Birmingham, Ala.-based songwriter Matthew Mayfield tried his hand at being a gentle-voiced folkie, but he realized he was a rocker at heart. Listening to the newly released disc Now You're Free, older fans of Mayfield surely recognize some of the burly rock stylings of his previous 'Bama-based quintet, Moses Mayfield. Those who've been following Mayfield's acoustic work in recent years, however, are surely surprised by the robust power-chords and rhythmic bombast of the album's impressive full-band sound.
"Most of the new music I was writing last year had big riffs and big melodies," Mayfield says. "As it came together, my producer Paul Moak and I realized that it needed to be a giant-sounding rock 'n' roll record with power-pop sensibilities to it."
Mayfield first made a splash in the alt-rock scene in the late 2000s with Moses Mayfield, a group that blended classic guitar-rock, Britpop, and Americana. After signing with Epic Records in 2005, they released The Inside, a slick album full of dramatic and theatrical anthems and radio-friendly rock. After the band split in 2008, Mayfield pursued a solo career, releasing a debut disc titled The Fire EP.
"It was time to own it," Mayfield says. "The thrill of any success and the weight of any failure would be on my shoulders. I wasn't going to hide behind a band or pretend it wasn't my name on the marquee. I was ready for another season."
He recorded seven additional EPs over the course of the next year and a half, toured the country in his car, and developed a new following in the Southeast.
"I made those acoustic records like that because I had to," Mayfield says. "I didn't have any money, but I wanted to make a record — but all I had was me. That first EP was me in a room full of mics with my songs. But I love big, anthemic rock songs, too."
By mid-2010, he was ready to record his first solo full-length collection.
"I had the team and the resources to make my first real album, so I headed to Nashville to made the record I've always wanted to make," Mayfield says.
Released in late spring, Now You're Free marks a return to the melodic modern rock of his previous band days. Lyrically and structurally, the music's a bit more sophisticated and confident than his previous major label work.
Most of the music on Now You're Free compares well with the gruff Americana-rock and earnest modern guitar pop of contemporaries like Will Hoge, Foo Fighters, Son Volt, and Whiskeytown. Mayfield's smoky baritone sounds a little drowsy on the strummy, mid-tempo album-opener "Come Back Home," but he sounds invigorated and inspired on the anthem "Missed Me." Some whispery/soulful Springsteen moments pop up in slower ballads like "Fire Escape," while the opening guitar on the swampy stomper "Man-Made Machine" borrows the main riff of ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down."
"These new songs shine a lot more with a full band," Mayfield says. "It's been great on the road with the four of us this year. It's a harder way to tour, compared to going solo. Everyone's gotta eat and find a place to sleep, and there's more gear. At the same, I really feel a lot more comfortable in front of a loud rock band than as a songwriter on a stool in a coffeeshop."
On the new album, Mayfield enjoyed solid backing from Moak (on guitar), bassist Tony Lucido, and drummer Will Sayles. However, his road combo features guitarist Clint Wells, bassist Bryan Rust, and drummer Landon Robertson.
"Clint is the Nashville guy, and Bryan and Landon are Birmingham guys," says Mayfield. "They're well-seasoned pros, which is nice. I don't have to do any babysitting, which is really great. We're all on the same page about this set, and we usually try to turn up and rock harder than the studio versions. I don't ever want people to come to the show and just hear the record. I want them to hear and feel something different, so we don't hold back."