when they say they are sorry. It will happen again. Leave after the first time. It only gets worse. My silence helps no one except the person who did this to me.”

It was a startling admission, but also courageous, a means of presenting herself not as a victim but as the active agent in her own life. There are similar moments on Sorry Is Gone, which put you right into a place of dread and uncertainty, moments that preface an act of violence. “I tried to leave,” she drawls on “Soaked Through.” “He wouldn’t let me up.” There’s something chilling in Mayfield’s matter-of-fact delivery of that line, as though such a physical threat was nothing out of the ordinary in her marriage. She doesn’t overdramatize these moments, but rather understates them for greater effect.

Yet Sorry Is Gone is less interested in rehashing the abuse she suffered; in fact, Mayfield barely even mentions her abuser at all — perhaps for legal reasons or perhaps so she can claim her own agency and identity. These songs are more concerned with rebuilding her life and recovering her identity as someone who has survived these experiences. What does it mean to have these horrors in your past? How does it change you? Mayfield can be droll about her situation, finding some humor in her struggle. “Any tips on how to feel more human? Or how to undehumanize someone?” she sings on “Safe 2 Connect 2,” before adding, “I’m only asking for a friend.”

Perhaps fitting, Sorry Is Gone is both a recovery album and a guitar album. Mayfield has always been an underrated player, mainly because her songwriting and her singing are so distinctive. But she emerged as a bold and distinctive guitarist on 2014’s Make My Head Sing, which eschewed the country conventions she had upended on her first two albums for loud, crashing guitar licks, citing grunge in general and Dave Grohl in particular as influences. As she tells Stereogum, her guitar playing is another way of speaking, and songs like “Meadow” and “Bum Me Out” are posed as conversations between her voice and her guitar, which sounds cold or consoling depending on the lyrics and the situation.

For various personal and legal reasons Mayfield can’t talk in detail about her situation, but she is forthcoming about her struggle to reclaim her life, to work through issues in her lyrics, and to find ways to live with those songs night after night.

STEREOGUM: I wanted to start by asking about the first lines in the opener “Wish You Could See Me Now.” It’s a very powerful introduction: “If everyone would talk about it, no one would be ashamed.”

MAYFIELD: I was having a conversation with a friend of mine at Bar Luca in East Nashville, which is closed now. We were sitting there and talking about being embarrassed by all of the medications we have to take because of the things that had happened to us. I’m on a handful of medications for PTSD and anxiety. We were talking about how ridiculous it is to feel embarrassed about that, because everyone is walking around pretending they don’t have a purse full of medications and a life full of problems. But there’s a bit of a mental health stigma. If everyone would just talk about it, then they wouldn’t have to hide everything. That’s the whole theme of the album, and a lot of what I’m talking about in these songs is that if you hide these issues, then you’re not helping to resolve them.

You get to a certain age when you want to take care of yourself and you’re really trying. You don’t want to do drugs, but your doctor tells you that you should do drugs. It’s like, oh, I thought wasn’t going to do drugs, but I guess I have to in order to function. I think a lot of people are made to think that they shouldn’t take medication, but really it’s just to help you move forward and get through traumatic experiences. It’s just to get you back to being yourself.

STEREOGUM: And that seems to be the subject of Sorry Is Gone, which seems to be less about traumatic experiences and more about how you recover from them.

MAYFIELD: There’s definitely a lot about feeling like you can get back to your own body. With everything I’ve been through, it feels like I’ve been taken away from myself and away from my body. I’ve been on the outside looking in, and it’s a long way to claw yourself back to being comfortable in your own skin. Everybody experiences that in their lives in one way or another, whether something bad happens to you or you’re just going through a complete life change and figuring out who you are. You’re starting over again. Suddenly I’m a teenager again and I have a chance to start over and take care of myself. I have an older mentor now who lives inside of me telling me not to do dumb shit.

STEREOGUM: Does songwriting contribute to that process?

MAYFIELD: That’s the biggest thing because everything that gets bottled up ends up on the page. It’s right there staring you in the face, and you have to come to terms with it. The things I don’t want to sing about or talk about end up being the most important things to sing about and talk about. If something makes me feel uncomfortable, that means it’s actually really important. That means I’m in touch with myself and I’m approaching these deeper feelings and need to talk about them. And I think other people want me to talk about them. That’s the stuff people want to hear, and that’s the stuff I want to hear.

STEREOGUM: Some of these songs almost sound like notes to yourself, in particular the title track.

MAYFIELD: That song was the last one I wrote for the album, and it really helped to have most of the album written. It was good to realize that I’m coming from this place where I don’t have to apologize for making you feel uncomfortable. That’s your problem. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s just how you feel. I shouldn’t have to pretend I’m someone that I’m not. I shouldn’t have to hide these things that have happened to me or protect people who have hurt me just so someone doesn’t feel a little uncomfortable.

We need to talk about these issues so that people become immune to them in a way, so they won’t be afraid to talk about them and won’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. There’s a lot of stigma that women have to deal with. So when you go through something terrible, you end up hiding inside yourself and putting out a fake personality, a different face that isn’t really you. It ends up only hurting you and making your life less livable. You’re just pretending that everything is OK for the people in your life, so nothing really feels real.

STEREOGUM: What is it like to live with songs like these night after night? Is it difficult to revisit these events and emotions?

MAYFIELD: It really depends on how I’m feeling. I thought about that not only with the songs but what we’re doing right now. This is the third phone interview I’ve done today. Not only am I going to get up onstage everyday and sing about it, but I’m going to spend all day talking about it. Sometimes you’re in the mood to do it and sometimes you’re not. Sometimes it’s easy and other times it’s not. I have to constantly remind myself of the bigger picture and remember that this is helpful to me and helpful to other people. The music that I love to listen to is the kind of music where people aren’t afraid to talk about things that are real. But I’ve always had to deal with that because on every album I’ve done songs that are very personal. Sometimes if I’m having a bad night and then I play a show, I might walk offstage having an even worse night because I just sang about every relationship I’ve ever been in since I was 17.

I don’t want to lose that real connection, even though it might be exhausting for me sometimes. And with some songs, they start to develop different meanings for me, so that makes it easier. Sometimes, just like with everything, there are days when you’re in your own head and it’s hard to get out, but you still have to get onstage and start singing. So I get disassociated. I’ve had a really comical amount of bad things happen to me, and when I think about it, sometimes it makes me feel better and sometimes it makes me shut down completely. It’s something I have to work on to remind myself why I do it. But I really like playing these new songs live. They’re actually really fun for me to play, so that’s a big plus. If you’re singing about the bad things that have happened to you over and over again, you end up building an immunity to it.

STEREOGUM: It sounds like that living with these songs can be its own form of therapy.

MAYFIELD: Definitely. It’s like immersion therapy. You’re facing your biggest fears over and over again. It’s like, if you’re afraid to go in the water, you just have to plug your nose and jump in the pool a hundred times until you’re not afraid of it anymore.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned the songs being fun to play, and it definitely sounds like the music is very well integrated with the lyrics. I’m thinking especially of a song like “Soaked Through,” where the guitars seem to be commenting on the lyrics.

MAYFIELD: Good. I feel like when I play guitar and when I write songs, there’s a lot of melodic personality in there. The guys I worked with on this album seemed like they really got that. They all understood that I view instrumentation as another way to talk. The last album I made, I played all the guitars and it felt like it was just me speaking through the guitar.

STEREOGUM: Sorry Is Gone seems to have some of that, but it also sounds a little more like your earlier country albums.

MAYFIELD: I think that comes from where I am now. Things aren’t as dark as they were when I made that last record. I wrote a lot of these songs on acoustic guitar, which I also did on the first album. They’re a little more songwriter-y than the big heavy rock album, which was more me speaking through guitar tone and finding other creative ways to get my emotions out. One thing about John Agnello — when we first met, all we could talk about was guitar pedals and tones. So I knew once we got into the studio together that he was going to have all of these awesome ideas. He brought in a big Tupperware container full of guitar pedals and kept pulling out all these things that he knew I would love. He had all these great ideas, and there wasn’t a single one that I didn’t like. I actually wanted to not like one of his ideas, just so I could feel like I had more input. But I just loved everything. He really got my vibe.

STEREOGUM: Was there one particular guitar you were using for this album?

MAYFIELD: One of the most continuous sounds throughout the album is this Taylor baritone acoustic that I like. I also played a Fender Mustang hollowbody, but a lot of the songs were written on that baritone acoustic, which is this big, weird, low-sounding acoustic guitar. It’s a much darker-feeling acoustic, and it gives you more of a brassy and clangy and messy sound. It’s very imperfect and I love it for that. Sometimes it’s the imperfections that make things interesting. I fell in love with that baritone acoustic, and I think I tune it differently than most people. They’re usually tuned B to B, and I tune it A to A. It just makes everything rattle. It sounds like Satan’s bathroom or something, I don’t know.

STEREOGUM: Music isn’t your only outlet. You’ve described painting as a similarly creative form of therapy.

MAYFIELD: Oh, I’m an awful painter. But I like it. I’m a lot more shy about that than I am about music, that’s for sure. I’ve done some artwork for my albums and T-shirts, but I keep it on the down-low because people really read a lot more into it. Which is funny because it’s the same things I sing about. But when you attempt to create art, it’s a lot more personal because you’re painting something that you see in your head. And people are like, whoa you’re fucking crazy! And you’re like, why did I put that on a giant canvas? Every time I let people see a painting, the first thing that comes is the psychological evaluation. I know. I’m weird. I get it.

STEREOGUM: That seems like a standard applied to female artists but not necessarily to male artists. Nobody thinks Picasso is crazy for painting the “Guernica,” for instance. He’s an asshole, but nobody thinks he’s crazy.

MAYFIELD: That’s probably true. I don’t deny that I’m crazy, but I think people are a lot quicker to say that to people with vaginas. That’s the stereotype. It’s an OK thing to say, “oh, that crazy lady” or “your crazy mom” or whatever. People have that ingrained in their minds. Women are crazy. They’re emotional. They can’t keep themselves together. But if a guy is emotional, he obviously has a justifiable reason. The guy is really passionate, but the girl is really crazy. But it’s not even true.

Sorry Is Gone is out now via ATO Records. Here are her tour dates:

10/08 Charleston, WV @ Mountain Stage
10/12 Columbus, OH @ Rumba Café
10/13 Lakewood, OH @ Mahall’s 20 Lanes
10/14 Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Café
10/15 Toronto, ON @ The Rivoli
10/17 New York, NY @ Baby’s All Right
10/19 Boston, MA @ Great Scott
10/20 Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
10/21 Washington, DC @ Songbyrd
10/23 Charlottesville, VA @ The Southern
10/24 Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle Back Room
10/25 Knoxville, TN @ The Open Chord
10/26 Asheville, NC @ The Altamont
10/27 Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
10/28 Charlotte, NC @ Stage Door Theater
11/03 Nashville, TN @ The Basement East
11/08 Indianapolis, IN @ Hi-Fi
11/09 Chicago, IL @ The Empty Bottle
11/10 Milwaukee, WI @ The Back Room at Colectivo
11/11 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
11/12 Madison, WI @ The Frequency
11/14 Davenport, IA @ The Raccoon Motel
11/15 Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
11/16 Kansas City, MO @ The Riot Room
11/17 St. Louis, MO @ Off Broadway
11/18 Louisville, KY @ Zanzabar
1/18 Little Rock, AR @ Stickyz Rock‘n’Roll Chicken Shack
1/19 Dallas, TX @ Three Links
1/20 Austin, TX @ Barracuda
1/22 Santa Fe, NM @ Meow Wolf
1/23 Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
1/24 San Diego, CA @ The Casbah
1/26 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
1/27 /// Joshua Tree, CA @ Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
1/28 /// Costa Mesa, CA @ The Wayfarer
1/30 /// San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
2/01 /// Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
2/02 /// Vancouver, BC @ The Cobalt
2/03 /// Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
2/06 /// Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
2/08 /// Boulder, CO @ eTown
2/09 /// Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge
2/10 /// Wichita, KS @ Barleycorn’s