Jessica Lea Mayfield

Jessica Lea Mayfield owns a blue tote bag. By itself, this is not unusual: you probably have a tote bag too. But it’s not a stretch to say that Mayfield’s blue tote bag is her life. It contains almost everything she’s ever written, all the way back to when she was a child. There are scraps of notebook paper, receipts, utility bills, pieces of cardboard. And she’s written on them in pens, pencils, eyeliner, and crayons, among other things. Whenever Mayfield has a thought, she writes it down and puts it in the bag. And when it comes time to write a song, she will often dump the bag all over the floor and search for an idea or a verse or a sphrase that fits the melody for the song she’s writing.

Mayfield is always writing. It’s a way to work through difficult periods in her life. And when she writes, she’ll often go back days later to see if anything might make it into a song. It’s an exacting process: three pages of writing might only produce a line or two. And I mean pages: everything is longhand for Mayfield. She doesn’t own a computer, and even if she did, she would still prefer pen and paper for her lyrics.  

My first exposure to Mayfield was 2014's "I Wanna Love You," which I loved from the moment I first heard it. (The video is at the end of this interview.) Her latest release Sorry is Gone (ATO Records) is fantastic. The creative process behind the album, which she alludes to in our interview, was cathartic for Mayfield: she wrote it towards the end of an abusive marriage. The songs reflect the dissolution of the marriage and are a window into how she coped with it. Read my interview with Mayfield after the video for "Sorry is Gone."

How much writing do you do outside of songwriting?

I write everything down. People in my life give me a hard time about it. And when I mean write, I mean write longhand. I can't put things in my phone. I need a pen and paper. I'm old fashioned. If a thought or a verse or a feeling pops into my head, I have to write it down, even if it's on a random scrap of paper. Then I throw it into a bag. And it's a really important bag because it contains all of the things I write.

If I'm having a hard time with something, writing really helps. And I come back later and read what I wrote. Then I'll write something else from that, often a song. I might get inspiration from three pages of writing about something that happened to me. A few weeks later, I'll return to it, and I might only get one line from it those three pages.

So is this journal writing?

No, it's more like random thoughts. I'm pretty scattered in every sense of the word. My life is scattered, my thoughts are scattered, and my writing is scattered. I write everywhere: on my hand, on the back of a phone bill, on the back of a gas bill, a random piece of cardboard. Then I have to make an effort to keep it all together.

When do these random thoughts happen?

All the time. It's stuff I hear, stuff I read, or just stuff I think about. I let a lot of things affect me. My life is pretty insane now. You walk into my closet, and my clothes are all over the floor. My songs are everywhere too. I've had things happen that really eat at me. They brew inside me and then overflow. When that happens, I have to steer them to wherever they will fit, and those are usually the random places like my hand or the back of a utility bill.

You're not writing these things down with a song in mind. You're writing because these ideas need to get out, almost in a therapeutic sense.

Yeah, it's almost like talking to a friend, but instead I'm talking to myself like a crazy person. Laughs. I was in a car accident recently and in the car there was my bag with all those random pieces of paper I write my ideas on: the bills, the cardboard, the pieces of paper, the notebooks. It is the most important bag of my life. It has all of my writing since forever.

My car was totaled, so my friend took me to it later so that I could see what I could salvage. And he kept pulling random scraps of paper out of the mess with these weird words and ideas scribbled on them. I mean, there was paper everywhere. He'd pull out a piece here and there and ask if I needed it, and I told him that yes, I needed it all. He'd say, "There are just three lines on this piece that don't make any sense." And I had to tell him that it would at some point.

And this is a specific bag?

Yep, it's a big blue tote bag. I don't take it everywhere, but everything ends up there. There's stuff in there from when I was a teenager. I'm really protective of it, so when people come over, I hide it. It used to stay in my car all the time, but since I don't have a car, it stays in my house. But if I had to go somewhere else and stay for a while, I would have to take it with me. It's everything I've ever written down. It's completely insane. Laughs.

I must say this makes me nervous. We have computers for this now.

See, I guess I don't trust computers. There was a time when I wrote a bunch of songs on the notepad app on my phone. Then I left it backstage at a venue in West Virginia. When I was loading out after the show, one of my band members gave me my phone. Someone had gone into the green room and smashed my phone with a rock until it was chunks of broken glass. I know who it was, and he admitted doing it. He thought it was funny to go into the green room and do it. I had almost an album's worth of material on there.

This was before we were putting stuff in the cloud, so that's how I learned to not trust technology. Besides, I don't want to put all my stuff in the cloud. What if I die and all my weird shit is in the cloud? I'm an old person when it comes to that. If I don't want someone to know what I wrote, I can just crumple it up and throw it away. I can burn it, and it's gone forever. That's not gonna happen with the cloud. And that's why it's safer in a tote bag!

photos by Ebru Yildiz

photos by Ebru Yildiz

Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?

Not at all. I'm undisciplined in every sense of the word.

And yet you write every day, even if it's just ideas on random scraps of paper. That sounds like discipline to me.

True, but I'm sure some people would say that if I were disciplined, I'd put all those ideas in my phone or on a computer, or at least in some kind of organized system.

Are you particular to a certain type of pen or pencil?

Not at all. Whatever I can find. I've written in eyeliner and even in crayon. I mean, there are things that I like, such as glitter pens. If I could spread this bag out in front of you, you would be amazed. A friend of mine always jokes that he feels like playing circus music whenever he sees me, because that's what is representative of what's going on in my head. And that's not far off.

Do you at least have an ideal writing environment?

I think best in the morning. When I wake up, pistons immediately start firing. I do really need to be alone, too It's hard to write when people are around. Being in the van is a good time because you are forced to be patient. You have to sit and think. You can't get away from whatever is going on inside if you're driving for eight hours. If I'm by myself, I'll sing something into my voice memo to get the melody, then I'll write down the lyrics later.

When you sit down to write, is there a typical beginning?

Not really. Sometimes I'll come up with a melody and the lyrics at the same time. But then I may not like the lyrics but really like the melody. When that happens, that's when I reach into my blue tote bag for lyric ideas and read though my little notes to get inspired.

I have this image of you closing your eyes and reaching into that bag to see what you pull out.

Laughs. No, it's more like dumping the whole bag out on the floor and rummaging through the scraps of paper. I'll keep on reading until I find something, even if it's just the second verse to a song. But I have to admit that the things in the bag are pretty embarrassing, and my goal is to turn them into things that aren't embarrassing.

So it's possible that any one of your songs might contain five or six scraps of paper.

Exactly. And then there are the songs that I think are done, but they get changed because I pull out a scrap when working on another song and realize that those words really go better with the finished song. It may be a verse that's been finished for five months, and I'll still change it.

Do you do a lot of editing once the lyrics are on the page?

Yes, a lot. I'll see if there is a different way to say what's on the page. That's the great thing about songwriting. When you say something to someone in person, that's your one chance. And it seems when that happens, you always go over in your mind to see if you could have said things differently. With songwriting, you can work on what you want to say to someone until you get it right.

And when I say "page," I assume you handwrite your lyrics.

Of course. I don't even own a computer. I need something tangible. I need to touch it and see it. When my record label sent me the mockups for the artwork for the new album, it was all hard copy pages of what it would look like. And there was a note inside saying, "I figured you would prefer this." That was perfect. I didn't want it on a computer. I don't want a bunch of shit on a screen. I need to be able to physically sort through it for it to make sense for me. 

Are there any rituals to your writing process?

It's more of a vibe than anything else. It has to be a calm environment. And that may mean lighting candles or incense so that I can relax. I get distracted really easily, so it's whatever keeps me calm.

Is there an ideal emotion when you are at your most productive?

When things are melancholy and I'm past the negative feeling enough to talk about it, but still not over it. So in the middle of the two emotions. I need to feel passionately about it but not so passionate that I can't think.

When writing about those things, do you need distance or are you a better writer if you write in the immediacy of the moment?

It depends. If something is really bad, I like to write my way out of it, but that doesn't always turn into something good. Those are the times when I might write pages but go back later and only use a line or two because most of it sounds like a crazy person rambling. 

How much reading do you get to do?

A lot. I've been reading a lot about women's history and feminism lately. I never really had any feminists in my life, so I had to become the only one. I didn't finish school. I don't even have my GED. I learned everything through reading. But there are still big gaps in what I don't know, which is why I read so much.

How often does something you read inspire you to write?

A lot. I'm frustrated with the way the world is right now and how women are treated. There are people all around me, including myself, going though things that are completely unfair, and then I see the same thing on the news. That inspires me a lot.