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Next Big Things 2011: Jessica Lea Mayfield


Home sweet home: Kent, Ohio
Expect: Black Keys-approved, smart-ass country-rock ingénue
Must hear: Tell Me (Nonesuch), out now

It’s hilariously personal,” says singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield of her sophomore album, Tell Me, though the “hilarious” part is easy to miss: Mayfield’s drowsy vocals are almost too tender to be this wry and too wry to belong to someone so young. Yet at 21, the home-schooled Ohio native is a seasoned veteran, having performed with her family’s bluegrass band since she was eight. Each of the songs on this stunning collection — produced, like her 2008 debut, by Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach, who discovered her via MySpace when she was only 16 — could out-maudlin Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, though her nationwide tour, which includes a stop at South by Southwest in March, isn’t likely to feature similar onstage meltdowns. In truth, she’s kind of a badass. To wit:

She’s got a thing fordangerous dudes.
“The last guy I dated went to prison for murder. He stabbed someone in the neck with a steak knife. I lived with him for a year and a half. As if I needed this — I’m already so critical of relationships and love. My first album was about being in love with the boyfriend before him, and now it’s to the point where I can write a song about a one-night stand.”

Her propensity for TMI isAuerbach’s fault.
“Dan brings me out of my shell. I was in the studio working on ‘Sometimes at Night’ and looking at Dan, saying, ‘I don’t think I can sing this.’ [Sample lyric: ‘I broke the little cabana boy’s heart / To let you fondle me in the dark.’] And he’s like, ‘Come on, babe, it sounds cool.’ I’ve known Dan for so long that he knows what he can get out of me.”

She dropped out of high school at 16 and still managed to buy her own house.
“I have a guest room that sleeps six. When bands come to town, we play music all night and get stoned. Do I regret not going to college? No, because I’d be living in a room the size of a closet with somebody else and a mini-fridge.”

She parties harder than a rock star.
“I still get a lot of worried phone calls from my brother, like, ‘You’re going on tour with Justin [Townes] Earle? He’s going to be a bad influence on you.’ I’m the bad influence on most people I tour with. I meet a lot of pussy rock bands who are like, ‘Oh, it’s 1 A.M.? I gotta whiten my teeth and go to bed.’?”