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Published: 2014/04/20
by Glenn H Roth

Sarah Jarosz’s Never-ending Journey

Sarah Jarosz no longer has to balance her musical career with her schoolwork. Jarosz finished college – graduating from New England Conservatory of Music – and can give full attention to her singing and songwriting equating into a full touring schedule.

“I could have easily just gone out on the road after high school,” said Jarosz, who signed with Sugar Hill Records at 16, “but I wanted to allow myself to be more of a normal person. It was important to give myself a four-year buffer before doing this full time and to have a college experience and to get to explore all types of different music that I hadn’t been exposed to before.

“And all the stuff I learned there, I can work on, my entire life. To add to that, I think that’s a reason why I moved to New York City last summer. I think I’m a type of person where my environment is very important to what what I’m doing creatively. To live in a place like this now will push me to keep growing not just as a musician but as a person too.”

An Austin native, Jarosz currently lives in Brooklyn and recently took a break from her day to talk with by phone about her latest album, her musical influences, growing up in Texas, college life and an upcoming performance at Bonnaroo.

Jarosz, who sings and plays the mandolin, banjo and guitar, performs as a trio with cellist Nathaniel Smith and fiddler Alex Hargreaves.

You’re touring in support of your new album Build Me Up From Bones. As you’ve played the songs from the record have they taken on a new life now that you’re playing them live?

That’s one of my favorite things to see. You write these songs and they start out one way and then you get to know them better and they end up another way. It’s been fun to play them live and to get to know them and build them stronger. A song like “Over The Edge,” it’s got a big band sound and then to transfer that over to a trio arrangement is an interesting thing to see. It went from having bass, electric guitar, an extra guitar and percussions; and now it’s just me playing octave mandolin, Alex on fiddle and Nat on cello and singing harmony. It’s a lot more stripped down, but it’s cool to see it take on that form.

What’s been the maturation process been like for you playing with Alex and Nat?

We’ve been touring for four years as a trio. We all met at different music camps around the country growing up. We would get to see each other every summer growing up – going to festivals like the Mandolin Symposium. These kind of places were really crucial in my development, not only because of the music I got to witness but also getting to meet people like Alex and Nat. That’s how it all kind of started and it’s been cool to watch it grow from playing music for fun to really getting deep into arrangements of songs. I feel we’ve been playing together so long that a lot of the arrangements happen really naturally when I bring a song to the table.

What is it about their musicianship that challenges you and pushes you as a songwriter?

I think they’re some of the best instrumentalists out there. I spend a lot of time focusing on my instrumental skills as well but I also spend a lot of time on my singing and songwriting. It’s cool to bring the songs to the table and get inside the songs and get a look at it from the instrumental side of things. They have an amazing sensibility when it comes to ideas for my songs because we’ve playing together for so long. I also think because of the nature of being a trio – there’s room for a lot of space because a lot of these songs of mine start out with me singing and playing, so it’s cool to add to that but not too significantly. I’m very thankful for their musicianship. They can bring so much to the table but they also know when to hold back and leave some room.

On Build Me Up From Bones you covered “Simple Twist of Fate,” and on a previous album you covered “Ring Them Bells,” what’s the connection to Bob Dylan?

I am a huge fan of his and have been for quite a while now. But it’s funny because with “Ring Them Bells,” on the first album that was a song for a long time I knew I wanted to put on the record. I learned it at a very early age and had been singing at live shows. I certainly wasn’t planning to cover another Bob Dylan song on a second record in a row. But I happen to be backstage with Nat before a show a few years ago and that record came up in conversation, particularly that song came up and we just started playing it for fun with no greater intentions for it. The way you hear it on the record, is pretty much the same way we first played it. There was something right off the bat that was really magical about the voice of the cello together and it brought something really different to that song. We started doing it live and got really great feedback, so when it came time to record, it just seemed like the natural choice.

Favorite Dylan album?

Probably Blood On the Tracks, but it’s hard to choose.

How do you develop the inspiration for your songs and lyrics?

It’s kind of an ever growing and changing process. A lot of it for me is collecting ideas, observations and thoughts that I might have every day. I’m always writing down little lyrical ideas that might lead to something bigger and simultaneously recording little melodies. A lot of times my process consists of sifting through everything that I collected over a period of time and picking out what stands out to me and sticking with something and allowing that to grow into a song. I feel like the people that I was always inspired by the most were the songwriters who put an equal importance on the lyrics, vocals and the instrumentation behind it too. For me, having grown up loving to play the banjo, the guitar, and mandolin – it’s important for me to incorporate a lot of those sounds into what I do. It’s an interesting journey being a songwriter – sometimes it’s kind of like therapy.

You were previously quoted as saying poetry classes you took in college, helped you with the songwriting process. Can you explain?

In my last year of college I had a chance to take a poetry and painting workshop which I kind of dabbled in on my own before but never studied with a teacher. Especially with the poetry, I was kind of going through this drought when it came to writing. It was this freeing experience of getting to write. Obviously there are poetry forms but this class focused on contemporary poetry and writing in any form you wanted to. For me, it was a freeing experience because I’m so used to writing verse-chorus, verse-chorus, so it was nice to be able to get away from that and have ideas come out in any way they might come out and not feel the pressure to fit them into a song setting. On the flip side of that, it allowed me to be more open in my songs and not feel so tied down to the same phrase over and over.

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