Sarah Jarosz Finds Details Through Distance with ‘World On The Ground’

Sarah Jarosz | World On The Ground | (Rounder Records)
4 out of 5

Videos by American Songwriter

Up by the window of the seventh floor
My little bird’s getting ready to fly
She’s had enough of the world down below her
And now she’s looking up at the sky

Sarah Jarosz explains that the title for World On The Ground comes from the vantage point of the bird highlighted in bluesy song, “Pay It No Mind.” Yet, the dual viewpoints of the fledgling – high from the ground but still underneath the open sky – tap into a prominent aspect connecting the entire album: perspective and the vacillation thereof.

The introduction of new producer John Leventhal into Jarosz’s writing process undeniably infused the music with fresh perspective from the very setting of its creative and sonic bones, boldly varying from the formative actions behind Jarosz’s previous four records co-produced with Gary Paczosa.

“I had this very strong sense of what I wanted songs to be, what sonically they should sound like in the studio. That was just kind of the partnership [Gary Paczosa and I] created over the course of [my previous] records. But I think the fact that I got to go through that process – being so meticulous and so over-the-top, ‘This has to be this way, and this has to be that way’ about each little detail – I was really curious and ready for allowing myself to say, ‘I just want to pick the person who I just trust musically and feel inspired by, and just kind of see what happens and let them lead me a little bit’,” says Jarosz.

While the arrangements and primary timbres of Jarosz’s trusted mandolins, multiple guitars, and clawhammer banjo heard within World On The Ground instill an immediate sense of aural cohesion, Leventhal’s confidence in the idea of less control – embodied by unforced audio placement from one song to the next – gives the album its memorable character.

The range of flexibility between Jarosz’s spacious vocals on opener “Eve” and the incredibly confined, dry vocal at the beginning of traditional banjo finale “Little Satchel,” for example, evoke immensely different scenes for the individuals in each song’s story. Listen even more carefully and beyond the spatial designation of Jarosz’s vocal on the closing track, Leventhal also managed to coax some of the southern accent out of Jarosz’s singing voice – a finer detail not often heard in her other work.

“Something about the idea of going into another room [to record], your brain kind of changes takes on it like, ‘I have to execute this now.’ But, just being in the same room with [John] for [recording vocals,] I do think it allowed me to relax and kind of take this non-precious approach to my vocals and so I think he was able to capture just what my actual, raw singing voice really sounds like,” Jarosz says.

Meanwhile, songs like “Hometown,” and the “Orange and Blue” – the latter of which Jarosz describes as exuding “quiet thankfulness but wrapped in melancholy” – seem to move and emotionally transform based on parallels between their narrative developments and respective chord changes. This was another element of the album’s creative direction Leventhal helped to shape along the way.

“Chord changes in relation to lyric moments were very conscious decisions,” says Jarosz.
[One] chord in “Hometown,” which is [paired with the lyrics] “her mind’s racing as she sits alone,” I think it goes to the F-sharp minor [and] I have to give John credit there because I think I stayed on the one [chord], as it does for all the other verses. [H]e was like, ‘Ah no, it has to open up because this is so sad!’ Little tweaks like that were such fun discoveries over the course of this record,” she says. It’s almost like the subtle movements of the audio’s sonic staging, as well as the alteration between resolute and open-ended chord progressions, become living, breathing, characters all their own in this world Jarosz has written. Everything from Leventhal’s mellow approach, to Jarosz’s decision to compose looking through an external lens rather than internally ruminating – and consequently choosing a very specific focal point – steers the stories and sounds of this album.

“I realized Wimberley is such a huge part of me and I realized I had never written about it,” says Jarosz. “It’s at once a very simple and very multi-faceted kind of town – compared to other small towns in Texas,” she says.

Though listeners likely won’t see themselves in songs exactly as they might with other albums, fascination may just surface instead, through the experience of exploring the detail-rich world of Jarosz’s earlier life. Its in this aspect, that World On The Ground spares especially no expense. Listeners embark on a vivid tour of places, personalities, and ideas in Wimberley, each more inviting and enthralling than the last.

The description of sprawling “wilderness and cypress trees” across Wimberley’s fields, and flocks of “night birds all around” on “Eve,” give way to deeply sensory-driven “Maggie” and her quest to break free of Wimberley’s “strange land,” “high school,” “football games,” and “processed food,” by driving “across the desert in a blue Ford Escape.” Songs like this and the dryly wistful “Johnny,” unveil fully-fleshed out scenes, figures, and feelings that are as irresistibly intriguing as any rapid page-turner of a novel.

“Even the songs that aren’t from my perspective [are] still pulling from my memories and my feelings,” says Jarosz. “[L]istening to the record and having it be almost more like reading a novel or a literary kind of relationship to the songs, as opposed to [thinking], ‘Oh I feel exactly that!’ is totally what I was going for,” Jarosz says.

Perhaps the most interesting altered angle of thinking around World On The Ground however, is in the perspective shift for which neither listeners nor Jarosz herself could plan. The stark coincidence in the album serving as a sort of mental revisitation to home for Jarosz feels poignant while everyone is specifically avoiding visits with old friends or family. Furthermore, entire verses in songs like “I’ll Be Gone” (You never said what you meant to say | But it’s too late for that anyway | Maybe in another life, someday | If you just hang on), and even lyrical fragments like in “What Do I Do” (Eyes half open, blood shot blue | Could not sleep like I wanted to) resonate with uncomfortable and almost unavoidable relevancy.

“It’s interesting when current events sort of shift the perspective or the feeling of a song,” says Jarosz, who admits that once the elephant in the room was here to stay, it challenged her feelings about the release – at least at first.

“I’ve gone back and forth about how I feel about releasing this record at this time but ultimately I’m just so glad that it is coming out,” Jarosz says.

“I think it’s going to be hard for people to listen to, or take in, new art without judging it or thinking about it in current contexts,” she continues. “But I hope almost that it’s able to be the opposite of that, where it’s able to be almost this escapist feeling or, even if you can draw similarities to the current moment, that it’s comforting somehow.”

World On The Ground is many things at once: Emotionally vast, welcomingly homey, highly individualized in its memories, broadly appealing through its attentive storytelling, symbolically hyperbolic, and unintentionally self-aware in its realism. Through many layers of experimentation with lyrical intimacy, Sarah Jarosz has invigorated a songwriting path previously less tended to over her compositional history. However, rather than sounding reticent in their explorations, the resulting untold stories within World On The Ground eagerly unfold, benefitting from years of practice, personal maturity, and self-driven realizations that flourished within Jarosz while the world waited unknowingly for this record.

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