Sarah Jarosz

Photo by Scott Simontacchi
Photo by Scott Simontacchi

Sarah Jarosz has long been known as a preternaturally talented multi-instrumentalist, picking up a mandolin with the same masterful ease she would a banjo. On her recently released album Undercurrent, however, it’s her voice and her lyrics that demand the most attention. The follow-up to 2013’s Build Me Up From Bones, which earned Jarosz heaps of acclaim and sent her touring around the globe, Undercurrent is a deeply personal album, colored by the contrast of Jarosz’s newfound sonic minimalism and the authority that comes with years on the road. The album features a collaboration with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan (“Still Life”), with whom Jarosz is part of trio I’m With Her, as well as a co-write from Parker Millsap (“Comin’ Undone”). We caught up with Jarosz to talk about how Undercurrent came together.

You just released a brand new record, Undercurrent. When and how did the album start taking shape?

The album really started taking shape after moving to New York City three years ago. This was the first record that I was able to dive into the writing and recording process without also balancing the responsibilities of being in school. For the majority of the last year and a half, I was able to step away from my own project and collaborate with other people like Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, The Milk Carton Kids, and Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion. All of those experiences fed my soul, and gave me this newfound sense of excitement when returning to my own thing and making this record. I felt more present for the writing and recording process than ever before because there was this sense of “This is my life, this is my job, I want to work really hard to make it great.” Not that I didn’t feel that before. I’ve always felt that way. But not being in school, I really had the mental space to truly embrace that feeling and so I dove into these songs head first with such a sense of certainty about how I was going to go about it. I knew from the beginning of writing these songs that they had to be captured in a sparse, honest manner.

What is the significance of the album’s title?

Undercurrent stuck out to me as the title from the very beginning of the writing process. Everything To Hide was the first song I finished in the bunch, and there’s a lyric in there, “Do you feel this undercurrent and the changing of the tide?” So ever since that song was written, which was about two years ago, that word just kept poking at me. It became apparent very early on that the two meanings behind the word Undercurrent really signified and encapsulated the feelings behind the songs and the way they were recorded. Both definitions of Undercurrent feel appropriate for the subject matter of the songs, the images of water, the never ending sense of pushing and pulling within life and relationships – a current of water moving below the surface moving in a different direction from any surface current; and an underlying feeling or influence, especially one that is contrary to the prevailing atmosphere. That word sort of set the tone for how the songs unfolded and how the record feels.

What do you hope listeners take away from the album?

In the end, I hope to move people with my music. I feel like I generally tend to write introspective songs about personal situations, but my hope is that people can hear the songs and find a way to relate them to their own situations. It was important to me throughout the recording process to really capture the intimacy within these songs, which is why I feel like the record is anchored around the four solo performances. I hope listeners notice the record’s sparseness and feel how deeply intimate and honest these songs are.

Are there any songs on the new album that you’re especially proud of?

I’m really proud of the album as a whole – it feels the most like a complete thought than any of my previous albums, that is to say, not just a collection of songs, but rather an album with a through line. If I had to single out a song, I’m really proud of “Jacqueline.” That song just poured out of me one afternoon and feels like such a true representation of where I’m at in my life right now.

What does your typical writing process look like?

My writing process for this record was different this time around in the sense that I had my whole schedule available to really focus on it. In the past, I was constantly juggling songwriting, touring, and school work. So with that in mind, I’ve really tried to start approaching writing as more of a craft that can be worked on every single day, where as before, I would sort of roll with momentum in the scattered moments when inspiration would really hit. This time, I would sit down at my desk and try to chip away at these songs even when I wasn’t feeling inspired. I just feel like I worked harder at songwriting, and that’s why this record feels so direct and succinct. I also took some pressure off of myself to have to showcase my instrumental abilities within the songs. Before, I think there was this sense of, well I need to put a fancy mandolin moment in here, or a flourishing banjo frail in there, and that really changed the shape of the songs. This time, I tried to let some of that go, and focus more on the songs themselves, and almost sort of limit myself to using simpler tools. As a musician, but more specifically as a songwriter, I think your job is to strike a balance between what you can do and what you should do, that is to say, do what serves the song. Just because you can play a flashy lick doesn’t mean that that will necessarily make the song better.

How do you feel you’ve evolved as a songwriter since releasing Build Me Up from Bones?

I feel that my process of writing for Build Me Up from Bones was much more directly related to my studies as NEC. I was working on the writing and arranging of that record for the majority of my senior year of college, often bringing in the songs to my private lessons with Hankus Netsky, and figuring out different ways the tunes could be arranged. So, in this sense, I feel like in the past I always placed more of an importance on the arrangements and how the songs would be built up as opposed to focusing on the songs themselves. Fast-forward to this record, and I just feel like I placed much more importance on the songs. As I said before, I really tried to be more of a disciplined songwriter this go around, chip away at the ideas every single day, strip things down to the true marrow of who I am as a musician, and let that be at the forefront. There was more of a desire than ever before to showcase a raw simplicity within the music.

Are you able to do much writing while you’re on the road?

I find it difficult to write on tour. I feel like I’m always collecting ideas on the road, whether it be jotting down a lyric idea, or recording a voice memo on my phone. But in terms of actually finishing ideas, I feel like that usually happens when I come home. Life on the road is non-stop, and you have to be extremely pro-active about finding alone time, and then if you do, it takes a lot of determination to be disciplined and productive within that alone time. I think I’m getting a little bit better at it with each passing year, but still, I’d say the majority of my writing is finished when I’m off the road.

You’ve also kept busy with I’m With Her. What was your experience working with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan like? What can we expect from the trio in the future?

I’m so thrilled about making music with Sara and Aoife. That band came together in such a natural way. We all happened to be at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014, wound up playing an impromptu set of music together, and sent some texts around after about how we should do more together. Luckily, our schedules aligned at just the right time, and we were able to get it off the ground. We had an absolute blast touring together last year. I’ve learned a lot from touring and writing with them… I had always mostly done my own project with my own music, and I think it’s been so positive for me to get to be an equal team member with them. I think it’s made me into a better singer and listener within any given musical setting, and I certainly took some of those lessons with me into my own record and touring. We’re all focusing on our own projects for now, but certainly be on the lookout for more I’m With Her down the road!

How did you first start playing and writing music?

I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. It was just always something I did from the time that I was two years old. My singing voice has always been a natural extension of me. My parents bought me a mandolin for Christmas when I was 9 years old after I had showed some interest in the instrument. From there, there was no looking back. I became obsessed with it and that eventually led to picking up the guitar and clawhammer banjo, too. I think I first started trying to write my own songs because my mom always sang and played guitar and wrote songs as a hobby her whole life. So, she would play her songs around the house sometime, I would see pieces of paper floating around with her handwritten lyrics and think, “Oh! This is something people do!” For me, it always seemed like a normal progression to go from singing to playing an instrument to writing songs. I think another big part of wanting to try writing was that most of the musicians I was listening to when I started getting into the mandolin were all writing their own music. Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Darrell Scott… I looked at all of those people and thought, well they’re writing their own music, so I should probably do that, too! Beyond that, though, I think at a certain point, for some people, you have no choice but to write music. There are all these ideas and feelings swelling up within you, that the only real way to get it out, is to write a song. I think especially in the early stages of songwriting, that’s the case. The more you do it, the more you start to become aware of the process, but even with that awareness, there’s always a certain element of magic to it — at least, I think you’re doing something right if it feels that way.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

I think the first song I ever completely finished was Left Home, which is on my first record. I would have little snippets of ideas on cassette tapes from the time that I was a young child, but I think in terms of actually finishing a song on my own, I’m pretty sure it was Left Home.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Gosh, the list is long! I consider myself to be a huge fan of music. I love discovering new things and listening to full albums, not just individual tracks, as often as I can. I’m constantly listening to music, which, surprisingly, a lot of my musical friends say they don’t find the time for. I can’t live without it. If I’m home and not working on my own music, I’m listening to someone else. Almost always, if I’m in transit, I’m listening to music – on the subway, in a car, on an airplane. I’d say some of my biggest songwriting heroes are Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Gillian Welch. I could really go on and on, but those artists are just as good as it gets in my book. I’ve gained so much inspiration from studying their music and just generally eating it up as much as possible. To see other badass people making great music, whether I’m listening from afar or actually getting to collaborate with them – that’s what keeps me fired up as a musician. Whether it’s playing with other musicians that inspire/challenge me or discovering a recording and falling in love with it, I just think that’s what it’s all about.