By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
I’ve been working at B-Metro for a couple of years and some change now. When I tell people what I do, they often reply, “That must be so fun!” And it is! I get to talk to lots and lots of people who are doing amazing things in Birmingham, and, as I’m sure you’ve picked up on, the number of people doing amazing things in Birmingham has grown rapidly in the past few years.
One of my very first interviews ever was with Matthew Mayfield, hometown hero (he’s from Birmingham.) I remember thinking then, as I do now, that this was a guy who wasn’t doing much talking about making things happen, but was truly making it happen. The guy was born with a dream and has spent most of his waking hours chasing it. And chasing dreams is hard work—it makes you sweat and it gets you dirty. But Mayfield told me both then and now that building those dreams brick by brick has been far more than “worth it.” “Man, it’s been a hell of a ride. I started doing music for a living full time at 19. But I didn’t find my true voice until I was 22 or so,” he says. “Once that happened, I think I started getting better and more confident as a writer.”
Mayfield grew up listening to his dad play guitar and sing Neil Young and James Taylor; by age 9, he knew that he wanted to be a musician. “I didn’t really choose music. It chose me,” he explains. “The raw, primitive nature of rock and roll hooked me at an early age and I’ve had the bug ever since. I’ve never had a plan B.” He began playing in bands in junior high school and eventually was a part of the group Moses Mayfield, which many of his Birmingham fans remember. When they disbanded in 2008, he decided to strike out on his own and see what kind of fire he could make. As a solo artist, he’s produced 2008’s The Fire EP; 2009’s Five Chances Remain Hers; 2009’s Maybe Next Christmas; 2010’s Breathe Out in Black, Man-Made Machines, Better, and You’re Not Home EPs; 2011’s Now You’re Free; 2012’s A Banquet for Ghosts; 2013’s Irons in the Fire; and his latest, 2015’s Wild Eyes. In short, he’s been busy. “I always try to mix it up record to record,” he says.
“Now You’re Free was a big, anthemic, Americana rock record. I’m still so proud of it. That version/recording of ‘Fire Escape’ (co-written with John Paul White of the Civil Wars) is my favorite recording to date. The sounds, the mix, the feeling. It was all magic. A Banquet For Ghosts is probably pound-for-pound my favorite record because it’s the most personal. We recorded it mostly live and the mood ranges from somber to scary to triumphant and everything in between. That record is more or less like reading my diary,” he continues. “With the newest album, Wild Eyes, I wanted to try some new things. Shake it up a little. I’ve always been scared of computers and drum machines because I thought it was cheating. But then I started thinking…Radiohead. Nine Inch Nails. All of these amazing artists have used technology as a new instrument, not a crutch. So we blended the electronic with the organic and that’s how we got the hybrid sound on this record.”
Over the years, Mayfield’s fan base has continued to grow, stretching outward from its Birmingham nucleus. “One night in Minneapolis a while back, I was really nervous that no one was going to show up. It was a small venue, it was pouring rain and snow, and I had never played that market as a headliner,” Mayfield shares. “And as soon as I walked onstage I saw 150 people—dead quiet—singing along to almost every song. It was unreal.” Another notable moment was when Mayfield’s song “First in Line” was chosen to be used in Grey’s Anatomy’s 100th episode (since then, another song, “Better,” has appeared on that show, and he’s had other song placements, as well.) “That was huge for me, as the show was in its prime and the entire song was featured,” he says of the 100th episode feature. “The pay was great and the iTunes sales were insane. That was the moment I realized I could do this as a solo act.”
Of course, the journey has included hard moments, too—moments where Mayfield questioned whether he could do it or not. Still, he’s in it for the long haul. “My mom always tells me she’s most proud of my perseverance. This is a tough business and everyone has to grind it out and pay their dues,” he says. “Some acts get shot out of a cannon and are suddenly huge and don’t know how to handle it. I like the slow and steady rise. To the middle. Not to the top, top. I have no interest in being on a billboard.”
Mayfield is coming back home to play Saturn Dec. 10. He’s excited, and you should be, too. “Birmingham is my safe haven. It’s a beautiful, growing town that has always been good to me and the fans here are so loyal,” he says. “I always make sure to put the Magic City on the list of touring stops not only because it’s home, but because I love playing different venues (Iron City, Workplay, Saturn, etc.) and getting a little break from traveling. I can actually drive my car to the gig. That’s an amazing feeling.”
12/16 Vanessa Carlton @ Workplay. For fans of Ingrid Michaelson, Anna Nalick, and Jewel.
1/15: Grace Potter @ Iron City. For fans of Florence + the Machine, Brandi Carlile, and Kristin Diable.
1/16: City and Colour @ Iron City. For fans of Iron and Wine, Ray LaMontagne, and Ben Rector.