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Jessica Lea Mayfield: Playing Her Way

The singer/songwriter grows up in public

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Jessica Lea Mayfield designed the cover of her new album, Make My Head Sing, herself. It features a red-drenched, childlike drawing of a girl, her mouth covered by someone's hand as disembodied eyes look on. She found inspiration for this unsettling image all too easily.

"The album cover's sort of representative of being quieted," she said. "And I did feel a lot of that as I was making this record. I felt like there were people that were involved in the business aspect that weren't involved creatively. They'd go, 'We need to hear a track or two.' And then it's like, 'Oh, you can't say that.'"

But the Kent, Ohio-based songwriter forged ahead, making "the record that I always wanted to make." Co-produced by Mayfield and her husband, musician Jesse Newport, Make moves away from the plaintive folk-country and electro-pop of her earlier work in favor of raw, brooding grunge rock. Mayfield will bring the latest incarnation of her music to Boise on Saturday, June 14, when she'll play Neurolux with alt-country songwriter Israel Nash and local roots act Cassie Lewis and the Foxxtones.

For Make's heavy, stripped-down sound, Mayfield drew on her longtime love of '90s alt-rock groups like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. This was the music, she said, that made her want to become a musician in the first place.

"A lot of times after everybody would go to bed, I would sneak up and I'd go and I'd turn the TV on," she remembered. "And I'd turn it on real quiet, and I'd watch all the videos that maybe a 7-year-old or an 8-year-old shouldn't be watching."

Switching off the TV and sneaking back to bed, she told herself, "I'm going to play music my whole life. I'm going to do this; that's what I want to do."

Mayfield has a good start on achieving that goal: Now 24, she has already performed professionally for more than half her life. She began singing in her family's bluegrass band, One Way Rider, when she was 8. A copy of her solo EP, White Lies--recorded in her brother's bedroom when she was 15--found its way to The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who would produce Mayfield's full-length albums With Blasphemy So Heartfelt (2008) and Tell Me (2011). Mayfield received good press with both releases and went on to tour with The Black Keys, The Avett Brothers, Band of Horses and other prominent acts.

She's grateful for the musical career she's had up to this point--but won't stay stuck in the past.

"With my first record [Blasphemy], it came out when I was 18," she said. "And the songs on it, I wrote when I was 16, 17. And if people want that, I'm like, 'Well, if you want more of this subject matter, then you're gonna have to go watch a teenage girl perform.'"

Make's lyrics establish how much Mayfield has matured. The album's single, "I Wanna Love You," is written from the point of view of her real-life stalker. "Party Drugs" recalls a period when she and Newport indulged a bit too much in the titular substances. Meanwhile, songs like "Do I Have the Time" describe the ways in which the couple has worked to understand and meet each other's emotional needs during the past three years of marriage.

Since its release in April, Make has met with a mixed response. Pitchfork staff writer Stephen M. Deusner gave the album a 6.9 rating, a steep drop from his 8.2 for Blasphemy and his 7.7 for Tell Me. American Songwriter's Steven Rosen appreciated the power of Mayfield's new sound but found that her voice "sometimes gets swamped by the loudness."

On the other hand, NPR's Ken Tucker relished Make's balance of gentle vocals, jolting guitar and dark subject matter, concluding, "The tension in all these contradictions is what gives Jessica Lea Mayfield's music its blunt power, and its subtlety."

According to Mayfield, she has received positive feedback from her most dedicated listeners.

"I feel like fans of my music--true, true fans of my music, not somebody who has two or three songs in an iPod but people that have followed me and loved both of the last records--they are really excited about this record," she said. "I have so many people tell me they saw it coming. They were like, 'I knew the next record was going to be heavier.'"

Mayfield didn't talk much about future plans for her music; she has some ideas, she said, but nothing that's sufficiently developed. One thing's for sure: whatever she does next, she'll do it her way.

"I just let myself say, 'You know, I can play this [guitar] however I want to. I don't have to play it the way that everyone else plays it. And as a matter of fact, I don't want to,'" she said.