Originally written for Folk Alley
Sarah Jarosz got started early, releasing stunning albums of imaginative acoustic music before she was so much as out of high school. Of course, it helped that the discs included support from some of the other great mandolinists (her primary instrument) - folks like Sam Bush and Chris Thile, to drop a few names. But the songwriting and the music's overall vision, even when it's been the product of collaboration, has always depicted a young artist who is not afraid of creating music that does the aural equivalent of jumping off a cliff to see if it can fly. From turning Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" into a bluegrass tune to delivering her own unexpected instrumentals, Jarosz has never left her songs longing for imagination.
Now, on her third album for Sugar Hill - this year's Build Me Up from Bones - she demonstrates all the ways she's benefitted from four years at the New England Conservatory. The disc's creative arrangements were borne of her longtime touring trio, consisting of Jarosz, Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), and Nathaniel Smith (cello). It blending elements of jazz and classical music with her habit of traditional aesthetics and, from start to stop, is an emotional and expansive collection.
I recently called Jarosz up on the road, as she was making her way from Minnesota to Madison, Wisc., to chat about the new disc:
Kim Ruehl: There's some clear growth since the last album, but what have you been up to, and where did this record come from for you?
Sarah Jarosz: I think it's a pretty clear blending of a couple of things. A lot of it had to do with my time at the New England Conservatory. In a way, it's the first record of mine that [my experience there] impacted. I think it took the full four years for that to infiltrate my musicality. [I think] Alex and Matt, my touring trio, had a lot to do with the sound of this record. I knew going into it that I wanted the trio to be a big part of the sound.
You were a great musician before you ever went to college. So, I wonder what you learned in college, studying music?
Well, so many things. I think I definitely had [to make a] decision, whether I wanted to go straight onto the road after high school or if I wanted to go to college. I always wanted to have the experience of going to college. I didn't want to skip over that part of my life. I wanted it to be in Boston because the music scene was so great there. NEC was... so great because it offered up so much musical stuff I wasn't getting inside the acoustic scene. Within my first year, I was learning jazz and free improvisation, being pushed into these styles I'd never really listened to much before going there. I think doing that, and a lot of ear training, really pushed me in ways I may not have been pushed otherwise, or it would have taken me a lot longer in my life to get pushed in that way. On top of that, to have voice lessons for the first time in my life... [Singing] was always something I did on my own. I didn't have a lot of voice lessons, except in musical theater, here and there, when I was really little. Dominique Eade...really helped me grow a lot with my voice.
Do you think the collaboration with Alex and Matt has made you a better listener? As a songwriter, there's a tendency to make a song sound the way you want it to sound, but a collaboration like that requires that you really pay attention to each other. Do you think that's something you picked up?
Oh, for sure. It was interesting going into the studio because, for the longest time, songwriting was just a solo, alone, private process for me. I would write songs and perform them on my own. So, [it was great] to have them put in this trio stetting. It's an interesting process; writing the songs to the trio and hearing them in different ways... it really pushes me in a lot of different ways. The trio setting, in general, [creates] an interesting dynamic because it's so sparse. There's a lot of room for space. But, trying to pay attention to when [you should] leave the space is sometimes the most important part of that. I think that was a big goal with this record, especially.
Do you even think about what kind of music you want to make?
Not really. It's funny, when people ask me what genre of music I am, I never really know how to answer that. It's one of those tricky questions. I'm just kind of doing what's always felt natural to me, trying to grow and push myself and not just stay stuck in my old ways. But, at the same time, I do want to sound like myself.
I think because you've played with Sam Bush and Darrell Scott, and all these other incredible artists, there's a tendency of people in my position to want to call you bluegrass or folk, but that doesn't really fit either. I wonder what you think of adding all these other elements of styles that you learned in school... do you think that's contrary to bluegrass and folk, or is it all just part of the same thing?
It's a difficult thing because I'm not trying to not be bluegrass. I'm not trying to necessarily fit into a genre or not fit into a genre. I think all these things feed into each other in a beautiful way. I think there's a lot to be said for tradition and roots, and honoring a tradition, for sure. I probably wouldn't have gotten into music at all had it not been for bluegrass, and getting excited about bluegrass. But at the same time, the musicians I looked up to growing up were people who weren't afraid to cross lines and boundaries and not pay attention to genres, and infiltrate different styles. Hopefully that winds up telling who each person is. I generally try not to make strict lines about stuff. I just do what seems natural.
What's the best gig you've ever had?
I feel like Telluride Bluegrass Festival would have to be up there. It's truly amazing. That was also a life-changing place for me in the sense that, in 2007, that's where I met Gary Paczosa for the first time. That's where the whole thing with Sugar Hill came to be. So that seems like a very important place in my life, not to mention it's just stunningly beautiful.
Is there anything else you want to mention? I know you're on the road right now...
Yeah, it's interesting. This is the first time in my life that I haven't been juggling all this with school. It's a real change, being on the road for this long and touring pretty much nonstop through November... it's great. I'm learning and growing with it. It'll be interesting to see what the next big goal is for me, though. I feel like finishing school still feels so fresh. That was a big goal for my whole life [so far], so it'll be interesting what the next phase leads to.