When Jessica Lea Mayfield released her debut album, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, in 2008 it saw her widely acknowledged as a precocious talent, her brand of grounded and emotionally advanced alt-country belying her 19 years of age. Tonight, still only 22 years old, she played a show at the Borderline in support of her sophomore album Tell Me which builds on and develops themes previously laid down.
One of her most striking attributes is the sense of world-weariness that pervades her performance, seemingly having already attained the sense of alienation, withdrawal and loneliness it takes other artists decades to cultivate. Indeed, the consistency of pace, method of vocal delivery and economical arrangements of much of her recorded output can momentarily threaten to become slightly suffocating. However, tonight she goes some distance to dispel this, instead breathing fresh life into the songs.
Two of the most obvious points of reference when discussing her music are Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, quite revealing in itself when you consider the age disparity between the respective artists. Two of her closest contemporaries are Devon Sproule and Caitlin Rose, although Mayfield seems to have been steeped in the ways of country music to a greater extent than most of her peers. She cuts a petite, feminine figure on stage and her laid-back insouciance can stray close to being mistaken for a lack of animation. After a few songs however she opens up, communicating with the audience more and allowing her understated stage presence to gradually grow into something more dynamic and engaging.
The rustic, barren guitar landscapes present within most of her songs find a welcoming home (and audience) at the Borderline. Her set is taken largely from her second album, with her disaffected, heavily-accented vocal drawl appropriately conveying the self-scrutinising lyrics of songs like Our Hearts Are Wrong, Run Myself Into The Ground and Sometimes At Night. Much of her music is draped in a heavy veil of melancholy, although the new album does incorporate more in the way of optimism, most notably on Blue Skies Again which is played towards the end of tonight’s set. The musically upbeat Nervous Lonely Nights is also included as part of the short solo section she plays mid-set.
Her backing band ensure that the songs are a much heavier, more powerful proposition live than on record and several tracks are fleshed out with frayed, gnarled guitars. She occasionally delves into her first album, most memorably for Kiss Me Again, the undulating vocal melody betraying the disenfranchised resignation present within the lyrics. She finishes with Somewhere In Your Heart, revealing it to have been inspired by reading suicide notes on the internet. It provides a suitably morose reminder of the dark origins of much of her music.
At one point during the smouldering I’ll Be The One You Want Someday she sings “I have a dream and that dream is perfection”. She may not have quite achieved that yet, either in terms of her albums or live performances, but she has established herself as an artist of soul-baring honesty, already in possession of a strong collection of songs and is certainly one to watch out for over forthcoming years.