CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 1 of 3

Author: | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present an in-depth conversation about performance with one of my very favorite musicians, Sugar Hill Records artist SARAH JAROSZ.  

A multiple Grammy Award nominee over her young but already illustrious career, Sarah won two Grammys in 2017, for Best American Roots Performance (“House of Mercy”, from her fourth album, Undercurrent), and for Best Folk Album (Undercurrent).

Sarah is a musical quintuple threat: singer, multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo), songwriter, bandleader, and co-producer. She is a regular member of the house band on A Prairie Home Companion, and has also appeared on Austin City Limits, the BBC’s Transatlantic SessionseTownAcoustic Café, Mountain StageConan, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, among others

You can keep track of Sarah’s touring activity here, and sample some videos here.  

This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  In this installment, Sarah discusses her early path to becoming a performer, what inspired her to take herself seriously as a musician, and how she experiences being a bandleader. –VA

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What’s your earliest memory of performing, when you were conscious of performing for other people?  What did that feel like for you?

Well, for me it goes back a long way, and it kind of was just something that I always did.  I think one of the earliest documented performances of me, that I don’t personally remember, was when I was two years old, and it was a school production and I was singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and I was actually wearing a little flag dress, if you can believe it [laughs].  I grew up in Texas, after all!  So it was always something I did.  It just was always sort of second nature – the singing part of it.

It started out in school performances, and then I did a bunch of national choirs.  My first music teacher – her name was Diana Riepe – she was very formative for me.  She taught using the Kodály method of music, which is based around solfège – you know, the hand signals representing the notes.  She was the one that encouraged me to try out for these national choirs which were run by the Kodály people.

So I did that about five years, and it was always in a different place.  So that was actually my first experience traveling for my music.  This all started maybe in the second or third grade time frame.  And I got to go to Chicago and San Francisco and Massachusetts, and it was just really special to get to travel and see the country because of my music.  And luckily my parents were really supportive of that.  I just was always doing something where I was performing, and so it always felt comfortable being onstage in front of people.

Do you remember how you felt being onstage, how you experienced the audience and how you experienced your body, when you were that age?

I’m trying to remember.  It just felt normal – I don’t know that it felt any different.  It did feel good.  I remember really enjoying it, that’s for sure, and almost getting giddy off of it, getting up onstage, and being really excited afterwards.  And for a lot of my peers, I remember they would be, like, “Oh, I’m so nervous!”  And I just never felt that.  It felt really physically natural to do.

And then when you started playing instruments, did you feel that the instruments were an extension of yourself?

Yes.  Yeah, definitely.  And it’s actually to the point now where I almost feel weird onstage if I don’t have an instrument in my hands.  Because when I started playing the mandolin, and later on the guitar and the banjo, I was always playing and singing simultaneously.  Only recently in my shows did I start just doing one song where I was only singing.  Yeah, and so it did become an extension of that, and actually something that I came to really rely on.

When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or a version of yourself, or do you feel like it’s somebody different who’s up there?

It’s a little bit of both.  I think maybe the best way to put it would be “an extended version of myself”.  There is a certain amount of taking on another persona, because people want to be entertained.  I’m afraid to use the word “acting”, because it is me, and it is not being someone that I’m not, but it is sort of larger, to a certain degree, than I might be if I’m just having a conversation with someone or sitting around in a circle playing music.  But I think what I constantly work on is, I’m trying to find that balance of being able to entertain folks and put on a show, while still being really relaxed and just playing.  I think it’s finding a balance of that that’s key, and that’s what I constantly try to work on.

I’m sure a lot of people have said this to you, but you have so much poise on the stage…

Thank you!

And you seem so relaxed, and you seem like you’re able to just plug into the groove so readily.  I remember the first time I saw you was when you did a tweener [a song between sets] at RockyGrass.  You must have been 12 or 13 – do you remember that?

Yeah, I think I was 12.

I think you did “Blue Night” or something?

“Blue Moon of Kentucky”.

Yeah.  And everybody was, like, “What was that?”  I know I was.  Because you just seemed so completely comfortable, and that’s unusual for someone that age.  And you’ve definitely matured into that, but it’s something I feel like you’ve always had, and I’m sure you’re always hearing that.  What do you think that comes from?  What do you think accounts for that?

I think it comes, largely, from what I was saying about how’s it’s just always what I’ve done – I’ve been up on a stage since I was two years old.  And I think another part of it is having parents that, from a very early age, made me believe that it could be a reality, that it could be my career and my life.  I think I might have approached the stage differently had I been the kind of person that heard, “Oh, well, this is a great hobby, but you should really think about doing something else…”

“Have a safety plan!”

Yeah, exactly.  And that was never the case.  I’m very fortunate that they were so supportive of that.  So they made me feel comfortable, in that regard.  They made me feel like I could do it.  And especially starting out this young, that played a big role.  And then, on top of that, just seeing live music for as long as I can remember, witnessing other people do it, and recognizing things that I liked about certain performances and things that I didn’t like about others, and that being normal, too.  I think a lot of my peers, at my age, their parents weren’t taking them out almost every night to see live shows in Austin [laughs].  So that was a reality to me, too, just getting to witness so many amazing performances at a very early age.

What kinds of things did you notice that made you think, well, that works for me, or that makes sense for me – not necessarily that you’re going to steal or incorporate, but that would influence your own persona onstage?  Not necessarily even performers, but aspects of performance that you took note of?

Well, I guess early on, if we’re going way back, a lot of the things I would see were the Texas singer-songwriter folks – someone like Shawn Colvin, or Guy Clark, or Bill Staines – those are some of my earliest memories of concerts.  And so that’s its own thing.  It’s more of the storyteller persona of being onstage, which I love.

But then, I think what really gave me this jolt of excitement, of wanting to do it, was seeing Nickel Creek play.  Because that was really happening at the time that I had just picked up the mandolin – I was about 10 or 11 – and seeing Chris [Thile] play, and seeing the way that he is just a rock star onstage, but still with all these acoustic instruments.  And all of them were just so great onstage.  And seeing people that were closer to my age doing this and having such a great stage presence and making it just larger than life, you know, is how it felt to watch those shows at that age.  And that’s when I thought, “Ok…I want to do this!” [laughs]

And then, of course, you eventually started hanging out with these guys, at music camps and all that.  When did you feel like you were one of their peers, performance-wise?

Well, it’s kind of a blurry line, because a lot of them just made me feel so welcome from the very beginning.  But I will say, I feel like it’s really only since I moved away from home, and went to college [New England Conservatory], and starting life on my own now, that it really feels that way.  But truly, from the get-go, one of my favorite stories is when I first met Nickel Creek.  I think I was 10, and they were playing at a festival outside of Austin called the Old Settler’s Music Festival.  And they were doing a little workshop – you know how those things go at festivals.  And I had just seen their music video on TV, and I had just gotten my first mandolin.  And I walked up to them after, and Chris kneeled down and wrote, “Let’s jam sometime!” on my program. [laughs] And that was kind of the moment when I was, like, “All right! I want to get good enough to jam with him someday…”  [laughs]

But just for him to write that – I’m just any little girl – there was always that air of kindness.  And the same goes for so many people in the scene, like you’re saying, and I just felt really welcome.  And that had a lot to do with my being inspired and being encouraged to want to get really good.  Because all of those people were, like, “Well, if you work hard enough, you can do this.”

Yeah, there is a real sense of generosity in the community, and also a sense of wanting to bring people up, you know?

Yes.  And actually Mike Marshall, I feel like, is one of the best at that.  He certainly was that for me, right from the get-go.  A real turning point truly was my first RockyGrass Academy when I was 11.  That’s where I got to meet Mike for the first time and learn from him.  I mean, how cool is it?  I’m guessing maybe at that point he was in his 40s, and someone like that doesn’t have to give an 11 year old the time of day, you know? [laughs]  I had just been playing for a year.  But he was just so generous and so encouraging.  And he treated me like an adult, and I think that was also the thing about all those people.  They never treated me like a little kid, and they approached their teaching in that way as well.  They weren’t dumbing it down – they were always really challenging me.

It’s also interesting to me that your writing is as sophisticated as anything else that you’re going to find out there.  And that must come from a sensibility of being so saturated in the sophisticated theory that happens in that music that you’re around. 

Yeah.

And you were writing before you went to music school.  When you write, are you thinking in terms of how it’s going to feel to perform those songs?

Yes and no.  I think initially no, because I was just trying to see if I could do it in the first place.  I feel like the more that I’ve done it, I might be thinking about that aspect more – how it’s going to feel to play on a stage.  But initially, I guess I first started trying to write when I was 12 or 13.  And my mom had always written songs as a hobby, and that in itself made me feel like, “Ok, this is possible, this is something that people do…”  [laughs]  And from the very early stages, a lot of it was just kind of messing around with little ideas, and I would often show her the ideas, and she would say, “Ok, well, that’s cool – what if you tried this?”  Just having that influence in the house was kind of crucial.

And then, on top of that, all the great songwriters that I was exposed to from such an early age, and trying to, initially, kind of model the songs after those people – like Gillian Welch, or Tim O’Brien, or Darrell Scott.  I think, going back to my first record [Song Up In Her Head, Sugar Hill Records, 2009], a song like “Tell Me True” was very influenced by Gillian or Tim – kind of that old-timey sound.  And a song like “Broussard’s Lament” is very influenced by someone like Darrell Scott – the “percussion-y” style of guitar.

I definitely see what you’re saying about the influences.  However, you’ve got your own “voice” on those.  I mean, that’s definitely something that develops over time, but they’ve got your sensibility on them, don’t you think?  They’re original in that sense.

Yeah, I feel – as any musician feels, I’m sure – that you’re influenced by everything that you take in, and it goes in, and you kind of process it in your own original way, and then hopefully what comes out has its own stamp with your sound.  And that’s always what I was trying to do, and that’s what I still do, and that’s what’s so great about music and art – it’s just endless.  You can always be discovering something new that you haven’t heard before, and that’s going to set off some other little trigger inside of you that you might not have known was in there before.  That’s going to release something new in your interpretation, and the way that you process that is going to be different from the next guy, and so automatically that’s going to make it have its own original stamp.

And you do such interesting things with covers.  I think you pick covers that are challenging, but also may be freeing, in that they don’t have a real lyrical standard to them – like a Tom Waits or a Bob Dylan cover that, you know, you’re definitely not going to sing it like they do it.

Exactly.  [laughs]

What inspires you to bring a cover to your act and to bring your own twist to it?  What is there in a cover that is intriguing to you?

I think a lot of it is picking songs that I feel I could do something unique and original to.  Like you’re saying, I seem to pick songs by writers that I admire greatly, but sound very different from me, even vocally, like Joanna Newsom or Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.  Those are all such distinct voices.  I guess there are differences in the choice that goes into picking a cover for a live show versus picking a cover for a recording.

I think for a recording, it has to bring something to the table that makes sense on a record, and not just, like, “Ok, this is just a collection of songs.”  It has to make sense with the other songs.  It has to bring something that fills out the feel and the story.  Like with [Dylan’s] “Simple Twist of Fate”, for instance, on my last record [Build Me Up From Bones, Sugar Hill Records, 2013], that appealed to me because it was such a sparse arrangement of that song, and I had never really recorded something that open and bare before, and that seemed like a good texture to bring in to fill out the rest of the record.  But mostly it’s just picking songs that I love to sing and feel like I can do something a little new to.

When did you feel like you could bring something to the table as a bandleader?

I guess that always kind of came naturally.  I think that sort of spawned out of writing my own songs.  I think it might have been different had I not been writing my own material.  That in itself just gives way to hearing different arrangements and saying, “How do I want this song to take life on a stage or in a studio?” and from there thinking, “Ok, well, this person would be ideal, or this person would make it really great.”

And luckily, around that same time, I started going to a lot of these music camps.  Mike [Marshall] and Dawg’s [David Grisman’s] Mandolin Symposium, for instance, was a place where I started meeting musicians my own age who were into a lot of the same music.  And I think a lot of wanting to play my own shows came out of that – you know, playing with guys like Alex [Hargreaves] and Nat [Nathaniel Smith] and seeing, “Ok, these people are doing it, too.”  But then it goes beyond that, and you meet musicians you feel really get your music and can really bring your songs to life.

You have a really calm energy around bandleading.  When I’ve seen your trio with Alex and Nat, I have been struck by how you create a bubble around the three of you that’s like a safety zone or something…

Yeah.

…and sort of, like, what’s possible within that bubble?  You’re definitely including the audience, but I feel like Alex and Nat can just sort of lay back and do what they do.  And that’s not always the case.  Sometimes you see with a bandleader that there’s a kind of jangly energy to it that seems counter-productive, you know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely.

So are you conscious of creating that?

Yeah, for sure.  Actually, the thing with Alex and Nat, it’s kind of seen its day, for now at least.  We played together for almost five years, and I was definitely excited to try out some other things.  So right now, I’ve done a few shows in another trio setting with Mark Schatz on the bass and Jedd Hughes on guitar and singing.  But I feel like this question pertains to any sort of configuration like that, and I’ve always tried to surround myself with musicians that do create that bubble and that sense of a wholeness.

Also, having played so many solo shows, it’s interesting to see the songs take form with musicians backing it up.  But I think the goal is to find those musicians that make it feel just as relaxed as if it were in a solo setting, and just as smooth and seamless.  And I feel like Nat and Alex really brought a lot to the table in terms of how that happened, and I’m excited to see other configurations and how my songs can take shape with different musicians.

[To be continued…]

In the next installment, Sarah talks about learning from her live recordings, getting into the zone onstage, and working in the studio. — VA