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Sarah Jarosz: This Bird Flies Higher

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I wrote this feature story/interview on Sarah Jarosz for the Victory Review, the online magazine of Victory Music, a non-profit that supports acoustic music in the Pacific Northwest...

The CD leads off with one of those songs that is new but sounds instantly old, maybe it’s the octave mandolin played by the songwriter and lead singer. Some of the world’s finest string players form the backing band: Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas and Darrell Scott. “Time moves slow and time moves fast, Oh the future now will soon be past.” croons 18-year old Sarah Jarosz, her voice and songwriting belying her years.

With the instrumental “Mansinneedof” nominated for a Grammy, Jarosz’s 2009 first release, Song Up in Her Head on Sugar Hill is filled with engaging songs, crisp picking, haunting melodies and vocals, and enough celebrity endorsements to constitute a coronation.

Jarosz is the “it girl” of contemporary acoustic string band music. She is a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist with a voice as powerful and subtle as her playing. She is a master of old-time clawhammer banjo and contemporary songwriting, her touch with lyrics as deft as her fretwork. And she is a sweet kid in her second term of college who humbly knows the music world is her string to pluck.

Victory Music caught up with Jarosz a few weeks back at the 2010 Wintergrass music festival, where her sets with fiddle prodigy Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith were the talk of the festival.

While Wintergrass is ostensibly a bluegrass festival (the bluegrass festival in the minds of many) and Jarosz got her start picking out bluegrass and old time licks at the age of 10 on the perimeter of the local Wimberley Jam in her Texas hometown, her music has moved away from the limits of bluegrass into newgrass or worldgrass territory.

“I really started getting into the mandolin at the age of 10. You know, I was still doing little girl things at that point and kind of thinking ‘what would I do for my life?’ Music has always been the apparent answer to that question,” Jarosz said.

“I’d heard mandolin on recordings around the house just growing up. My friend had this mandolin and she offered to let me borrow it for a while. I was like sure, that seems like a cool thing. I was nine, almost 10 at that time, and I started messing around with it and really got into it….I started going to [the Wimberley Jam] and just really got hooked on it.

“I learned so much from going to that because I would just go back every week and you know, sit on the outside of the circle and little by little I would start to learn more things. The great thing about that jam was that the people were incredible. They were so encouraging of me and so willing to be like, ‘oh here’s this, here’s how you do this’… So I just got kind of hooked and that Christmas my parents bought that mandolin from the friend, they were willing to sell it."

“The clawhammer banjo came from a guy at that jam, his name is Bernard Mollberg (one of the founders of Austin Friends of Traditional Music), and I remember him playing, he is an amazing clawhammer banjo player, and just thinking it was really cool. And at the same time I heard Abigail Washburn and was really influenced by her, being a young woman in the music scene. So he started showing me a few things, he had a banjo that he let me borrow, and just kind of started practicing that and really got so hooked right away. He actually built the banjo that I play now."

While Sarah was cutting her chops at a traditional jam, she pretty quickly started gravitating toward more contemporary styles of acoustic music.

“I think it happened pretty naturally,” she said. “I remember Nickel Creek had a big part in that. Right around the time that I started playing was when their first record came out and really took off and I remember seeing their music video on CMT and feeling like, whoa, this is what I’m doing and its these young people and it is really cool!"

“I think, too, that there were always so many different genres of music playing around my house it was never just bluegrass...(I was) being constantly exposed to so many different kinds of music.”

Jarosz has characterized her father as one of those people who can’t pass a record store without stopping in, and can’t stop in without picking up 10-12 discs of all sorts. His egalitarian tastes have sunk deep into Sarah as well. Her record includes covers of Tom Waits and the Decemberists. A highlight of her live sets is often Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy.

And now her musical education is in hyperdrive. This past Fall, Jarosz enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music, in their contemporary improv program.

“The contemporary improv program is really unique,” Jarosz said. “The thing I like about it is that has really gotten me out of my comfort zone musically. I was in a Jewish music ensemble and a world music ensemble last semester. It has opened up my mind musically. I am more experimental on some of the things I will do with arrangements on the next CD, instrumentally and lyrically. I am in this really great class this semester that is an intro to jazz improv and ear training and I am learning so much. It is exciting that in less than the year that I’ve been there I feel like I am learning so much. The cool thing about the program is that I am not tied down to just studying voice, I’m getting to play mandolin and voice just do my thing while still getting to do new things. “

Mando is certainly an instrument with classical cred, but is there any room for clawhammer banjo at the conservatory?

“We just had our first contemporary improv concert and I was definitely playing the clawhammer banjo!” said Jarosz.

Like her mentors, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, and Gillian Welch, whom she references in the first line of the CD, Jarosz is drawn to songwriting like a moth to a flame.

“I am constantly listening to music and being inspired by songwriters and musicians,” she said. “Songwriting is about being a good listener and observer and taking in as much as possible. That is a learning process in itself—trying to have open eyes and ears to everything around you, because it is really easy to be closed off. “

Her songwriting process varies, she said. “It is different every time. I am always writing down lyric ideas, things that I see, or whatever. And then also, in the same sense, I am often recording little melodic ideas and sometimes I’ll sift back through all that stuff and see what works together. Sometimes it just all comes together as one and those are the real gems. I think the fact that it is an every changing process is why I love it so much, you never really know what to expect.”

She is working on songs for her next record.  “It is kind of an exciting time for writing. Being my first year away from home, there like a lot of new experiences and things to be writing about.”

Working on her first CD with a string of A-list players was an amazing experience, as well.

“For me as a young musician and it being my first CD, I was just blown away with how generous everyone was with their time, And also I felt so lucky, it being the first time I was making a record, I was learning so much watching all the pros, how they work in a studio, how they go about doing things. I felt really lucky and they were all so kind to give their time working on my record.”

Jarosz is just as gracious in her acknowledgement of Wintergrass’ Stephen Ruffo and Patrice O’Neil, who are prominently mentioned in her liner notes.

“Both of them have been amazing as I’ve grown up as a young musician,” she said. “I met them at the mandolin symposium that Ruffo started with David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Chris Thile. It’s a week-long mandolin camp in Santa Cruz, CA. I went to the first one when I was 13 and just right away they were just the nicest people, really encouraging. I mean, there were so many young musicians going to the mandolin symposium and they were so encouraging of all of us and just trying to pass it on. And then through meeting them there, I got to know Ruffo and Patrice a little bit more and Ruffo invited me to play at Wintergrass two years ago. I can’t say enough good things about them, they have been really special.”

The audiences at Jarosz Wintergrass sets this year were packed with acoustic courtiers young and old. Hargreaves and Smith provided strong musical foils to Jarosz’ poised playing and soaring vocals.

“They are both such killer musicians,” Jarosz remarked the morning before their sets. “We had our first rehearsal last night and it was just so exciting.”

While Hargreaves is a long-time collaborator (if anyone can be a long-time anything at the age of 17), this was Smith’s first gig with Jarosz. A bit timid at first, by the middle of the first set, Smith was chopping and bowing his cello with unrestrained vigor. Jarosz spun intricate lines on mandolin, octave mando, banjo and guitar, her voice dancing with harmonies to Hargreaves’ fiddle.

And as the crowd swayed and danced with the music, Jarosz’ voice soared with the title lyric from her album:

“This bird flies higher with a song up in her head.”

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