About Sarah Jarosz
The best and brightest in the acoustic world move the music forward with an awareness of what came before them; that is certainly true of Sarah Jarosz. On her second album for Sugar Hill Records, Follow Me Down, she pays homage to her musical roots while pushing beyond those sometimes limited boundaries, taking us on a journey both dark and mystical. For this, Jarosz has a simple yet telling explanation: “I’m influenced by the older, and the contemporary, and the new.” Her approach to acoustic music is invigorating; she gives equal attention to playing, singing, and writing, choosing songs that embrace both old timey and modern sounds.
Jarosz’s new album—due out six days before her twentieth birthday—takes up where her acclaimed debut, Song Up In Her Head, left off, but also expands her palette significantly. “I definitely could have just made a record that was similar to the last one—pretty rootsy,” she reflects. “That would have been a representation of a side of me. But I have all these new sounds and ideas and I just didn’t want to hold back on this one.”
The Wimberley, Texas native went looking for those ideas—she didn’t sit back and wait for them to come to her. Instead of going straight to work as a full-time musician, as many before her have done, she left her hometown—30 miles outside of Austin—and headed to Boston’s New England Conservatory to study contemporary improvisation on the NEC Presidential Merit scholarship.
“I wanted something to push me out of my comfort zone,” Jarosz says. “I wanted to be playing things that I might not normally play.” And she has had plenty of opportunities to do just that, from playing and singing with Jewish and world music ensembles at school to sitting in on wildly unpredictable live jams with the Punch Brothers and Mumford & Sons.
Jarosz makes the most out of her immersion in new flavors. “It’s all so fun and exciting,” she shares. “That’s not to say that I’m going to become a world music musician. But being exposed to all of that and learning it and absorbing it, it becomes part of your musical language and something that you can use in your own way to make what you do more unique.” That keen, open-minded attitude speaks volumes about her maturity.
In the two years since Jarosz’s first album came out, the wider world has discovered what plenty of old-time and bluegrass luminaries and festival-going fans already knew—that she is a formidable talent. There have been GRAMMY and Americana Music Award nominations, a trio of Austin Music Awards, invitations to perform on “Austin City Limits” and “A Prairie Home Companion” and at Bonnaroo, Newport and Telluride.
For Jarosz, all this has meant lugging around four instrument cases—one holding her mandolin, another her octave mandolin and the final two her clawhammer banjo and acoustic guitar—while keeping up with her tonal harmony and American lit classes. It was in the midst of this heady, buzzing season that she once again teamed up with acoustic guru Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Chris Thile) as co-producer.
They did a session with the Punch Brothers in New York, covering alt-rock band Radiohead’s “The Tourist”, a musical influence that is felt throughout the record. A session in Boston featured her talented young trio mates Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith; the bulk of the recording was done in Nashville with some of the acoustic world’s finest pickers and singers, including Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Viktor Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Shawn Colvin, Vince Gill and Darrell Scott among others. Somewhere in between writing, arranging and recording the songs, Jarosz finally found time to learn how to drive and got her license, something that had taken a backseat to sharpening her musical skills at old-time jams and mandolin camps in her mid-teens. “I did realize that driving would be a necessary thing to be able to tour,” she adds amusedly.
The recording process may have been fragmented, but the results definitely are not. Jarosz assembles diverse elements in a way that feels natural. For one thing, she’s just as comfortable adapting a tragic, old-timey ballad like “Annabelle Lee”—inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s final poem—or a modernized Appalachian ode to secret love like “Run Away” as she is cultivating contemporary singer-songwriter introspection in songs like “Here Nor There” and “Gypsy”.
Both of those songwriting impulses have been with her for a while. As far back as junior high, she was taken with Gillian Welch’s old-timey compositions and Shawn Colvin’s neo-folk confessions. “I have been so influenced by both of those styles of writing,” says Jarosz. “I just try to be the best listener that I can be. I just try to take it all in, and then have it come back out in a new way.”
The fact that Jarosz is dedicated to quality songwriting does not mean she gives any less attention to the instrumental side of things; she plays eight different instruments on the new album. “That’s why I decided to put two instrumentals on there,” she offers. One of those—a stately Celtic-flavored number called “Peace”—she started on mandolin when she was twelve, and completed at college. ”That song,” she says, “is a good example of taking something that was old and me going through my school experience and it changing.”
On the subject of change, the album features more adventurous grooves, and more percussion, which is precisely what Jarosz was looking for. She says, “I know for some purists out there, it’s like, “Why do you have to have drums?’ For me, it’s like, ‘Why not?’” During “Come Around” the drums provide an irregular heartbeat beneath Fleck’s inventive licks.
With the Punch Brothers backing Jarosz on “The Tourist”—and reaching nearly as big and raw-nerved a climax as Radiohead did when they originally recorded the song—Jarosz uses her pleasing, even-toned voice in ways she never has before. And during the haunting “My Muse”, she gives her phrasing a syncopated push.
Jarosz’s taste in covers is hardly confined to British rock bands, but neither does it lean toward traditional material. The other cover on Follow Me Down is a sanguine reading of Bob Dylan’s folk hymn “Ring Them Bells”. On Song Up In Her Head she mined the Decemberists’ and Tom Waits’ catalogs. Live, she’s been known to cover Gnarls Barkley and Bill Withers. She gives each of the songs imaginative and tasteful acoustic treatments—a new way of hearing them.
Jarosz’s repertoire is one of many reasons her music has caught on with audiences across the age spectrum—from those who heard Dylan all over the radio when they were in high school, to those who tune in to Gnarls Barkley now, and who like to digitally download her songs (a rarity among roots acts). She has more ways than ever of connecting with all manner of ears, along with a highly developed sense of what she’s about. “What’s most important,” she emphasizes, “is just trying to stay true to myself as an artist and be as original as I can.” On Follow Me Down, she has done exactly that.