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A Deep Dive with Joelton Mayfield

DC Music Live Team
Photograph of Joelton Mayfield by Jason Thrasher
Photograph by Jason Thrasher

Looking for a fall date night plan in DC? We recommend soaking up Joelton Mayfield’s tunes at Pie Shop this November 9th (after a hearty slice of pie). Let us introduce you to this emerging artist:

Nashville Scene's description of Joelton Mayfield's 2019 EP, "I Hope You Make it," as "five rootsy, Jeff Tweedy-influenced rock songs perfect for any occasion that involves deep thinking, strong emotions, or singing at the top of your lungs" sets the stage for the artist's unique musical journey. Mayfield, a Marble Falls, Texas native now based in Nashville, Tennessee, has crafted an impressive body of work characterized by "honest, earnest songs about love, loss, vulnerability, and the confusion that comes with exploring a broad spectrum of emotions."

On Thursday, November 9th, don't miss the opportunity to experience Joelton Mayfield's performance alongside Valley Queen at Pie Shop. In a written interview, Mayfield provides valuable insights into his lyrical evolution and the external influences that shape his work. While we hadn't initially planned to publish the questions and answers verbatim, we believe that Mayfield's words offer a profound glimpse into his creative world.

If you're captivated by his story and eager to secure your spot at the upcoming show, tickets are available for purchase here.

A recent performance at the Chicago Music Exchange

In regards to your lyricism, it has been described as “drawing a Southern Gothic literary sensibility” and deals with tensions in “family, religion, masculinity, and love in the American South.” Can you walk us through which songs we can find these different elements, and tell us what or who inspires these elements to come through in your work?

Of my music that’s been released, I tended to gravitate towards songwriting as a means of coping with hardship, grief, depression, trauma, anger, confusion, hopelessness. I found that writing about my feelings concerning any experiences that were devastating, or at the very least, difficult to navigate—while giving myself the simple task of being creative, with the ambient goal of creating a work—distracted me enough from the weight of the feeling and/or experience to actually process it. Whereas, when I tried to talk (or write) directly about my feelings, head-on, I struggled to get anywhere or feel like I was telling the truth. So, songwriting was a backdoor to my emotional growth, a way to name and voice fear, pain, and frustration and thereby make life less scary.

Sometimes, these little sit-downs I had with myself would render a poem, sometimes a song, sometimes a bunch of useless nonsense. But my mother raised me to be gentle and kind to myself, and I’m grateful for this. I think it’s important not to think negatively about the outcome of the things you make, and to instead focus on the mere making of the thing and why you find yourself doing it. If I had been hard on myself for cranking out some garbage, while I was also feeling super depressed, it would have compounded into disaster. Instead, if I’m unsatisfied with the end result of a work, and I feel like there’s enough good stuff that’s worthwhile, I’ll keep drafting new versions and whittle it down until I am happy with it. Then, it feels separate enough from my identity to share.

Through this discovery and practice, I found myself processing trauma: toxic familial relationships and abuse, a profound core anxiety stemming from being raised Evangelical Christian (United Pentecostal, specifically), as well as romantic relationships and social situations in which I was expected to fill a hyper-masculine, “Godly” role that felt overwhelming and fundamentally incompatible with how I saw myself and how I desired to love and be loved. I wrote every song on I Hope You Make It, my EP, as a means of interrogating, deconstructing, and making peace with the experiences that troubled or traumatized me. So, these elements are present in every song that’s currently released and a few of the newer songs that aren’t. “The Reason” is a song I wrote mostly for and about my wonderful mother, as well as my then halfway working relationship to a sort of Mystic Christianity that I have since completely abandoned for a much healthier, Godless life. The lyrics of “Walk Alone” identify Christianity as the crushing boot print on a romantic relationship, while also documenting the everyday grief of a breakup. “October” was written about (what I used to consider) the hardest month of my life, in which I was having a mental breakdown, drinking heavily, and then found out my father, who I have a very difficult relationship with, had a heart attack and was literally dead for a few minutes before being defibrillated back to life. The subject matter of “Up To You” nods towards my upbringing in the Christian church and the general aimlessness of an unhealthy “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality. And “Starfish” is front-to-back about my relationship with my father immediately following his heart attack.

Lately, I’ve found myself fascinated with narrative, dialogue, storytelling, image.
Joelton Mayfield

It is, however, worth noting that I currently write much less confessional, autobiographical songs and have a much different relationship with songwriting than what I’ve just outlined. I’ve grown to be much better at talking and writing directly about my feelings and experiences. My EP, I Hope You Make It, was recorded between 2017 and 2019, between my last two years of college and two jobs, which is to say the songs were written a couple years before, between 2016 and 2017. I was 18 or 19 years old then. Many versions of myself have lived and died since. Lately, I’ve found myself fascinated with narrative, dialogue, storytelling, image. Because I don’t show up to write solely as a means of processing emotions and experiences these days, I’m freed up to reveal less of my cards and make believe more interesting sentiments. I still write what I know, from personal experience, and songwriting is still very cathartic for me. But, I have a healthier relationship with it now that I have established a few degrees of separation between myself and the narrator of songs I sing in first person. The EP is 100% autobiographic, straight-up my life. Lately, I’m rocking more of a 50/50 ratio.

And as far as the Southern Gothic aspect, I was born in Austin, Texas, raised in Granite Shoals, Texas, and have spent the last 8 years of my life in Nashville, Tennessee. I think it would be dishonest of me—with regard to my upbringing, the way I sing, and the vernacular readily available to me—to not write with a sense of place, a sense of belonging to a setting that is markedly Southern. I was reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor, Tim O’Brien, and Cormac McCarthy at the time of writing the EP, so I think that’s probably why I chose to drop a literary genre in my artist bio. But a lot of my released music deals with feelings of alienation due to religious trauma and gender roles but also, growing up, Christianity and masculinity were talked about like anecdotes to poverty. I mean, I remember Dave Ramsey being quoted in church. I come from a lower middle class household, but I was surrounded by a lot of poverty and its side effects in the community I grew up in and the majority of my extended family. You’d be having a totally normal conversation, based in reality, about something totally normal and the person with whom you were talking would slip in the most poetic colloquialism you’ve ever heard and then pivot immediately to briefly positing their belief about the supernatural will of God being behind every random horrific thing. I’ve always been fascinated by this maneuver that was part of my everyday experience growing up in the South.

Because the majority of the songs I wrote for my EP are so autobiographical, it helps to view myself and the subjects more as characters influenced by these ideological forces than to parody some sort of total embodiment. So, all this to say, I suppose themes of alienation, a general sense of existential anxiety, and flawed thinking in myself (the narrator) and the subjects (characters addressed) in the lyrics of my released music, all occurring in a Southern setting, would be why I think the description “Southern Gothic” is merited. Lines like “last month you were dead / now, everything is normal again,” “all that man ever wanted was to play ball for O.U. / good to know nothing’s up to you,” and “we’ve got nowhere to grow but up / drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup, she’s just out there waiting to see you,” all feel plainspoken and character-driven, yet existential or borderline death-ridden, in a way that reads distinctly Southern Gothic to me.

Photograph of Joelton Mayfield by Jason Thrasher
Photograph by Jason Thrasher

Your music has been described as a blend of Southern rock, folk, and Americana influences. Can you elaborate on the musical styles and artists that have had the most significant impact on your sound, and how you incorporate those influences into your own unique style?

I would argue there’s a good bit of Indie Rock and some Noise and Ambient elements in there too, especially with the newer songs and in the live shows. But being that I sing the way that I do, I think, no matter the sound, people are going to identify me as Country-adjacent. A friend of mine once described my music as “Post-Country.” I’ve also been called “Noise Roots,” “Countrypolitan,” and “Bass Pro Rock,” all of which make me smile.

As a songwriter, my first love was Bob Dylan. I found the soundtrack to the Pat Garret and Billy The Kid movie in my parents records when I was about 14 or 15 years old, and I’ve been obsessed with Dylan ever since. Early high school, I listened to a lot of cringey garbage and a healthy dose of “positive alternative music,” which is a neat way of saying “secretly Christian.” But I also got obsessed with Blues music during that time—everyone from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Albert King to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Muddy Waters. Late high school and early college, I started getting into the songwriting of Neil Young, Gillian Welch, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, and others.

I was raised on Southern Gospel and 90s CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). That’s what was always playing on the radio or in the car. But my grandmother turned me onto older country music. She was always bumping George Jones, Hank Williams, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, people like that. When my dad pulled me out of bed to hunt deer with him, he would often play one of two Dwight Yoakam cassettes (“Guitars, Cadillacs” or “This Time,” obviously) in the truck. Sometimes, it would be Randy Travis’s “Always & Forever.” So, that got me into some late 80s and early 90s country.

As a musician, band leader, or production-oriented person, I feel like I started finding my taste for how I wanted my songs to be produced mid to late college. I got into Dirty Projectors, Wilco, Feist, Broken Social Scene, Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, Sturgill Simpson, Big Thief, Silver Jews, Arthur Russell, Alex G., LCD Soundsystem, The Jayhawks, Mitski, and I also took a midwestern emo detour somewhere in there. I’m a fan of pop music too. The whole A.G. Cook, Caroline Polachek, Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn universe really appeals to me. I’m a fan of most song-based music. Lately, I’ve been on a big Prince kick and have been doing some obligatory archival Texas deep dives—during which I’ve become a fan of Freddy Fender, Dough Sahm, and Guy Clark. I’ve also gotten really into Michael Nesmith, Sand, The Apples in Stereo, Jim O’Rourke, Tom T. Hall, and New Riders of the Purple Sage this year. I suppose I’m always writing a song in a folk or country format, just because that’s what comes natural, but lately I’ve been interested in complicating the form with weirder, harsher, left-field elements. I still have a lot of stuff that ends up pretty down the middle, in one direction or another, but overall, I’m not exactly interested in identifying with a genre. For me, it’s about serving the song, making something I’m excited by, and maintaining my own attention when I listen back.

Your debut EP, "I Hope You Make It," received recognition and airplay on various radio stations. Can you share with us the journey of creating that EP and the impact it has had on your music career?

I met Alberto Sewald, an engineer and producer with whom I made the EP, at my first show in Nashville in 2017. We began working on recording the EP at his house shortly after that, both of us between finishing school and working our jobs, and we completed it in 2019. I learned so much through this process. Other than touring extensively in the last couple years, and since it’s my only release thus far, I Hope You Make It has been the only impact on my musical career. The live show is very different from the EP, but I’m grateful that the EP has stood the test of time enough to have me playing my first shows ever in D.C., Brooklyn, and Philly opening for Valley Queen, as well as all of the other touring opportunities it has brought, nearly four years since its release.

You've shared the stage with a diverse range of artists and logged a significant number of shows in recent years (we’re really impressed by the table you put together with all of your shows, it’s seriously impressive!). Do you have any memorable moments from your live performances you’d like to share?

Oh there’s a hundred stories I could tell, but a recent favorite of mine is John Brown’s on The Square in Marion, Illinois. If you ever find yourself in Southern Illinois on Friday or Saturday night, you’ve got to go. We’ve played there a few times, but the owner told me once that David Berman (of Silver Jews) came in once, had two Budweisers and a bag of Funyuns and walked out without paying his tab. They have mirrors behind the bar at John Brown’s. Every time I’m there, I like to make believe David Berman walked on his tab to go write “Inside the Golden Days of Missing You,” in which he sings: “I wish they didn't set mirrors behind the bar / ‘cause I can't stand to look at my face when I don't know where you are.”

Nashville is known for its rich musical heritage. How has living in Nashville since 2017 influenced your music and songwriting?

I actually moved to Nashville in 2015. It’s been great! It’s where I’ve met nearly all of my dearest friends. Being surrounded by so many incredibly talented songwriters, musicians, visual artists, and film lovers all the time is profoundly inspiring to me and my desire to create. Both of my roommates are talented musicians, writers, and visual artists. If we’re all at home and up late at night, we’ll often gather in the living room and jam. Being constantly surrounded by creativity and artistry, like I am in Nashville, is incredibly important to me and my ability to tap into my own creativity. I’ve discovered some of my favorite writers and been exposed to some of my favorite films in Nashville. There are thoughts I wouldn’t have had, songs I wouldn’t have written, lives I wouldn’t have lived, deep love and connection I wouldn’t have experienced and nurtured were it not for the friends I’ve made in the city of Nashville.

Is there anything you’d want potential listeners and show-goers to know?

Roasted and salted cashews, peanut butter filled pretzels, and yellow gatorade are some of my favorite treats.

That wraps up the written interview with Mayfield. Ready to catch him performing with Valley Queen? Tickets are available for purchase at this link.

Joelton Mayfield Links:

Website | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | Spotify | Bandcamp

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