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Jessica Lea Mayfield Chronicles the 'Hell' of an Abusive Relationship on Her Explicitly Personal 'Sorry Is Gone'
Jessica Lea Mayfield
For the latest music-world proof that, clichéd though it may be, the expression 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' exists for a reason, look no further than Jessica Lea Mayfield, the alt country-rock artist from Ohio and Tennessee, whose terrific, unsettling and extraordinarily personal fourth album Sorry Is Gone is out now. When we jump on the phone to talk about it, she’s just gotten out of a doctor’s appointment to address injuries sustained in a serious car crash several weeks ago. “Someone rear ended me going about 60 miles an hour,” she explains. “They had been drinking and fell asleep at the wheel. My neck is really messed up, mainly. I just got banged up really, really bad.” Mayfield also recently lost one of her best friends from childhood -- and this is all on top of still dealing with the trauma of longtime domestic violence at the hands of her estranged husband, a harrowing chapter of her life that she’s exorcised in stark detail on Sorry Is Gone.
Musically, it’s Mayfield’s most varied record to date: there’s rootsy fare (her default mode, having grown up in a family bluegrass band), '90s alt-rock vibes, and a moving acoustic centerpiece, “Safe 2 Connect 2.” The album was produced by John Agnello, whose CV -- Sonic Youth, Phosphorescent, Kurt Vile, Waxahatchee and Dinosaur Jr. -- strides indie rock and heartland sounds. Agnello brought in players including Cameron Deyell, Emil Amos, and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums, and on keys and vocals is The Avett Brothers’ Seth Avett, with whom Mayfield released a record of Elliott Smith covers in 2015.
But it’s the lyrical content of Sorry Is Gone that’s gotten the most pre-release attention, understandably so. Track after track, Mayfield’s record serves as an account, sometimes told in excruciatingly graphic images, of her abusive marriage.
There’s a shotgun, hidden under the futon, in “Maybe Whatever.” An abuser who won’t let his victim leave in “Soaked Through,” pleading, “I’m not gonna hurt you anymore, I promise / I know I’ve said it before.” “Get out of my house” is the refrain of “WTF”; “Have you been buried alive?” she asks in “World Won’t Stop;” and “been through hell” she declares in “Safe 2 Connect 2,” asking, “Any tips on how to feel more human?” In July, Mayfield revealed on Instagram that she was undergoing shoulder surgery due to a domestic abuse incident. She says it took her visits to multiple doctors before she was taken seriously.
So yes, Jessica Lea Mayfield has been through it. But what’s emerged from the “hell” of that relationship, she says, is in fact a woman more confident and self-assured than ever -- therapy, domestic violence support groups and the cathartic new record have all contributed to a new sense of empowerment. “Oddly enough, with all of these things going on, this has still been emotionally one of the better times in my life,” she says. “Because I’m safe and I’m free and regardless of all of these obstacles I have to go through. I know I’m taking the steps to claw my way out.”
Despite the subject matter, the album is hardly a downer. Unlike its predecessor, her 2014 dark and grunge-y Make My Head Sing, recorded while in the throes of her domestic abuse, Sorry Is Gone has emboldened moments -- “Offa My Hands,” “World Won’t Stop,” a title track in which Mayfield declares herself done with apologies, and “Wish You Could See Me Now,” a fiery opener that could easily pass for a Garbage or Babes In Toyland track circa 1994. On “Bum Me Out,” another of the record’s rockers, she sings, “I’m not gonna let it bum me out too hard.” She’s been tested, and continues to be, but she’s also determined.
How are you doing after this accident? Were you alone in the car?
Yeah. They said if there had been anyone else in the car, in the back seat or anything, they’d be dead. Because my trunk became my back seat. This happened on September 6th, and I’m still trying to track down what is wrong exactly. I’m just in pain.
I’m sorry to hear that. It’s just one drama after another for you, it seems like.
Mm hmm. You don’t even know. There’s more.
Your tour is starting soon. Is everything going well with practice for that?
Yeah, but I’ve had a lot going on, and on top of that I’ve had to move three times in the past six months. I’m in a place now where I can stay for a year. So that’s good. I had to leave my home, I had a mortgage on a home…
The mountain one [in Tennessee]?
Yeah, the one on the mountain. But my husband is there and I had to leave and so he’s kind of camping out there until he’s forcibly removed. But all my furniture is there. It’s like I’m an 18-year old and I have to get silverware and spatulas and things like that -- realizing you’re almost 30 and to have to go back to having no place or even silverware has been stressful. On top of the new album coming out and the car accident, and one of my childhood best friends died last month. So I’m kind of in this feeling of I’m being buried. But it’s just a lot to persevere. It’s like every time I start to get my head above the water, it feels like I’m getting pushed back down. But oddly enough, with all of these things going on, this has still been emotionally one of the better times in my life because I’m safe and I’m free and regardless of all of these obstacles I have to go through, I know I’m taking the steps to claw my way out.
Well congratulations on all the great word of mouth about Sorry Is Gone. Do you think people are responding to the music, which in some ways is unlike what you’ve done before, or these brutally honest lyrics and the backstory of abuse behind them?
I think both. I’ve definitely had people talk just strictly about the record, and what they like about it, and I had a really great band for it, and the songs are really open and vulnerable, but while they might have a darker edge, they also have almost more of an airiness to them, and a lighter feeling. So I think that is a lot different from the last record. And also my reason for being open about the domestic violence is really just trying to advocate. And I think that’s been good. I’ve gotten a lot of internet comments and personal messages from people talking about how much it’s helped them that I am able to open up and talk about it. And that’s really all I want is -- when something this horrible is happening to you, you think that nothing good can ever come out of it. And the only good that can come out of it is for me to help. And I don’t want to be just another person that stays quiet and lets it happen. So for me, I just have this intense urge to talk about it in a helpful way.