Jessica Lea Mayfield has been enduring hard times on the road from the age of eight, when she lived out of a tour bus helping her parents busk bluegrass for a living. Even as a teen--when she found success as a solo artist opening for The Avett Brothers, The Black Keys, and Cake--hardship followed her in the forms of domestic violence, depression and suicidal thoughts. She survived, in part by capturing those demons in dark, glamorous music filled with fuzzed-out guitars and sinister-sweet vocals. Kyle Kapper checked in with Ms. Mayfield, who talked about the need to speak out against domestic violence, Hank Williams' influence on her songwriting, and how she knows what you say about her.
KK: You earned your stripes as a punky rebel, but now you have your own fan base and play venues like the Roxy and Bonnaroo. In the immortal words of Neil Young, "Is it the same when so many love you?"
JLM: It's easier for me to play at shows when there's an audience full of people that like me. It's a lot harder when I have to win over a room full of drunk assholes, and I get that a lot. When I walk into a room, I get misread by people immediately. They harass me or heckle me or screw with me. I think a lot of my hard-ass stage exterior came with being a little bit shy and angry and just wanting to do my thing without there being presumptions about who I am based on what I look like.
KK: Is that why you seem to play with audiences like a cat playing with a mouse?
JLM: Definitely. It's easy for me to read the vibe of a room. I think that's part of why I'm a writer. It's funny. People think you can't hear them, so one of my favorite things to do is when someone thinks I can't hear them talking to someone about me, I'll repeat what they said over the microphone: "Do you see her shoes?...She's got interesting eye makeup." I used to be more naïve of how much people were mocking me and now that I'm older, I see it and I hear it.
KK: You must enjoy some aspect of performing to have stayed at it for so long.
JLM: I've been touring since I was eight years old, and my solo career started when I was 15, so most of my career took place during my childhood. I'm not even qualified to do anything else. I was partially home-schooled, half street-schooled. People will come up and ask, "What's your major?" I don't know. Knife-throwing? Self-defense in an alley?
KK: Your music does tend to have a knife-throwing quality to it, but you did sneak an upbeat song, "Standing in the Sun," onto your latest solo album [Make My Head Sing].
JLM: It's interesting that you point out that song. It's actually written from the perspective of a friend of mine, so I wrote it as if this friend was talking to me. It comes across as someone else telling me to get out of the house: Don't be a vampire. Take care of yourself. Don't be depressed. So it's a light-hearted song about a friend who doesn't want me to kill myself.
KK: Your visual art appears to exude similar themes, especially the "Bruise Selfie" and "Brain Xplosion" paintings you have available on your website.
JLM: The two paintings you're referencing are domestic violence-related paintings. It's that thing of when people hurt women, it has to be kept a secret for some reason because it makes everyone uncomfortable. It makes me want to make these violent portrayals because it's so common -- so super-common -- but it's still something that everyone ignores. It's therapy for me. I want to make something pretty and bright and fun, but I'm sitting there with glitter-blood. It makes it more noticeable, makes something glamorous for people who try to pretend it doesn't even exist.
KK: I'm sorry you've been through those types of experiences but admire you for speaking out.
JLM: Thanks. It's been hard for me to talk about it. It's a really vulnerable thing, but it's important for me to talk about these things now. I'm almost 30 and I've had an entire life around horrible and great people, but I've experienced a lot of bullshit. I feel like I'm finally at a place where I can say, Hey, that isn't normal -- that wasn't cool. And now I get to have this normal happy, healthy life. My husband and I moved into the middle of the woods, like on a mountain in the woods, and it's been nice to kind of have my own nature, my own spot where I can do what I want.
KK: Has your newfound peace inspired any new music?
JLM: I've got all the songs written for the next album. I'm still working on when and where I'm going to record it, but I'm playing quite a few unreleased songs live on this upcoming run. I've been writing a lot of folk-inspired songs, structurally, but they've been coming across still heavier. I'm a huge Hank Williams fan. I think however much I don't realize it -- especially when I don't realize it -- I'm being inspired by him, the way that I put a song together, the form of it. I'll have some weird folk song structure where it's 30 verses and no chorus, but then it sounds really heavy.
KK: A big part of the folk tradition is reflecting on hard lessons learned. If you could give any advice to your younger self, what might you say?
JLM: Don't expect other people to do things for you. I'd tell her that especially when you're young, you trust people to help you with things. I was even thinking about this today: don't let other people's advice confuse you. Listen to the voice within. Tell everyone else to go screw themselves and stick to who you are and what you want to do.
The 90° heat Saturday evening at the edge of Soulard was not optimal for dancing. At the stage outside the Old Rock House, one lone soul bobbed, weaved, twisted and dipped.
A gentleman standing next to me leaned over and said, "Man, that guy in the black sports jacket must really be hot."
The comment marked the observer as an out-of-towner. The dancer in the dark suit was Beatle Bob. I suppose his presence qualified the event as a happening, even without Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk for the first time in the three-year history of Summer Gras.
This year's Summer Gras had its usual New Orleans flavor (including boiled crawfish and hurricanes), but it leaned heavily on local artists. The Provels started things off while the sun was still beating down. They played the outdoor stage where the pavement was hot enough to melt cheese.
After the Provels finished their set, things moved indoors for a bit and the crunch-funk specialists Hazard To Ya Booty took the stage. Frontman Ryan Stewart handily led the group through a number of soul, funk and R&B classics like the Average White Band's "Pick Up The Pieces."
Inside the Old Rock House for Hazard To Ya Booty, far more audience members danced. I saw old hippies, Millennial South City hipsters, and Beatle Bob, who stuck around for the entire set before venturing out into the night.
Photos by Bill Motchan
M. Ward is considered by some to be one of the icons of the Portland music scene. As one-half of She & Him (alongside actress Zooey Deschanel) -- along with his side work in Monsters of Folk with Conor Oberst and Jim James -- he is known for a diverse catalog of inspired folk and indie pop songs that breathe new life into the genre. And now he's back on the touring schedule, performing this Saturday night, June 11, at The Duck Room with opener Big Thief. Ward's latest album, More Rain, is his best since A Wasteland Companion and takes the listener on a musical trek across his vast landscape of influences. We caught up with Ward, who chatted about his various approaches to songwriting, growing old with Louis Armstrong and finally playing on the same stage as Chuck Berry.
KK: Loving the new album -- where did the title come from?
MW: The title has a few different meanings but one of them I've been talking about lately is a bit of an inside joke for people who tend to think my music is really depressing.
KK: And you disagree with that?
MW: I've never really found my music to be depressing. I think that this album has a pretty good balance of shadows and light. And for me, if songs lean one way too much, on one side or the other, they don't normally have any effect on me. If the song is completely devoid of hope and light then it can be too dark and too depressing, but on the flip side if the song is too bright and doesn't recognize the full range of emotions that everyone has then it can come off as pathetic or false. The trick is to find that balance no matter what you're doing, whether you're writing songs or books or making movies or writing articles for a newspaper.
KK: Let's talk about that range for a second. I tend to think of you as a jazz guy who masquerades as a singer-songwriter.
MW: I take that as a compliment. I have difficulty having perspective on the music that I make, to be honest. I'm inspired by a lot of different things and I'm very happy to do them. To put it in a context that works for them, I'm completely open to what anyone has to say about the music that I make. And I'd probably agree with some of it.
KK: Why do you think you have trouble having perspective on your own music?
MW: I'm so inside of it. I can't listen to it objectively. The records that I have in my collection -- jazz, punk, R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll or pop music -- they all sort of blend into this one river of music. As simplistic as that sounds, I'm only listening to music that I think is either good or interesting -- a lot of it goes by the wayside but I get my inspiration from this enormous catalog of music that's always changing and it just never ends
KK: Listening to you records, you definitely get a sense of catalog. On the new record, you can hear country, folk, rock, pop influences -- there's a song with a Spanish-style trumpet solo that just comes out of nowhere.
MW: The song "Confession" has a heroic trumpet solo at the end. Trumpet to me will always be connected to Louis Armstrong. I grew up with his music because that was around the house when I was a kid, so his influence on my has never faltered. I still listen to him often. I discovered him when I was in elementary school and he has one of those catalogs that you can grow old with and I will probably be listening to him when I'm an old guy and can barely hear.
KK: You do a lot of collaborations with other musicians. How does that alter your creative process?
MW: I've learned that the people who are in my line of work get most of their inspiration working with the equipment in the studio. New guitars and mics, things like that. I get most of my inspiration from playing with other people and I'm not really that interested in the latest gear or how vintage your piano is. It's just the way that I learned a long time ago -- the way to have pleasant surprises on your album is to invite other people to your studio and see what happens.
KK: Do you prefer collaborating with others or writing by yourself?
MW: It's 50/50. I like it all.
KK: Last time I saw you perform, you played Loufest with She & Him. Is there any anticipation to coming back to our part of the world?
MW: I'm really excited. I met a guy there at LouFest who knew I was a huge Chuck Berry fan and he took me just to go see his venue and it was really inspiring. So this is the first time really playing a show in St. Louis and to be able to do that at Chuck Berry's venue is too good to be true. He's possibly the most influential guitarist of mine.
KK: More than someone like Django Reinhardt, for example?
MW: I listen to chuck more than Django but it's hard to compare those guys, they're both geniuses. Chuck's music will never grow old. I'll be listening to him when I can't walk.
KK: Just like Louis Armstrong, yeah?
MW: Yeah. It's gonna be OK getting old because I have all these great songs to grow old with.
"These three are probably not used to playing before such a quiet crowd," Buzz Wall whispered to me. He was referring to the unwritten policy at Joe's that the audience politely listen to the music, not chat or text. Of course, consumption of wine is accepted and encouraged.
The River Kittens consist of Allie Vogler on vocals, guitar and banjo, Martha Mehring on vocals and guitar, and Mattie Schell on vocals and mandolin. For the performance at Joe's, the Kittens began by featuring each member soloing.
Schell got things rolling by covering Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist Of Fate." That seemed somewhat fitting, since rumor and urban legend suggests that Dylan himself will appear at Joe's in five years to celebrate his 80th birthday. My neighbor Colleen gave me this intel, with the disclaimer that it's a secret.
Each Kitten followed with a favorite song, including Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long As I Can See The Light," and Billy Joel's "I Can't Tell You Why."
The Kittens harmony style and simple string accompaniment worked well on every piece, including the Beach Boy's "Don't Worry Baby," and their first set finale, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
Photos by Bill Motchan.
A time-honored craft dating back to the mid-1800s, Cigar Box Guitars found great popularity during the Civil War. Using a hollow box as a resonator and a broomstick for a fretboard, these instruments quickly became the staple of jug bands and early blues composers.
Nowadays, cigar boxes are not the only items being used to create these whimsical treasures. Vendors at the festival displayed musical creations made out of cookie tins, hubcaps, iron skillets, briefcases, and the ever popular bed pan. In addition, there were a few banjos and fiddles thrown into the mix.
Enthusiasts took turns playing a variety of handcrafted instruments in a tent on the parking lot, while guitarist and cigar box guitar expert Justin Johnson played the main stage. Inside, cigar box luthiers stood in a line at the stage with their creations, waiting their turn for Johnson to check out their instrument. Taking a few minutes before he began to play, Johnson would describe the instrument's construction and features, followed with a short performance on the instrument.
Festival organizers Gary Herget and Steve Miles created the festival in 2013, along with the owner of Highway 61 Roadhouse, Bill Kunz.
For more information, visit stlouiscigarboxguitarfestival.com.
Photos by Valerie Tichacek