The Writer’s Block: Sarah Jarosz on Writing as a “Cyclical Process”

Singer/songwriter Sarah Jarosz is fast becoming a household name. Her delicate songwriting touch and her elegant delivery are both inspiring and welcoming to the ear. It’s for these reasons and more that we here at American Songwriter wanted to reach out to Jarosz to talk process.

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As part of our regular The Writer’s Block series, Jarosz was kind enough to sit down and answer our burning questions when it comes to penning tracks, letting them go, and what she does when she’s stumped with a tune.

[RELATED: The Writer’s Block: Kelly Clarkson on Writing from Emotion, Her Future on ‘The Voice,’ and the Itch to Make a Country Album]

Below is what Jarosz, who has a new album, Polaroid Lovers, a tour set for January, and a new song “When The Lights Go Out,” released Thursday (November 9), told us.

American Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting?  

Sarah Jarosz: My initial introduction to songwriting was through my mom. She’s written songs, sang, and played guitar since she was a young girl, mostly as a hobby. I remember seeing her typewritten or handwritten lyrics strewn around the house when I was little and at a certain point I decided to try it out for myself. After I had been playing mandolin for a couple of years, she taught me some chords on the guitar and I started finding my songwriting voice as an early teenager and then really tapped into more of my own sound once I bought my first octave mandolin. My dad is also a huge music lover so a lot of the music he would play around the house inspired me to try my hand at songwriting. 

AS: What do you believe goes into writing a hit song?  

SJ: I can’t say that I’ve ever had a “hit” song so maybe I don’t know. But to me, what’s maybe even better than a hit is when someone comments or tells me after a show that a song of mine had significant meaning in their life, helping them through a difficult time or enhancing a good moment. Ultimately, I think a song becomes a hit because it connects with people in a way that they want it to be the soundtrack of their lives. It has to make you cry, laugh, dance, or connect to the human experience on a deep level.

AS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block and how did you get past it?  

SJ: I don’t really like to think of it as “writer’s block” but rather I think of writing as a cyclical process. Inspiration comes in circular waves for me. There will be seasons of exciting inspiration where lots of ideas are flowing and I have a lot to say. And then usually after that I almost purposefully set it aside for a while. This gives my head and my heart a chance to take a breath, live life, pay attention, and soak in the experiences that will pave the way for the next season of songs. 

AS: Is there an on-and-off switch, when you’re tapping into someone else’s story for a song? I’m sure you can pick up on more universal themes, but how do you connect when it’s something deeper and more personal for that artist? 

SJ: Whether I’m writing alone or with others, I think a song is only impactful if it’s coming from a genuine, honest place. It can actually be helpful to write with others in the sense that it can keep you honest—if the song isn’t making sense or connecting with the other person in the room, chances are it wouldn’t connect with other listeners. Figuring out how to get down to the marrow of someone’s story, whether it’s your own story or not, is where the details emerge that allow the listener to really connect.

AS: How do songs typically come together for you? 

SJ: I always try to collect ideas as often as I can. I’ll write down lyrics on the notes app in my phone, or I’ll record melodic ideas on my voice memos. Then usually once I’ve collected snippets over several months, I’ll sift back through them all and note what stands out as good or intriguing (I usually do this on flights when I have time to just sit and listen). Sometimes, on rare occasions, melodies and lyrics will come at the same time. Another trick that I do is just sing gibberish as a placeholder in a melodic phrase and then one subconscious random word will stick out and be the jumping-off point for a full-fledged song idea. 

AS: When working with other artists, what is that spark, or the moment when you know it’s going to be a good session or a great song? 

SJ: It’s so exciting when you’re writing with someone else and the pieces of the puzzle come together and you can actually see the song start to open up in front of you. Honestly, those “aha!” moments are the best feeling—I think many writers will tell you that they’re chasing after that. The moment when an idea has clarity or a chord structure winds its way around to arrive at the idea. Sometimes it’s just swapping out a chord or switching lyrical phrases around that can be the lightning bolt moments for a song to be born. 

AS: Is it hard to let a song go? 

SJ: I wouldn’t say it’s hard to let a song go, but there is an element of acknowledgment that it’s transforming into the next part of its life. When I write a song that I’m proud of and it’s new, there is a sense of treasuring that time where you know you have something special. But it’s also wonderful once songs are out in the world and people can start having their own experiences with them.

AS: What is the hardest part for you when it comes to staying motivated to keep practicing and writing? 

SJ: There are times when I have to actively work on silencing my inner critic. I think the most honest work you can do is when you are free of self-judgment and you’re letting the ideas flow. You can edit after the fact but the real gems usually come from a place of total openness and realness. It can be challenging to not be hard on myself, but it’s a good reminder that “being hard on myself” isn’t actually conducive to making good art. Having grace with myself usually leads to a more open heart which eventually leads to more songs.

AS: Are you looking to cross into any new genres, or are you happy right where you are? 

SJ: I think I’ve always explored different genres for as long as I’ve played music. Other people like to label things to fit them neatly in a box, and that’s fine, but personally, I don’t think of music in terms of genre. So in that sense, I’m happy with where I am and hope to be able to stay open and never follow any rules when it comes to music. I would like to always do whatever serves the song best regardless of the style.

AS: What advice would you share with songwriters just getting into the business, or already working through the ranks?

SJ: I would say always follow your gut, and always stay true to your heart. The business can become soul sucking pretty quickly if you let it, but as long as you allow the music to lead, that will usually point you in the right direction. Do consistent, honest work, and the rest will follow. 

AS: What was the biggest turning point in taking your songwriting to the next level? 

SJ: I’ve always thought of songwriting as a journey without an arrival point, and that’s the beauty of it. The songs continue winding on their path, growing and changing through life right alongside you. Obviously the more you do it, the more you start to internalize the process. But the best thing you can do to get “to the next level” is just to keep doing it.

AS: What are your most noteworthy achievements today, in your own mind? 

SJ: I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m very proud of my four Grammys (laughs). As a little girl, I always dreamed of that happening so the fact that it did is just amazing to me. But mostly I’m proud that I’m still making albums and touring all these years later, and I’m especially grateful for all of the musical collaborations that keep me inspired.

Photo by Shervin Lainez / Courtesy Grand Stand

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