Jessica Lea Mayfield Chronicles the 'Hell' of an Abusive Relationship on Her Explicitly Personal 'Sorry Is Gone'

Jessica Lea Mayfield
Ebru Yildiz

Jessica Lea Mayfield

For the latest music-world proof that, clichéd though it may be, the expression 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' exists for a reason, look no further than Jessica Lea Mayfield, the alt country-rock artist from Ohio and Tennessee, whose terrific, unsettling and extraordinarily personal fourth album Sorry Is Gone is out now. When we jump on the phone to talk about it, she’s just gotten out of a doctor’s appointment to address injuries sustained in a serious car crash several weeks ago. “Someone rear ended me going about 60 miles an hour,” she explains. “They had been drinking and fell asleep at the wheel. My neck is really messed up, mainly. I just got banged up really, really bad.” Mayfield also recently lost one of her best friends from childhood -- and this is all on top of still dealing with the trauma of longtime domestic violence at the hands of her estranged husband, a harrowing chapter of her life that she’s exorcised in stark detail on Sorry Is Gone

Musically, it’s Mayfield’s most varied record to date: there’s rootsy fare (her default mode, having grown up in a family bluegrass band), '90s alt-rock vibes, and a moving acoustic centerpiece, “Safe 2 Connect 2.” The album was produced by John Agnello, whose CV -- Sonic Youth, Phosphorescent, Kurt Vile, Waxahatchee and Dinosaur Jr. -- strides indie rock and heartland sounds. Agnello brought in players including Cameron Deyell, Emil Amos, and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums, and on keys and vocals is The Avett Brothers’ Seth Avett, with whom Mayfield released a record of Elliott Smith covers in 2015. 

But it’s the lyrical content of Sorry Is Gone that’s gotten the most pre-release attention, understandably so. Track after track, Mayfield’s record serves as an account, sometimes told in excruciatingly graphic images, of her abusive marriage. 

There’s a shotgun, hidden under the futon, in “Maybe Whatever.” An abuser who won’t let his victim leave in “Soaked Through,” pleading, “I’m not gonna hurt you anymore, I promise / I know I’ve said it before.” “Get out of my house” is the refrain of “WTF”; “Have you been buried alive?” she asks in “World Won’t Stop;” and “been through hell” she declares in “Safe 2 Connect 2,” asking, “Any tips on how to feel more human?” In July, Mayfield revealed on Instagram that she was undergoing shoulder surgery due to a domestic abuse incident. She says it took her visits to multiple doctors before she was taken seriously.

So yes, Jessica Lea Mayfield has been through it. But what’s emerged from the “hell” of that relationship, she says, is in fact a woman more confident and self-assured than ever -- therapy, domestic violence support groups and the cathartic new record have all contributed to a new sense of empowerment. “Oddly enough, with all of these things going on, this has still been emotionally one of the better times in my life,” she says. “Because I’m safe and I’m free and regardless of all of these obstacles I have to go through. I know I’m taking the steps to claw my way out.”

Despite the subject matter, the album is hardly a downer. Unlike its predecessor, her 2014 dark and grunge-y Make My Head Sing, recorded while in the throes of her domestic abuse, Sorry Is Gone has emboldened moments -- “Offa My Hands,” “World Won’t Stop,” a title track in which Mayfield declares herself done with apologies, and “Wish You Could See Me Now,” a fiery opener that could easily pass for a Garbage or Babes In Toyland track circa 1994. On “Bum Me Out,” another of the record’s rockers, she sings, “I’m not gonna let it bum me out too hard.” She’s been tested, and continues to be, but she’s also determined. 

How are you doing after this accident? Were you alone in the car?

Yeah. They said if there had been anyone else in the car, in the back seat or anything, they’d be dead. Because my trunk became my back seat. This happened on September 6th, and I’m still trying to track down what is wrong exactly. I’m just in pain. 

I’m sorry to hear that. It’s just one drama after another for you, it seems like. 

Mm hmm. You don’t even know. There’s more.

Your tour is starting soon. Is everything going well with practice for that? 

Yeah, but I’ve had a lot going on, and on top of that I’ve had to move three times in the past six months. I’m in a place now where I can stay for a year. So that’s good. I had to leave my home, I had a mortgage on a home…

The mountain one [in Tennessee]? 

Yeah, the one on the mountain. But my husband is there and I had to leave and so he’s kind of camping out there until he’s forcibly removed. But all my furniture is there. It’s like I’m an 18-year old and I have to get silverware and spatulas and things like that -- realizing you’re almost 30 and to have to go back to having no place or even silverware has been stressful. On top of the new album coming out and the car accident, and one of my childhood best friends died last month. So I’m kind of in this feeling of I’m being buried. But it’s just a lot to persevere. It’s like every time I start to get my head above the water, it feels like I’m getting pushed back down. But oddly enough, with all of these things going on, this has still been emotionally one of the better times in my life because I’m safe and I’m free and regardless of all of these obstacles I have to go through, I know I’m taking the steps to claw my way out. 

Well congratulations on all the great word of mouth about Sorry Is Gone. Do you think people are responding to the music, which in some ways is unlike what you’ve done before, or these brutally honest lyrics and the backstory of abuse behind them? 

I think both. I’ve definitely had people talk just strictly about the record, and what they like about it, and I had a really great band for it, and the songs are really open and vulnerable, but while they might have a darker edge, they also have almost more of an airiness to them, and a lighter feeling. So I think that is a lot different from the last record. And also my reason for being open about the domestic violence is really just trying to advocate. And I think that’s been good. I’ve gotten a lot of internet comments and personal messages from people talking about how much it’s helped them that I am able to open up and talk about it. And that’s really all I want is -- when something this horrible is happening to you, you think that nothing good can ever come out of it. And the only good that can come out of it is for me to help. And I don’t want to be just another person that stays quiet and lets it happen. So for me, I just have this intense urge to talk about it in a helpful way.

Did that urge, that desire come to you as an epiphany? Like one day you said, “You know what? F--- it I’m gonna lay it all out there.” Or was it a gradual decision of like, you know, “no good will come out of me just putting this under the rug?”

Well both, because there were several times when I felt like talking about it and I couldn't bring myself to, you know? And I thought I needed to and there would definitely be times when I initially wrote an internet post and almost posted it and then deleted it. And almost posted it, and then deleted it. And then I just wasn't ready -- but then it was sort of that epiphany of “I have to do this!” I feel very strongly about this. I wanted someone to speak up for me but it’s like I’m old enough now where I get that I’m the one that needs to speak up for myself. 

It’s easy to read about the backstory lyrically and the takeaway might be, “Oh gosh, this could be like a downer.” But I think it’s anything but that. There’s a lot of upbeat, energetic things about the record. 

Yeah definitely. I’m on the other side now. You know, Make My Head Sing was the really heavy record that I made while I was going through these really heavy times. And now I’m on the other side of those really heavy times and I’m able to sing about them and see them from a different perspective. 

How did you end up working with John Agnello? He’s worked with some of my absolute favorite artists. 

Well ATO, the label that I’m on, had suggested a few people, and I kind of went on some blind dates with producers, and when I met John we just immediately hit it off. It felt like I had known him forever, and we ended up getting brunch together and having drinks and talking endlessly about guitar pedals and music. And after meeting with him I realized that I didn't need to explain myself to him. It felt like a really good match both personally and musically. I love him to death. He’s one of my friends now. 

Seth Avett is also a longtime friend. I assume he and John knew what had been going on with you and where these songs were coming from? And what about the other guys who played on the record? 

I would say John and Seth were aware. The other guys didn't really find out until I started talking about it publicly. But yeah, I’ve been friends with Seth for over a decade. We’ve both been through a lot. So it’s hard to sort of keep those things—when you see your friend and you haven’t seen them in a while and you can’t even look at them, you know you’re trying to talk to them and you’re looking at your feet, of course they’re like, “What’s wrong?” I think the friends that I’ve had for a really long time knew something was off with me. 

I know you have said that some of the songs were written when you were still in this abusive relationship. I can’t imagine how you were able to even focus on writing songs under those circumstances. 

Well for me it’s the classic form of therapy, where if I’m going through a really hard time -- not unlike a crazy person -- I sit in a room and talk to myself, except that I’m doing it with a guitar and setting it to a melody, and that kind of makes me not insane [laughs]!  You know when you think about it, and you think about how ridiculous music and songwriting is, it’s like, I am literally singing about my problems over a melody, and then I’m going to share it with everyone! [laughs] So when you look at it that way it feels insane, but literally, writing the album is what helped me kind of see the things that I was kind of bottling up and pushing down. 'Cause those things kind of bubble out and make their way onto the page. 

You Instagrammed about your shoulder injury, and then in Lenny you talked about how it took several doctors for you to even be taken seriously. 

Yeah that was definitely something that was difficult. And that’s something that happens a lot with women is they experience sexism and are treated like they are unimportant. And definitely if you read the statistics of domestic violence-related injuries, it’s something like 80 per cent of all women that visit the ER are going for domestic violence-related injuries. And those are massively underreported. And they did a study where men and women went into the doctor with the exact same symptoms and I think it was like one out of six times that they treated the male patient and they did not treat the female patient the same way. I think there’s a lot of people that don’t want to admit that domestic violence exists, so if you go to the doctor and tell them how you got injured, they’re not going to take it seriously. Until maybe they see an MRI, and then you can’t argue with that. 

You’ve said that sometimes friends didn't really want to know about or deal with what you were going through. Which is interesting because I’ve had a couple of friends in similar situations, and I tried to help. Though in one case, she kept returning to it. 

You know if you aren't ready to leave -- you want to believe that this person loves you, and they aren't a monster. So that every time they say, “I’m not gonna do it again. I promise. I love you. Please give me another chance,” you want more than anything for that to be true. There’s a lot of emotional components and a lot of brainwashing that happens when you’re in a situation like that, because these people try to make you dependent on them. I mean I’ve learned so much going to support groups and therapy and all of these things, but when I started going to support groups while I was in my relationship, and I would defend him. I would be like, “No, this isn’t what’s happening.” But then I couldn't deny it anymore. And the thing that people don’t factor in is there’s a lot of love involved. So when you love someone and they hurt you, your first instinct is to protect them, and leaving them feels like cutting off a body part. So when you have to make that tough choice of, “Okay, do I cut off my arm so I don’t get hurt anymore?” It’s like that! It’s really complicated, and I think a lot of people see it as black and white, like, “Oh, if someone ever did that to me, I would immediately leave and call the police.” And it’s easy to say that until it happens to you. And also, if you call the police, they might not even get charged. And if they do get charged, they’re gonna get two to three months and then they’re gonna get out and be very angry. 

In “Maybe Whatever,” you talk about even having a gun hidden under the futon, and in “Safe 2 Connect 2,” you’re essentially asking whether you can trust anyone anymore. 

“Maybe Whatever” was about when, one time that I left, I took my gun and hid it, because I didn't want anything to happen. I went to stay with a friend, and I made sure to hide the gun. And I was just kind of thinking about how ridiculous it is where I’m in a situation where not only do I own a gun, but I have to hide it. Which kind of goes yeah to the issue of trust. When you put yourself 100% in the hands of the wrong person and trust them and then they completely break that trust over and over and over again, it definitely causes a lot of issues with trust. And I have pretty debilitating PTSD and anxiety that I try to work through. But yeah it’s definitely hard to trust people and to see thing for what they are, because I know first hand just how bad things can get. Even my body will anticipate bad things happening when they’re not. If a certain situation is reminiscent of a time, even if mentally I’m there and I go, “Okay, nothing bad is going to happen to me in this situation.” Even if I can think that, my heart rate starts going up, my chest gets tight, my whole body goes into panic mode. So I definitely have very physical reactions. And that’s something where I kind of feel like I’ve been taken from my body, for sure, and that’s where “Safe 2 Connect 2” comes in. It’s the question of “How can I become human again?” you know? I don’t want to be on the outside watching me anymore. I want to be in my own body. 

As you were writing these songs in 2015 and 2016, we were all watching the also-traumatizing rise of this man who is now in the White House. 

Yeah. Oh that was bad. [laughs] 

I know this is not a political record per se, but did that impact the album? 

Well I think that’s another reason why -- I mean a lot of artists, including myself, had no desire to be political, just wishing that you could sort of say like, “No comment.” But then when Trump became president, suddenly the “no comment” people became activists. [laughs] And I feel like with me yeah -- the day he got elected I felt like I couldn't breathe. And I think that’s another reason why it’s okay for me to talk about what’s happening with me, because I feel like there needs to be a change in the way that people are treated, and that minorities are treated, and all people are treated. There can’t be this level of shittiness and unkindness and hatred. And people need to just speak about what they believe in and what they want to change. You can’t just wish things would change. You have to put in your effort and put your time in where it matters. So yeah that, I think that changed everyone, but it affected me for sure. 

Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Sorry Is Gone is out now. She kicks off a North American tour Oct. 12 in Columbus, OH.