Songs in Her Head
Sarah Jarosz, a rising talent in the Americana scene, knows her roots but isn’t afraid to grow beyond them
By Bliss Bowen
Sarah Jarosz made her first three albums while still a student. That’s a significant achievement by most measuring standards, even more so considering that the multi-instrumental singer-songwriter was juggling demanding coursework with touring.
“Song Up in Her Head,” “Follow Me Down” and the Grammy-nominated “Build Me Up From Bones” were all released by the Sugar Hill label, with whom the native Texan signed a deal when she was still in high school; all three were co-produced by Jarosz and Nashville veteran Gary Paczosa; and all three received accolades that have already secured Jarosz, 25, a respected position in the contemporary Americana landscape.
Looking back, Jarosz isn’t sure how she managed to accomplish all that — “especially now,” she says, “realizing it’s so much work to make a record. I felt more present than ever with this album because I had time to direct my complete focus to it, not only with the writing process but also the recording process. That was a real treat.”
Her just-released “Undercurrent” is the first album she’s made since graduating with honors from the New England Conservatory of Music three years ago. It’s also the first album she’s recorded since moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a city in which she’d dreamed of living since her initial visit at age 15. It’s also her first collection of all-original material.
The bluesy track “House of Mercy” was written with guitarist and frequent collaborator Jedd Hughes, who will join Jarosz when she takes the stage at McCabe’s Guitar Shop on Friday.
Jarosz is also joined by her I’m With Her bandmates Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins, whose angelic harmonies gild “Still Life,” which Jarosz and O’Donovan wrote together.
Elsewhere on the album, a mature pop sensibility emerges alongside her bluegrass-folk base in tracks like the dreamy “Back of My Mind,” written with Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan, and the uplifting “Comin’ Undone,”
a collaboration with Parker Milsap:
“Every day’s a war that must be won
Whenever I feel like comin’ undone
The song in my head keeps me marchin’ on”
According to Jarosz, the “tone and vibe” of the haunting “Everything to Hide,” one of four solo tracks, “paved the way for a lot of the songs on the record. I wrote it in a hotel room in London, probably two years ago. Everything came out within an hour, and it was finished. That’s so rare. But it was a
real gift of a song.”
Playing more guitar also affected the album’s sonic palette.
“It’s pretty organic, coming out of the fact that I wrote a lot of the songs on guitar. But there’s a fair amount of octave mandolin as well. It’s taken over, at least for the time being, from regular mandolin, for me. You play it exactly like mandolin, which is my first instrument of choice, but it has a deeper and fuller, rounder tone, maybe, than a mando might have. In a sense it’s more supportive to vocals.”
At this point Jarosz is feeling confident in her musical gifts and “very settled” in New York (the city’s streets feature as prominently in the video for the song as Jarosz’s warbling profile). She’s trying to take advantage of her access to the city’s “stunning community of musicians” whenever she isn’t touring by going out to hear live music every night, which inevitably yields new collaborations. Attending Michael Daves’ weekly residency at Rockwood Music Hall led to sitting in with him onstage, and an invitation to play on his “Orchids and Violence” album. Friends of friends introduced her to violinist and producer Johnny Gandelsman, who asked her to sing on a new arrangement of the traditional “Little Birdie” for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble’s album “Sing Me Home.”
“It was a total thrill,” she recalls. “I have to pinch myself to think that that actually happened.”
Jarosz has learned to savor such unexpected creative challenges. One key lesson she’s picked up from friends like the ever eclectic Chris Thile and traditionally schooled mentors such as bluegrass scion Tim O’Brien is to “honor tradition and honor those people who’ve come before, but [don’t be] hindered by it,” she says.
“There’s a place for the staunch traditionalists of bluegrass or jazz or whatever the genre might be; there’s a sort of preservation that does need to take place that’s important. But I’ve always found myself falling in with those who learn their history and know their roots but aren’t afraid to move past that. …
“With I’m With Her, I was made aware of how important other collaborations are to my own drive and my own inspiration. The goal, to me, is to create a musical life in which you can kind of keep jumping from one collaboration to the next while also having a really firm idea of who you are.”
Sarah Jarosz performs with Curtis McMurtry at 8 p.m. Friday, June 17, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $22.50. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mccabes.com.
They also play the Troubadour (9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 16. $25. Visit troubadour.com.