Since signing to Sugar Hill Records at age 16, Sarah Jarosz has barely stopped to catch her breath, even as she leaves audiences and critics alike breathless. Rolling Stone has compared her to Gillian Welch; Mojo labeled her a “newgrass prodigy” for her skills on banjo, guitar and mandolin; and the normally reserved New York Times hailed her as “one of acoustic music’s finest talents,” with songwriting chops to match her instrumental prowess.
Exciting as that all may sound, that was before. For with her new albumBuild Me Up From Bones, Sarah Jarosz, now 22, has graduated in every sense of the word. The album came to fruition as she finished college at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and Bones incorporates the many lessons she learned there as she delved into other artistic realms.
Ask the Austin, Texas native how she feels about the disc, and her reply is decisive: “It’s the truest representation of my music at this point.I wanted to create a rollercoaster of different sounds, emotions and feelings, and not one even line. It has rocking numbers, and it also features the trio I play with—it incorporates those guys more. It feels true to me: unique and new.”
She adds: “I feel like I’ve grown as a person, especially in these last few years. I latched onto music as a child and it became my main way of expressing myself. But through college I got into other creative outlets: art, painting and poetry. It helped me to come back to music in a deeper way, to follow deeper trails and meanings and feelings.”
That depth manifests itself from start to finish on this 11-song record, as Jarosz creates sonic atmospheres that shimmer with equal parts acoustic majesty and electrifying mystery. “Mile on the Moon” ambles along with a familiar folky stride. Yet the melody and slipstream musical track suggest somewhere far away and beyond, a translucent vision where ardor blooms in nocturnal hues: “I dreamed we fell into the night/ Your darkness shined the brightest light/ We drove for miles on the moon/ I’d go anywhere with you.”
Did lunar forces tug at Sarah’s songwriting tides? As she puts it, “I never go into a record thinking I want a recurring theme throughout. But after the fact—and I certainly didn’t plan this—there are four songs that mention the moon in some way. For me, songwriting is an ever changing nature; it’s always fresh, and the moon is sort of like that: always changing, always pulling.”
That the song also takes on love as a subject matter shows Jarosz growing, enough so that she tackles this oldest of topics in surprising new ways. “I feel like my favorite songwriters leave enough things in the song to keep you digging,” she says. “The goal is to write songs that people will make personal to themselves—even if they may be very personal to me.”
That said, it’s a neat trick that Jarosz covers songs by two artists with fiercely loyal followings, and makes them all her own. Her version of harpist Joanna Newsom’s song “The Book of Right-On” stays true to the original’s freak folk funkiness, but Jarosz goes a step further by giving the song a winsome honey-gilded vocal to pine for. And as for taking on Bob Dylan — which she did on her 2011 disc Follow Me Down—Jarosz didn’t expect she’d do it again. But a backstage jam session with cellist Nathaniel Smith (part of the trio behind the new album, along with fiddler Alex Hargreaves) proved, indeed, “A Simple Twist of Fate.”
“We just kind of played that song for ourselves, not even thinking we were going to work it up, and it happened so naturally—we said, ‘Man, that felt good,” Jarosz says. “Live, it’s gotten a very good response.”
Speaking of the live stage, Jarosz finds it a big plus that she’s yielded an album that puts the focus on her and her trio. While much was made of the guest stars eager to join her on past albums, Jarosz found herself eager to fly on the strength of her new material, and capture a performance-friendly vibe as much as possible. More songs on Build Me Up From Bones were cut live than on any of her past studio efforts.
“A lot of it feels like it will translate well into the trio setting,” she says, “And it’s always fun to see these songs take on their own life on the stage; you don’t have to hear it live the same way as on the record.”
As for how she wrote many of her new songs, the alchemy might prove challenging for a lesser artist to imitate. For starters, she finds that whichever instrument she picks up on a given day—and Jarosz plays quite a few—determines how a song took shape. She’s recently taken to octave mandolin, and on “Rearrange The Art,” the song blossomed the instant she switched it from guitar to banjo. Its rollicking rhythm unfurls with sublime cinematic scope, like the soundtrack to a movie where a songwriter takes wing: “The ruby hues that outline all my words/ Are chapped and humming chords/ I’ve never used before.”
“Rearrange The Art” also reveals how Sarah’s college training taught her to view songwriting from new vistas, especially in her final year there. “I had the melody circling in my head for a long period of time, and it’s a great example of how the poetry and art worked their way into my music.”
With this new album, Jarosz speaks of an invisible line where, after she nurtures a song long enough, it now becomes something organic she carries with her: “I’ll play something, leave it alone, come back to it, and play it and play it and play it. The songs almost need to settle within me before I can play them for anybody.”
That said, she has a trusted compatriot in co-producer Gary Paczosa, who worked on her last two discs and returns once again to help her bring these new recordings to life. She also singles out the contributions of Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks), whose guitar work lights up tracks such as “Mile on the Moon” and “Over the Edge.” “It was really magical: He played what I heard in my head all along,” Jarosz says.
Yet it’s clear that what Jarosz carried in her head and nurtured in her heart brandished plenty of magic to begin with. In the conservatory setting of her final college days, she assailed the dual challenge of crafting new songs and cramming for exams. Instead of bowing to the pressure, she flowed with it, harnessed it, and passed with flying colors … leading a musical graduation day of a distinct and rare kind.
“There were days where I thought, ‘I really need to get this homework assignment done, and I need to get this song written,’” she says, laughing. “But in the end it was great, because it prodded me to go forward. So here I am, at the end of school, and I’m finishing up this album, and the timing couldn’t be better. It’s like turning the page.”
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