Wednesday, May 5th, 2021
Photo by Kaitlyn Raitz
Sarah Jarosz on Her New Album, Growing Up in Wimberley, Texas, and Music As Home
Constant State of Tuning
May 05, 2021
By Jake Uitti
Photography by Kaitlyn Raitz and Josh Wool
Sarah Jarosz is one of the few people who is as successful as she is talented. While the two don’t often come hand-in-hand, unfortunately, Jarosz boasts both in spades. The nine-time Grammy nominated artist, who has won the award four times, has released five records, all of which imbue prowess in technical ability and artful intuition. Whether Jarosz is strumming her mandolin covering Prince or playing her own original music, she is compelling for both her stature and composure.
Jarosz, who will release her next LP, Blue Heron Suite, on Friday, wrote the album about four years ago, inspired by family vacations and family hardship. She was commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and FreshGrass music festival to write the LP, on which the already-accomplished artist says she used new writing techniques.
We caught up with Jarosz to ask her about her early years writing music, what it’s been like to be so well recognized for her songs, her new album, and much more.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did music first enter your world in a significant way as a young person?
Sarah Jarosz: Wow, well, pretty much as long as I have been alive, music has been there. I mean, I have been singing for as long as I can remember. I think the first documented recording of me singing was when I was two years old, singing, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” at a school function. [Laughs] So, yeah, my parents are just huge music lovers. My mom plays guitar and sings, so music has always been around. I didn’t really start actively writing my own songs—I started playing mandolin when I was 10 years old. So, it was in my early teens that I started writing my own music and feeling like, “Oh this is maybe something I want to do in my life.”
I’ve tried to play mandolin and, may I ask, do you ever go crazy with the amount of tuning involved? I know I’ve thought about throwing one across the room before!
Oh yes. My life is basically a constant state of tuning. I feel your pain!
Why did you invest more seriously in writing and when did you realize you had real talent?
Well, I mean, it all happened pretty naturally. Music has always been an extension of my self. When I look back, I can’t really think of a moment when it was a choice to pursue or continue. It was just always something that I did. I eat and I sleep and I play music. Singing is like an extension of my speaking voice and it always has been. You know, I think the initial curiosity and desire to want to actually start writing songs was very much influenced by my mom.
She has always written songs of her own, mostly as a hobby throughout her whole life. But just being aware of that as a young kid, it was just like, “Oh this is something people do. So, I’m going to do it too.” But once I started writing my own music, I do think there was a shift. Like, “This is my own thing and this is something that I can own. This is me.” Then later on in my teens was when I started recording and I signed a record deal at 16. So, that’s when it started to feel like, “Oh this is becoming a career.” But it all happened pretty naturally.
I know you grew up in Wimberley, Texas, which, I believe is where my editor’s niece also grew up, randomly! How did that area impact you and, perhaps, how did it guide you to playing Americana music?
Interesting, wow! Oh man, that’s incredible that your editor’s niece is from there. Maybe I know her! For those who aren’t familiar, Wimberley is a very small town of about 2,000 people. But it was great as a kid. It’s a magical little town. It’s in the hill country, beautifully tucked away amidst rivers and creeks and hills. It really is a special place, especially as I’ve become an adult and traveled to lots of places. I’ve realized how special Wimberley is.
But it’s also great because of its proximity to Austin. It’s unique in the sense that you get this very rural town but it’s also kind of a stone’s throw from Austin. As a kid, I was able to see all the live music that Austin had to offer, that Wimberley did not have to offer. But at the same time, Wimberley had its own magical little music community. And I guess that was my way in. There was a weekly bluegrass jam, if you will. It was partially bluegrass but there was also a lot of Texas singer/songwriter music. People would show up and sing Willie Nelson and John Prine and Guy Clark songs. So, it wasn’t strictly bluegrass.
It was a beautiful environment, beautiful people who welcomed me in with open arms. I guess that’s really where my love of whatever you want to call it—Americana, folk, bluegrass—started. It was in Wimberley with those people at the Friday night jam. From there, it continued on. Obviously, Austin is one of the best music cities in the world. So, it was the combination of having that jam in Wimberley and all the great genres of live music I would see in Austin that sculptured the musician I would become.
That’s a really cool dichotomy, the intimate small town jams and the access to the whole universe of music through Austin.
And then at some point in your life you began to release albums that were nominated for Grammy after Grammy! It seems trite to ask what that felt like, but how did you process all that success? Is it daunting, inspiring?
Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s welcomed! It’s wonderful, you know? It’s so nice to—and it sounds cliché to say—but it always feels good to feel like your music is reaching people’s ears. The Grammy’s in particular is the culmination of that, feeling like, “Oh this is reaching people.” And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I watched the Grammys every year as a kid. It was always a dream to win, or not even win, but just to be a part of it someday. You know, like, classic little girl watching the TV, thinking maybe someday.
So, on a lot of levels, it’s absolutely a dream come true. I pinch myself that it’s even happened once, let alone several times. I’m really grateful. It’s so great to be recognized and win awards. But thing that I care about most at the end of the day is the musicians I surround myself and making sure that I’m always in a position to be challenged and inspired by the people I’m making music with. That feels like winning the most.
If anything, when you do win an award, it’s great and it’s awesome. But, for me, it’s always been: and… now what? What’s next? It’s even more of an impetus to look forward and to try just to keep making good art. So, that’s what it comes down to for me at the end of the day.
I’ve realized that when I achieve something cool in my life, it can often feel like it’s immediately in the past pretty quick, which can bring up some anxieties and depression, even. I wonder if you also feel this way at times and, with that as a backdrop, how do try to forge ahead in your work and stay sovereign—to feel inspired but not pulled away from yourself?
Great question. You know, it’s a constant work in progress. I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever feel like that I’ve figured it out and I’ve reached the end. Like, now I am complete. And that’s the beautiful part about being a creative person in any capacity. Ultimately, when I feel any of those things that you’ve mentioned—anxieties, depression or just losing my center of gravity—the thing that always pulls me back is focusing on the art, focusing on the work. It can be really easy to forget that, surprisingly.
The business side of things, that takes a lot of focus and energy. It can sometimes be easy to get so wrapped up in that and forget about the music. So, the thing that I always try to use as the barometer or the centering device, if you will, is the music. As long as I am focused on that and that’s the priority, then you can’t go too far astray. That has always served me well—jeez, especially in this last year. Returning to the music, returning to why I’m doing what I’m doing in the first place has helped me immensely.
Photo by Josh Wool
What was the genesis of your new record?
This record, Blue Heron Suite, is so close to my heart, possibly more than anything I’ve released before. It’s also been a longtime coming. It was written in 2017. I was commissioned by the FreshGrass Festival, which is a wonderful festival in North Adams, Massachusetts, at the MASS MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is an awesome art museum.
The folks there had created this commission for artists. I was the second one to received it. Bill Frisell, the great guitarist was the first. Basically they asked me to write a piece of music. It could be any format but the only guidelines was that it needed to be 30-45 minutes in length. Most albums are 30-45 minutes in length. So, it was a little bit of a daunting task.
But I was also in a place where I was excited for the challenge musically and to use it as an opportunity to write in a little bit of a different way than I would normally approach my albums, in the sense that it’s a song cycle, it’s a suite of music. It’s meant to be listened to from start to finishing without pause. It’s a complete thought, musically.
So, I wrote it in 2017 when my mom was really in the thick of super-intense chemotherapy for breast cancer. It was a really tough year for my family. I’m an only child and me and my parents are super close. It was really tough. I feel like it was almost like a self-healing mechanism to choose to write about the blue heron. Port Aransas, Texas, has always been a special place for my family and me. And the blue heron has always represented a good omen for my mom, especially. Anyone who knows the birds, they know that compared to all the other birds on the beach, they’re very stoic and calm and peaceful in nature.
They’ve just always represented good omens for us. So, I thought that would be a really cool symbol to explore and write about with this piece. Now three years down the road, it’s finally coming out. Now, especially after this past year, it feels like double the layers of healing within this music. I’m just so happy that it’s finally coming out in the world.
My wife is a musician and she always laughs when she’s asked about her “songwriting process” because there often is no process. It can be just whatever works in a moment. With that said, though, are there constructive things you look for along the way when you’re writing?
I agree with your wife, to a certain extent there always is a bit of mystery surrounding the process. I think the things that generally repeat themselves from project to project is that I’m mostly always trying to be aware and looking out for ideas whenever the come. I’m snatching them out of the air. Usually that happens—lyrics and music come separately of each other, in general.
I’m collecting lyric ideas on my notes app and I’m also collecting melodic ideas on my voice memo app. And then I’ll usually sit down and sift through those and see—generally, there’s a pretty obvious sense of what lyric and musical ideas are gravitating towards each other. And that’s I would say my most go-to, if I had to say that I had a process.
But it was interesting. The process of writing this suite was different. I mean, it started in that same way, where I was gathering ideas. But it was different in the sense that I knew I was going to be revisiting themes throughout the course of the piece unfolding. Repeating and reprising and taking a melodic idea and placing it again at the end, so you hear this repetition throughout.
So, in a way, this piece of music felt more like a puzzle in that way. I figured out what the pieces were first. I figured out the imagery I wanted to use first, like the blue heron and all the coastal imagery and my mom and all of that. Then I also figured out the melodic themes that I wanted to center things around. Then once I had those pieces, I just figured out how they all fit together. It was actually a really fun process in that sense. It was so different than how I would normally write a record.
Do you think you’ll take any of these techniques to future records?
I would love to do more of this down the road. Right now, it definitely feels like a stand-alone piece. Well, I guess it’s complicated. I always have been someone—I try to craft my albums in a way—I know people don’t really listen to albums anymore. [Laughs] They listen to playlists and songs and singles and all that. But I still am an album girl, to the core. When I make my albums, I make them in the hopes that somebody would listen to it from start to finish. I try to craft a listening experience. But this is like that times 100. This piece of music is truly written and meant to be listened to from start to finish. I really enjoyed the process of writing that way that I do think I would love to try to explore that more down the road.
What comes to mind when you think about the future?
It’s a lot of feelings! It’s really interesting as things are slightly starting to open up and there’s still so much uncertainty. I would say within the last month, there are gigs starting to appear on the calendar. But there are still things that are getting cancelled and it’s just a wide mix of emotions. At once, I’m so foaming at the mouth. I can’t wait to get back on the road. That’s been who I am for as long as I’ve known who I am. I’ve been touring since my teens and it’s very strange to not be out on the road and be able to do my thing.
At the same time, it’s been long enough now that I’ve learned so much about myself—hard-learned lessons over the course of last year. I’ve had to really examine things about myself and my lifestyle and day-to-day things that normally would get tossed to the side on a busy tour schedule. In many ways, that was really hard initially. But there have been so many silver linings in that. Just taking the time—even with anxiety and depression and I know it’s been so hard for so many people this year, especially musicians who have been out of work for so long.
But I think there has been a lot of growth that has come from that. It’s a little bit of looking ahead and being really excited for touring to come back and also wanting to not just totally revert back to whoever I was a year ago. To carry these lessons with me into the newness. I think that’s something that I’m really excited about. In a way, I think I might appreciate that connection with the audience more than ever. It’s not something that I will ever take for granted.
What do you love most about music?
Oh my goodness, that’s a deep last question! I love that it’s always a place to come home to. It’s always a place to land. Kind of like I was saying before, when I feel like I’m losing my center of gravity, it’s very grounding. I think when music is good it’s like that for a lot of people. It makes you feel like yourself. Whatever your favorite music is makes you feel like the best version of yourself. It’s like this heightened sense of reality, in a way, when you’re listening to a song. That’s what it’s been for me and I certainly hope that my music is that for other people. It’s a place to land. That’s my favorite part.