Sarah Jarosz burst onto the musical landscape with her excellent debut, 2009's Song Up In Her Head. She quickly followed it up with a 2-song single called The New 45, and recently dropped her sophomore album, Follow Me Down, in May.
There's been extensive coverage written about Ms. Jarosz's debut album, the fact that each of her releases have included an impressive roster of legendary virtuosos, and how her new full length effort is already one of the best records of 2011. Although it was great corresponding via email for my first interview with Sarah last year, it was even more of a pleasure to speak with her directly for this one.
I’d like to start by asking you what was your first instrument?
Sarah Jarosz: Technically speaking, I would have to say that voice was my first instrument. I began singing from a very early age, when I was about 2 or 3. I took some piano lessons for a while when I was about 6, but I think it all really started for me when I picked up the mandolin. That was really the first instrument that I got really serious about and it was really how I fell in love with this music.
How old were you when you picked up the mandolin?
SJ: I was 9, just about to turn 10.
What came after the mandolin, and how did that lead you to picking up other instruments?
SJ: It happened from going to the Friday night bluegrass jams in my hometown of Wimberley, Texas which was where I really got serious about the mandolin. Just from being around other musicians at the jam, I began playing clawhammer banjo and then picked guitar up along the way.
Would you say that the mandolin is you absolute favorite, or has one of the others eclipsed it?
SJ: I don't think I could pick a favorite instrument. I feel most comfortable on mandolin in terms of knowing my way around the instrument. With that being said, I really love each instrument for a different reason. Especially when it comes to songwriting, it's really nice to have all of the different instruments to go to for inspiration and for different sonic characteristics.
When you are writing music, do you find that you have a particular instrument in mind before you begin? Or do you find that you choose an instrument first, and then allow it to take over and dictate the direction?
SJ: I'd say it works both ways for sure. I feel like I've done a lot of writing on the octave mandolin recently, but if I feel it gets a little stale or at a loss of ideas on that, it's always nice to be able to switch over to another instrument.
I'd like to ask you a little bit about your live performances. The last time I saw you play live was when you played a solo set at Mercury Lounge in NYC, opening for Black Prairie.
SJ: Oh cool.
What are most rewarding aspects for you when performing solo and when performing with others?
SJ: I love both and I feel very fortunate to have both outlets musically. I love playing solo shows because it's really how these songs started, just me and an instrument. Even in the studio setting working with Gary Paczosa, that's how most of the songs begin- by just recording my voice and my instrument. As a musician and a songwriter it's cool to see these songs go through different life forms. It's really freeing musically to do a solo show and I feel like I can take my time and be looser. Plus, it's nice to hear the songs and play the songs in their original and organic forms.
Whereas I feel just as excited to do the trio shows with Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and Nathaniel Smith on cello. It's cool to see the songs go though that kind of transformation as well. On top of that, recording these songs and building them up even more. Like I said before, it's cool to see thee songs change and transform in new ways live.
It's interesting to hear the story of these songs, like how they begin with you by yourself and then get performed with others, and then brought into the studio and built up. Sonically, how do these songs change the most in the studio?
SJ: I have found that when I've make a record in this way, by writing a song and bringing in my parts in their most basic forms and then building them up from there. I really see it like starting with a blank canvas. There's just so many different directions to go in from that starting point. Working with Gary Paczosa has had such a huge impact on how these songs have been built up. It's been fun to build the songs up and experiment, and add or subtract elements in order to find what works best.
You had a residency at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City, where you played a series of shows before the new album was released. Can you talk about your experiences doing those shows and what most beneficial about the experience for you?
SJ: I live in Boston and go to school at New England Conservatory, so it was easy to get down to New York City to do these shows. It was a really fun thing to do and it was a really good way for me to build a New York fan base. These performances gave me a place to work out these new songs in a live setting. I just had a blast doing it. It was my first time doing a residency, so I wondered how the shows were going to go, like what the energy level would be like, or if every show was going to be the same. But by the third show, the energy level was at the highest of them all. It was really really fun. I would really be into doing something like that again.
How does living in Boston influence your work?
SJ: It's had a huge influence. The changes I have gone through musically and personally have both had a tremendous impact.
What were you listening to or influenced by the most while working on your new album?
SJ: Well, the influences for me have been people like Tim O'Brien, Gillian Welch, and Chris Thile. Since I have been in school, including when I began working on the the new album, I was being pushed more out of my comfort zone musically.
SJ: Well, from being challenged in terms of improvisation and listening to a lot of new music that I hadn't really listened to before like jazz and even classical. That was all really new to me and I think for me, it's all about being the best listener I can be. When your ears are really open to what's going on, you're naturally going to absorb those things. In one way or another they are going to find their way into your own music in some way.
Lots of artists perform covers live, but few record them so consistently on their own albums as you have. I've really enjoyed how you have included covers among your originals on all of your releases. What compels you to commit these songs to your recordings?
SJ: I'd say it just comes from a love for so many different artists and wanting to include these songs that I love so much. In terms of choosing covers for a record, it's about choosing songs that go well with my own original music. But when it comes down to it, it's about songs that I love to sing and play. I feel like it's a pretty natural process. Like including "The Tourist" for instance. That has so much to do with the Punch Brothers, and by simply changing the instrumentation, that made that song have a completely new feel, while still being so true to the original.
How did you connect with the Punch Brothers for the recording of “The Tourist”?
SJ: I've known Chris (Thile) for a while now. He's been a really great mentor for me growing up. We were just backstage at a festival somewhere and he played that song and then I went home and learned it. Then, the next time I saw the Punch Brothers play live, I told them that I learned the song and they asked me to sit in and sing it with them. So when I was thinking of covers to include on the album, I thought that that one would be a perfect fit.
On a similar, and final note, what have you been listening to lately?
SJ: I'm always listening to a lot of Shawn Colvin. Recently, I've been getting into a lot of Miles Davis and a new artist named Jesca Hoop. She has a new album called Hunting My Dress which I have been listening a lot to. But I'm always listening to lots of Tim O'Brien and Gillian Welch. I'm really excited for Gillian's new album. I've listened to it a few times.