The overdriven guitar riff that opens "Oblivious," the first track on Jessica Lea Mayfield's new album, Make My Head Sing, sends out a loud and distorted message. The 24-year-old songwriter has taken her sound into her own hands.
Both her previous albums, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt (2008) and Tell Me (2001), were produced by Black Key Dan Auerbach. They marked Mayfield - who began playing with her family's country band when she was 8 and was writing songs at 11 - as a writer of precise, haunting, slightly rootsy songs that tastemakers tended to categorize as Americana.
"By the time I had finished Tell Me and toured it, I felt like I had been giving myself less and less to do," says the singer, speaking from her home in Kent, Ohio, where she lives with her bass-playing husband, Jesse Newport, with whom she produced Make My Head Sing. Together with drummer Matt Martin, the power trio will play Johnny Brenda's on Tuesday.
"I'd be on stage and everyone would be playing and I'd just be floating over the top," Mayfield remembers. "I realized I had no control over the direction things were going. I was just getting really bored and wanted to make it more fun for me, to make it more like the kind of music that I listen to."
That kind of music would mainly be '90s alt-rock acts: "I've always been real big into Stone Temple Pilots. I love Nirvana." (She covered "Lounge Act" on a 2011 Spin magazine compilation). "And Elliot Smith has always been a really big influence."
She originally started writing songs "as a way to deal with negative feelings, preteen feelings of embarrassment. That was my diary."
She tries to stick to that strategy today. "For me, the key to my life is just making the 11-year-old inside of me happy," says Mayfield, who is pictured on the Make My Head Sing album sleeve sitting on bright-red plastic couch with a giant stuffed dog.
"The time that I've felt that I've not pursued my dreams are when I've not been satisfying my inner child," Mayfield says. "I've got to take the feeling and approaches that I took as a kid. And, honestly, at that age, you're smart enough to know what's going on and be perceptive, but your opinions aren't as diluted and influenced by others yet. I've got to make myself happy and not worry about everyone else."
On Make My Head Sing, Mayfield made herself happy by plugging in her guitar on songs like "I Wanna Love You" and "Pure Stuff" that are simplified even by her exacting standards.
"My husband calls this my guitar record," she says. "I found a different way to express myself. I can talk with it, as well. I used to write lyrics first, and then I would write the music after it. Now I write the guitar parts first, and the sounds I come up with inspire me.
"I've never been a really wordy person," Mayfield says, "but these are some of my favorite songs that I've written, and they're the most fun to play and sing. You never want to paint the whole thing in. You want people to color in the rest of the picture on their own."