“I’m actually really shy,” insists Jessica Lea Mayfield. “Not musically, but personally.”
This uncommonly mature 21-year-old singer-songwriter’s Nonesuch debut balances the warm-hearted with the cold-blooded. Tell Me is a stunningly forthright 11-song set that addresses late-night longing, serial heartbreak, and intoxicatingly dangerous liaisons conducted in dimly lit barrooms or roadside motels. By the end, the only heart intact is Mayfield’s own. It’s as if she’d stripped the sentimentality and ruefulness from a bunch of classic country songs, leaving only stark emotion. The Black Keys’ singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach, who produced and engineered Tell Me at his Easy Eye Sound System studio in Akron, Ohio, matches Mayfield’s candor with eerily minimal, brilliantly constructed tracks that keep her mesmerizing, unadorned voice front and center.
Kent, Ohio, native Mayfield, at least as she portrays herself on record, could have walked out of a darkly dramatic Black Keys murder ballad like “Ten Cent Pistol.” In fact, many of the duo’s fans first learned of Mayfield through a soulful duet with Auerbach, “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” that memorably closed the 2008 Black Keys disc, Attack and Release. Auerbach discovered Mayfield through her 2005 EP White Lies, self-pressed in a single run of 100 copies, that she’d cut at home with her brother, David. Auerbach was impressed enough with this bedroom recording to contact Mayfield via her MySpace page, leaving a simple message: “Hi, my name is Dan, and I play with a band called The Black Keys out of Akron.”
Together, they embarked on recording Mayfield’s bare-bones first album, the independently released With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, which garnered an 8.2 rating on Pitchfork and uniformly enthusiastic reviews elsewhere. NPR’s World Café declared she has “a mature sound that seems evolved beyond her years,” while the New York Times added that her sound is “guarded, insinuating, mesmerizing … music that lets you hear all its details.”
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