W I T H
BY CORY FRYE
After more than half a lifetime spent traveling the world to play music, circumstances have at last forced Sarah Jarosz to stay put.
It began in mid-March, when the seven-year New York resident checked in for a flight to Montana, where she was scheduled for a private concert. Unfortunately, the coronavirus had reached U.S. shores, inconveniencing millions of lives and canceling dates by the thousands. Her gig was one of those casualties. So she booked a trip to Nashville instead to spend time with her boyfriend.
A lot of time, as it turned out. Seven months later, she’s still there.
“I’m just trying to take things one day at a time,” she sighed. “As with many people right now, it’s had its fair share of ups and downs, but I’m fortunate to be safe and healthy and playing music at home, mostly.”
In this form, she’ll be “visiting” Corvallis’ Oregon State University at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, from a venue to which we’re all accustomed by now: a virtual live feed, performing selections from her five albums — including her latest, the stellar, ruminative World on the Ground — and chatting with American Strings Series host Bob Santelli. The event begins at 5 p.m., where else? Online. For ticket information, fire up that thundering beast, your best friend in 2020, and visit https://beav.es/ouk.
Over the last decade, the 29-year-old Wimberley, Texas, native has established herself as an incomparable young singer/songwriter with three Grammy awards: two as a solo artist and the third as a member of the devastating Americana trio, I’m with Her, paired with Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still). A 2017 collaboration with Parker Millsap yielded the following hosanna from an unlikely source: “Last night in Atlanta I saw one of the best concerts I have ever seen. Parker Millsap and Sarah Jarosz. Both were astonishingly good. … It restored my faith in music.” So tweeteth Sir Elton John.
Released in June, Ground marks a considerable departure for the artist. She replaced longtime producer Gary Paczosa with John Leventhal, a multi-Instrumentalist who has played and recorded with The Blind Boys of Alabama, Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash, Michelle Branch, and Loudon Wainwright III, among others. Her songwriting, long an expression of her inner self, has adopted other personas in the best Texas singer/songwriter tradition, exploring character sketches of familiar archetypes. Yet World on the Ground stands as a hauntingly beautiful, personal piece of work, ending with “Little Satchel,” luminous in its stark simplicity of Jarosz and her banjo in affecting harmony. It offers the perfect capper on an album where freedom is a longed-for desire and goal.
Her effervescent 2009 debut was called Song Up in Her Head. She’s cast a wider net now, dabbling in familiar territories for a singular document brimming with artistic maturity, an ever-present evolution. Home is home, wherever you are.
What prompted you to turn to John Leventhal to produce after having worked with Gary since the beginning?
I had such an incredible decade of working with Gary Paczosa. We made four albums together. I met Gary when I was 16 and I feel so grateful to have met Gary and created this body of work with him. It seemed like a natural turning of the page. I was excited to start fresh and work with someone new, largely from a creative standpoint — to get some new blood in the mix.
John Leventhal has been one of my musical heroes for as long as I can remember. I found out about him through the music of Shawn Colvin, who I’ve loved since I was young. I sort of had a running list the last few years of dream producers I’d like to work with, and John’s name always came to the top of the list.
Another reason that I was interested in working with someone like John is because he's a musician. While my work with Gary was so fun, Gary is a recording engineer. So when we were making those records, he wasn’t actually playing any music in the studio. So I was excited to get into a studio with a producer I could actually collaborate with on a musical level and play and write the songs with. That’s what John brought to the table.
As a songwriter, you typically explore the interior. What was it like to speak and think in the guise of separate characters, some of whose lives and perspectives may be different from yours?
It happened naturally. John was initially an instigator for the perspective shift. When we first met up in December 2018, I played a couple of song ideas for him when we sat down in the studio. Whatever I played him was starting to take this shift into more of a storytelling direction rather than an inward-facing perspective, and he encouraged me to dig deeper into that, to look outside of myself and be more of a storyteller.
Simultaneously, as he was encouraging me to do that, I was realizing that so much of my favorite music is all this Texas singer/songwriter music that I grew up hearing and was rediscovering now as an adult. So many of those songs written by people like Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and Nanci Griffith are written from a storyteller’s perspective. I was inspired to try and do my own version of that.
I was curious about “Maggie” and the circumstances that find her back in her hometown after some time away. As a writer myself, I’m plagued with self-doubt, so maybe I’m applying too much of my own id into the scenario. But was that ever a future you feared?
I don’t think “fear” is the right word. “Maggie” was inspired by an interaction I had with a friend from childhood who I ran into at my 10-year high school reunion last summer. She expressed to me that she kind-of stuck around and had never gotten to leave the town. She had dreams of traveling and seeing the world. It kind-of put everything in perspective for me. My whole life has been almost nothing but travel, and in a way, I’ve longed for the opposite. I’ve longed to have roots and be in one place for a longer stretch of time. Ironically, this year (laughs) has brought that in a major way.
I think I’ve never been afraid of that. I just wanted to touch on what those feelings are, whether it’s for me or for Maggie or for anyone. It doesn’t even have to be a small town. Anyone who has left their home situation and longs to go home or has never left and longs to leave — those conflicted feelings and trying to make sense of that with a certain amount of compassion for either circumstance thrown into the songwriting mix.
I love those songs. I love this record. As a songwriter, I love this shift. I never got to go on the road for this record and play these songs
for people. Even just getting to sing them from home in a livestream and video settings, it’s been a joy, taking on these different personas, in a way, and not hsving to necessarily have these songs be soul-baring. I mean, they still are, but it’s just a shift. I’ve enjoyed singing from what I imagine an actor feels like when they take on a character. I had done that on my last record (Undercurrent, 2016) with a song called “Jacqueline.” It’s interesting that that was the last song on my previous record. It opened the gates to me trying to embody these different characters within my songs.
Why did you devote a song cycle to your hometown? What about that city lent itself to be a setting for these songs?
It’s a pretty magical little place. I just had the realization that I hadn’t spent a good deal of time writing about where I’m from. At the end of the day, no matter what kind of writer you are, you have to write about what you know and be able to deeply convey details to people. I had all these detailed images in my brain of the landscape of where I’m from and it just poured out of me. There’s a rawness to the Texas landscape that lends itself as a great background for these types of characters. There’s a lonesomeness and a longing embedded in the hills and trees and birds and everything I sing about in these songs. It was a fun discovery for me, to have these clear images inside me and put them out into the world in song for the first time.
When we last spoke, you had just turned 20.
Wow. (laughs) Long time ago.
You seemed remarkably grounded for someone with a burgeoning music career. At that time, you already had an album under your belt and so much on the horizon. Where are you now at 29?
I’m just still chugging along. (laughs) In a way, my goal from even back then, the last time I spoke with you, was to try to be the kind of artist who – especially at that point, when I was 20, feeling wary of the things that can happen to young artists, of being a flash in the pan — to make music that lasts. So it’s cool talking to you now, almost 10 years later, and I’m still making records. I believe in these songs more than I ever have before. I love that about music. Here we are now. I’m 29 and I feel like I’m just starting. Hopefully, I can always feel that way, that there’s more to learn, more to discover, and more to create.