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Interview with Sarah Jarosz

(KDHX) When she was 16, Sarah Jarosz came into the acoustic-music scene seemingly fully formed. She has continued to demand and hold our attention ever since. On her latest album, “Build Me Up from Bones,” Jarosz’s material is less guarded, and therefore more adult, though her writing and her delivery have always been astonishing, and not only because she was — and at 23, still is — very young. 

If there is an upside to getting older, though, it means that that there is less noise in her life. When I spoke to her she had just completed her first year of touring full time, the year since she graduated college. When she got her first Grammy nomination, she was in her dorm at the New England Conservatory. The first person she told was her roommate, then she called her parents, and then she got back to a homework assignment that was due the following day.

Then, and for most of her life as a professional musician, there has been a lot to juggle. What hasn’t changed despite the time on the road, which can be grueling, is her dedication to her work and her knowledge that this, above all, is exactly what she was meant to be doing.

Glen Herbert: In a recent interview you described this past summer as a whirlwind. Describe that for me. 

Sarah Jarosz: I’ve just been on the road full time because it’s the first time that I’ve been able to tour full time, and not having the commitment of school. So, it has been a whirlwind. I’ve been travelling all over the world pretty much. This summer we did a lot of festivals. We also did the Cambridge Folk Festival—we were over in the UK and Ireland for about a month, touring there. Which was a blast. I had never been to Ireland before, and we had some really great shows there. We did a bunch of shows opening up for Nickel Creek. It’s just been one thing after the next.

GH: Does it ever seem like a dream? It’s happened so quickly for you, and it seems that you just hit the ground running at pretty much full tilt. 

SJ: Yeah, I definitely have to pinch myself sometimes, especially with things like opening for Nickel Creek. Ten to twelve years ago was I was first starting to play the mandolin, and at that time I was so inspired by Nickel Creek. And now, to be on stage opening up their show, it’s a total dream come true. Because I am still so young, it does sort of seem like it’s all happened so quickly, and it has. But at the same time, I really have been working at this since I was really little.

GH: Were you always the driver? Did you ask for piano lessons, or did your parents tell you “you’re going to take piano lessons now”? 

SJ: My parents said “you’re going to take piano lessons now.” [Laughs] Yeah, I’d been singing basically my whole life, and that was just something that I naturally just loved to do. But with piano, I was always [saying] “I don’t want to practice piano.” I started taking piano lessons when I was six, and it wasn’t until I picked up the mandolin that I became very self driven and motivated to keep practicing.

GH: Do you have a sense of where that kind of motivation comes from? 

SJ: Initially, just because I was such a little girl, I think it just came from my first interactions musically in the central-Texas music community. Those interactions were just fun. Of course, at that time, I wasn’t thinking that this was going to be my career. It was more that it was just a fun hobby as a young girl. And I think that’s initially why I fell in love with it so much. I just loved it. Obviously, from there it grew into the realization that this is what I want to do with my life. So, having that realization, it became more of a self-driven thing to want to work really hard to become as good as I could.

It is funny with the piano. It’s not like I hadn’t been interested in music before that. But I think [with the mandolin] it was about wrapping my arms around an instrument that seemed unique—one that not a lot of people were playing—it just seemed like this fresh thing that I could get excited about.

GH: So, you get the mandolin when you are nine. Seven years later your first album comes out and you’ve got everybody playing on it. Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien … the list goes on and on. Darrell Scott is there, and he also co-wrote one of the songs. And you absolutely owned it, both in the recording and in performance. Where does that confidence come from? That incredible confidence, even then, though it’s of course remained to this day. 

SJ: It’s a good question! No one has asked me that before. I’m not sure. I guess, for as long as I can remember, I’ve just loved performing and singing and being on the stage. And it just made sense; it felt like the truest representation of my being to be performing and to be putting out this other part of me that was able to come out in songs.

But early on I think it had a lot to do with those heroes of mine that are on my records. I think it’s very telling of the acoustic music community for those people to even be willing to lend their talents and their time to a project of this, you know, this little girl basically. [Chuckles] I had really been able to become friends with a lot of those people just through the festival scene, the camps that I went to growing up, and just learning from them. I think that says a lot, and their willingness to be so open really added to my confidence. And [with “Song Up in her Head”] being my first time in the studio recording, to have the chance to be able watch those people in the studio doing their thing was the best learning experience one could ever ask for. I think that all just contributed to me becoming the person that I am, to have those incredible people to look up to.

As well, I’m an only child, so a lot of my life I was with older people a lot of the time. My parents would opt out of the baby sitter and take me with them to shows. I guess that’s maybe a part of it, too, actually: just always being around such positive, awesome mentors.

GH: The New York Times had a note in a capsule review that with this latest album you’ve kind of grown up, in a sense, and that you have moved “past precocity toward the full bloom of artistry: the singing is more deeply self-assured, and the songs are grounded in truer emotional terrain.” I think an example is in the song “Gone Too Soon” you sing: “You and I and this bottle of red/Getting lost under the moon/When the morning comes/I’ll be gone too soon.” Is it awkward knowing that your parents are going to listen to this? 

SJ: [Laughs] You might guess that it would be! But it isn’t. I guess that one of the reasons that I’m able and willing to be so honest in those songs is because I have awesome parents. I remember playing them that song and they loved it, and actually the thought of it being awkward wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. That’s just how open we are. And for as long as I can remember they were my first audience for the songs that I would write. I would finish a song in my room after working on it for a couple weeks, and the first thing I would do would be to go out into the living room and say “Okay, can I play you guys this song I just finished?”

So, they were the first ones to listen to the songs and often offer critiques and try to help me out. My mom has been a songwriter all her life, just as a hobby, never as a job. But to have those ears is something that I feel may be rare. And, anyway, the thought of it being awkward never have crossed my mind because they’re so supportive.

GH: How much of songwriting is art and how much of it is craft? Or is it indeed both art and craft?

SJ: I think it’s definitely both, mostly because I’ve had both experiences. I’ve had maybe two or three songs, in all the songs that I’ve written, happen very quickly, as in over the course of thirty minutes. That’s extremely rare. It’s happened, and it’s very special when it does happen, but more often than not it’s a lot of collecting of ideas over a long period of time.

I’m a very slow writer and I have a hard time writing when I’m on tour because the mindset of being on tour is very different than the mindset of being creative and crafting songs. At the Americana Music Awards a couple nights ago and Jackson Brown …  was saying [while accepting an award] that the hardest thing for a songwriter to do was to find a space in the world where they think no one can hear them. That really hit home with me, to hear him say that. Which is why I feel I can’t write when I’m on tour, because there are always people around.

So most of the time I’m just collecting words and phrases, lyric ideas, melodic ideas, making little recordings. Then when I do have time to sit down and be in my own space I sift back through those things seeing what might work and ultimately crafting a song.

GH: You’ve also covered other peoples’ songs, both on stage and in your recordings. What is it that you see in a song that makes you choose to record it? 

SJ: I think there are lot of factors that go into it. I have to love the song; I have to love to sing it and also feel that I can bring something to the song that is different and original. I certainly feel that there are songs out there that I love more than anything, but that I wouldn’t even dare touch. Song that you think, “well, that’s perfect!”

And that’s not to say that I don’t feel that way about some of the songs that I’ve chosen to cover, but if they bring something different to the table than my own songs, then I’ll consider doing them. With the Joanna Newsome song for example I don’t feel that I write songs like her. Her lyrics are very quirky, and it brings a different aesthetic to the table, which I like. I like bringing in another writer’s voice in order to have something a little different in the mix.

Other songs bring other things. With the Bob Dylan song, “Simple Twist of Fate” for instance, I wanted to record that one because it brought something different sonically to the table. Having just voice and cello it has a different texture from what was already included on the record.

GH: I once heard an interviewer ask Roni Stoneman what advice she would give to a young musician just starting in music. And  Stoneman said something like “You’ve got to love it honey. You’ve got to enjoy your music, because most of the time, that’s all you’re ever going to get out of it.” I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but if you could give advice to the 14-year-old Sarah Jarosz, what would you say? 

SJ: Well, actually, I think Roni Stoneman nailed it on the head! That’s so true, and I think that goes back to what I was saying to you earlier about being such a young girl getting into all this music. The reason I was inspired to keep going was because I just loved it. It made sense to me and I enjoyed working at it. And, obviously, when you’re a young person you’re trying a lot of different stuff. You’re seeing what interests you and so it’s good to have your foot in a lot of different doors. But whatever you end up thinking is the right thing for you you have to love it. Even outside of music, I think that’s the way anything is.

Because, you know, this business is crazy and even this last year has been a real learning experience for me, to be on the road full time. That’s not something you can mentally prepare for ahead of time. You just have to do it in order to realize what it is. And it’s really hard. It’s really hard to not be home. So this last year has been the first time when it really has been “you have to love it.” Because that’s the only thing that’s going to get you through the really difficult times, is to be able come back to that feeling of “well, at least I’m getting to do this in the first place.”

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