"It feels like I'm starting over," Jessica Lea Mayfield tells me, sipping a morning Coca-Cola on a couch in her publicist's office in Manhattan. "It felt like I had the pause button hit on my life, and someone just hit play." The singer-songwriter is explaining the awakenings that led to her fourth studio album, Sorry Is Gone. She gets excited about the little things these days and mimics how she thinks she must sound: "It's a butterfly! It's a dog! It's a Coca-Cola! I'm appreciative of everything a psychotic amount. I'm just thankful to be alive. I'm alive, and drinking this Coke. It's weird to be emotionally comfortable, and also to have such an overwhelming amount of appreciation. In spite of where it came from, I'm glad I have it."
In July, Mayfield took to her Instagram to reveal that she'd been hospitalized to have surgery on her shoulder, which had been broken during a domestic-violence incident. In the post, she wrote, "My silence helps no one except the person who did this to me." Because of ongoing legal issues, Mayfield has asked that certain details remain private. However, she does want to talk about the ways that her life and her lyrics dovetail in hopes that the music will become a site for healing. Sorry Is Gone is clamorous and dynamic, reflective of Mayfield's rare gift of seeming equally steady and chameleonic from album to album.
Songs like "Meadow" plead for privacy ("I'm afraid of the party, please leave me alone") while becoming their own loud, thrashing events. The acoustic ballad "Safe 2 Connect 2," the album's jarringly delicate center, was one of the first songs Mayfield wrote for Sorry Is Gone. Mayfield seems primed to enjoy not only another strong album but to harness its moment in the service of others. She hopes that "if someone reads this and they're still too scared to leave, remember that I left, that I talked about it. I wanted somebody to speak up for me. I wanted someone to make noise, and I realized that had to be me."
Thora Siemsen: I want to commend your bravery in speaking out, and I wish you a continued recovery.
Jessica Lea Mayfield: Thank you. I can't lift my arm all the way over my head yet. There were weeks where I couldn't even move my fingers or use my arm at all, and it was rough. Now it's just physical therapy, five months of recovery. I have other injuries that I'm still dealing with. My right arm would continually slide out of place every time I moved it. I had that injury for three years because my abusive husband wouldn't let me go to the doctor.
When I did start going, the doctor didn't believe me. I found another doctor who believed me, and they recommended a surgeon. The surgeon didn't believe me. The second surgeon didn't believe me. The third surgeon ordered an MRI and saw what was happening and was like, "How have you been living with this for so long? This is unbelievable." I had people who just thought I was trying to get drugs. That's the way they look at women. It's unbelievable that these things have to be so difficult. The scary thing about that is the majority of injuries to women are domestic-violence-related. These women go to the doctor with their domestic-violence-related injuries, and then the doctor doesn't believe them. They think it's not a real thing. Everyone's afraid to talk about it.
TS: Your posts spotlighted the MusiCares Foundation, which is the Recording Academy's charity that "provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need." I'm deeply sorry for the circumstances leading to that assistance, but I'm glad that they were there for you and that other people — musicians in need — can learn about them.
JLM: They paid for the surgery. I still owe money, but they paid for the bulk of it; otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to get it done. Once I knew what was wrong, the surgeon wanted me to get operated on immediately, and I didn't have the money to do it at the time. I had also dealt with a lot of financial abuse and manipulation, which I'm still going through. To be injured by someone who supposedly loves me, and then have them control my money, and not be able to afford my surgeries to get better is unbelievable. You can drive yourself crazy trying to make sense of why fucked-up people do bad shit to you, but I feel like something good has to come out of this.
TS: When did the title track, "Sorry Is Gone," come to you?
JLM: That song's almost like a summary of what the album is. I'm not apologizing for it, or anything at all. It's really just a conversation that I'm having with myself that my spouse wouldn't have with me. "I can't understand the way you feel, it's safe to say I never tried." That's the way that I felt. It's hard to watch a person not care. Seeing that certain people don't have empathy is really disheartening and painful. With that song, it's like, I'm not going to apologize to people who don't have that.
TS: You started writing these songs originally on an acoustic baritone guitar to minimize sound in an apartment with thin walls. Did you consciously go after a louder sound once you got into the studio?
JLM: I was living in that apartment, and I wanted to play loud music. My neighbors would knock on the wall if I used my popcorn maker. The last album I did [Make My Head Sing] was very heavy, and my emotions at the time were very heavy. I wanted this loud, aggressive way to let things out. It was hard to go back to [something quieter], but at the same time, I think it got me back into thinking more about the lyrics. The last album, I was so afraid to speak. I felt like I spoke through my guitar.
TS: Your records are very collaborative with other musicians. This one features singer Seth Avett, guitarist Cameron Deyell, and drummers Emil Amos and Steve Shelley. How did that lineup come about?
JLM: Me and Seth have been friends for over a decade. I've known him since I was a teenager. I asked him to sing on this, and of course he was interested. I love singing with him. He's like a dude Mariah Carey. The rest of the band, Steve and Emil and Cameron, they're friends of John Agnello, who produced the record. It was perfect. Everyone was so talented. It just felt fun and easy to get the songs across.
TS: Where was the bulk of the album written?
JLM: I own a house on a mountain in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. I moved up there about two years ago. It's very quiet. There's an acre of land. I wrote a lot there. I wrote "Sorry Is Gone" there. But some of the songs I wrote in other places. I wrote "Meadow" in the van after I had played this opening show, and the headliner was having a party in their green room. Everybody was drinking and getting fucked up. I just left and went out to the van and started playing guitar. I wrote "WTF" when I decided to go visit Seth for a couple days. I wrote that song in this little house, in the mother-in-law suite by myself. It was so peaceful. At the time, I felt really thankful to have the solitude and privacy.
TS: Your songwriting has been described as mature and ominous. What are some words that you would use to describe yourself?
JLM: Dorky. I think I'm weird, not always necessarily in a good way. I didn't go to school. I grew up in a town where it was not OK to be a female. Everything was either a sex advertisement or sex joke, and I just felt embarrassed to be a woman. I was so frustrated about it. Definitely weird for all those reasons, just because I don't feel like I fit anywhere. I had to learn to be comfortable with being a woman, and have fun with that.
Thora Siemsen is a New York–based writer and contributing editor. She has written for Lit Hub, Office Magazine, Out, Rookie, the Rumpus, and the Creative Independent. Find more work here.