Matthew Mayfield flavored his incredible one-man acoustic set at Youngstown State University with several jokes about his touring van. Behind those jokes about the trials of the road lies an authentic, difficult child of rock and roll desiring to spread the gift of music to people all over the country. The troubles of independent music artists are lessening in the digital age, but even for the extremely talented Mayfield, some nights there is not enough money in the kitty to pay for the drive. After weeks on the road, it takes a dedication to the craft more than empty promises of fame to motivate the performer.
From his characteristic and subtle Alabama accent to his artsy tam, Mayfield looks the part. He’s quick to greet everyone with a smile and a kind word. When he takes the stage he embodies the aggression prevalent in his lyrics. Strumming with authority, filling his music with guitar flourishes that sound amazing and look difficult. Gifted in both songwriting and creating a mood in a room, Mayfield is a part of an elite group of singer songwriters making music in our age. Find a way to see him live.
We had our interview in a sanitized meeting room in a university campus, not the place either of us were used to doing this sort of thing. We usually hold interviews in green rooms or other dingy basement dwellings of questionable venues. We sat comfortably discussing the complexities of the independent circuit of the music industry.
Mayfield described the current tour, which took him to some northeast cities for the first time, as being “up and down,” selling out shows in New York and Philadelphia, with some less-than-stellar turnouts in other cities. It’s the risk of the independent artist in touring. He described it as a “true grind.” But deep down in his gruff voice and through his friendly-but-serious eyes, there’s a sense that he really relishes the grind. If anyone could do it, everyone would. The grind defines the job.
Mayfield released Irons in the Fire, an EP that came out earlier this year. It’s getting a positive response from fans, especially those who have known him for a long time. The album overall is a mix of both Mayfield epic rock sound and a few of his stripped down tracks. He described that as an intentional mood that would have something for everyone. He and his producer Paul did all of the instruments on the album (except the backing strings). All of the guitars and vocals were handled in house for what ends up being an intimate and powerful album.
The first track on Irons is called, “In or Out,” which offers, as Mayfield described, “an ultimatum” to a woman about being in or out of a relationship. It’s a song easy to connect with for many listeners, so I had to ask him about it. He said that he wanted to create an urgency with the song and the aggression of the guitar and the vocals were intentional. He wanted to convey that moment… the decision to stay or go in a relationship. I would call it quintessential Matthew Mayfield work and a welcome entrance into the new EP.
One of the best tracks on the new EP is the new version of “Fire Escape” with co-author John Paul White (of The Civil Wars fame). Matthew said that John Paul was on the first version but got “lost in the mix” so the new version is intended to feature White’s vocals. It definitely worked. We had a side conversation about John Paul’s career as well, with Matthew explaining that White has had his own difficult rise to fame. From riding futons to play small shows throughout the South to multiple Grammys, White put in his dues for this whole music world. “I’m happy for him,” Matthew said about his fellow Alabaman.
Mayfield told me about the back story for “Heart in Wire,” which he wrote while grinding it out on the road. He describes trying to cope with a breakup via long distance. He wrote the lyrics on hotel stationary. In his characteristic self deprecation, he explained the workaday nature of the hotel chains, but nevertheless his story held a certain amount of romance in and of itself. When Mayfield took the lyrics with him to the studio to record the song, his producer teased him about the stack of hotel stationary. But what was interesting about the experience was that the papers helped put him into the place and mood of the moment. They helped him “channel the feeling” of being in that heartbreaking moment.
Matthew described the experience of performing these highly emotive songs that make up his personal catalog. He said that some songs are “impossible” to avoid “going there” referring to the moment that inspired the song. But some songs have taken on a life of their own. He said that the song “Element,” one of his more successful songs, has a new meaning for him having played it so much now. This highlights an important point not only about performance, but music broadly speaking. It is a living entity and just as listeners and fans reinterpret music, so to do the artists. It was a moment of insight for both of us as we neared the end of our conversation.
Mayfield elaborated on his career from his multiple invitations to perform on NBC’s The Voice to getting music picked up by major television shows. While some see shows like The Voice as a platform for success, Mayfield said it’s not for him. It’s not the national success that drives him to perform, but rather the slow building of his own music legacy. He said, “I couldn’t do anything else.” He explained that even though he might complain about this and that on tour or dealing with the business side of his profession, “you do it because you love it… it’s inside you.” As fans, we can clearly see and hear that its inside him. For the regular people that listen to Mayfield’s exceptional music, it is precisely that deep-seated personal love of music and emotion that keeps us coming back for more.
Mayfield’s performance was itself pretty remarkable. Knowing he had an audience of college students with little familiarity with his catalog, he came out and hit with hard emotional music. Then, lightening the mood, made fantastic comical references to life on the road while tuning his guitar between songs. In addition to his own great music, Mayfield performed a few covers of classic American music from Guns n’ Roses to Reznor’s “Hurt.” The consummate professional while also being accessible to fans, Matthew Mayfield is showing that he is able to overcome the difficulties of life on the road.
If you don’t have it yet, go grab Irons in the Fire on iTunes. Take minute to check out Matthew’s upcoming tour dates, which include shows in Birmingham, AL and Los Angeles, CA coming soon!