CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Sarah Jarosz – Part 2 of 3

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

Jarosz

I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my in-depth conversation about performance with Sugar Hill Records artist and two-time Grammy® winner SARAH JAROSZ.  (You can read Part 1 here, where you will also find more information about Sarah in the introduction.)

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

The final installment will be posted next week. –VA

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I know that something a lot of artists have trouble with is when people are really effusive with the compliments and are really excited about what they’re seeing and want to share that with you.  What does that feel like to you?

When people give a bunch of compliments?

Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of other artists where sometimes it doesn’t feel like it lines up, or it’s out of proportion, like that show wasn’t so great or didn’t feel that great to them.

Yeah, that’s an interesting question, because I think I and any musician peer of mine that you talk to will struggle with that, where you get off the stage and you think, “Oh gosh, that was not my best night.”  [laughs]  And then you’re greeted by people saying that was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen.  I’ve kind of learned in those situations, even if I felt like it wasn’t my best playing, to just say thank you.  Because it almost is more of an ego trip to be, like, “Oh, no, that sucked, that was awful!”  [laughs]

Yeah, “You’re wrong!”

Because hopefully they’re being truthful, and they really experienced something that they thought was great, and I think it’s unfair to shoot that down.  So I think it’s good to sort of take it in and be aware that someone’s experience was great – but also to walk away in those settings and learn from your mistakes.  One thing that I’ve tried to get better at doing, which is very hard for me to do, is listening back to shows of mine.  It’s a dreaded thing [laughs], as most musicians, I think, would say.  But if I allow myself to do that, I wind up learning so much, and noticing things.

And this kind of goes back to the question about how it feels to be onstage.  I think this certain part of your brain does kind of go away, because you’re entertaining and you’re up on a stage in front of people.  So some things, I feel like, you can’t rationally notice the way that a person in the audience would notice them, for better or for worse, and by going back and listening I can be, like, “Oh, ok, I didn’t even notice this happening when I was up onstage.”  And a lot of times, for me, that’s maybe singing on the harder side, and when I go back and listen I can say, “Oh, I can actually back away a little bit.  In the moment, with the adrenaline, it feels like I need to sing that really hard, but maybe I don’t actually have to sing it that hard.”  So it’s just taking those compliments, and then also noticing what I would want to be better, and finding a good balance of that.

Do you watch a lot of video?

Of myself?

Yeah.

Every now and then.  I really kind of don’t like to do that [laughs], but when I do let myself, like I’m saying, I learn a lot, and I think actually it can be a very constructive thing to do.

Can you give an example of something that you’ve noticed you do physically that you’ve tried to adjust, or even that you appreciate and say, “Yeah, I’m doing the right thing there”?

Yeah, I think mostly what I notice is the vocal thing that I was saying.  Like, where in the heightened energy of being onstage, for me anyway, there’s this feeling of needing to make everything bigger.  And oftentimes, when I go back to watch a video, I’ll say, “Ok, well, that could still be big, and I wouldn’t have to push it quite as hard.”  And that just goes back to the whole trying to stay relaxed thing, and noticing moments where I could be even more relaxed and settling into a groove.

That’s kind of the ultimate goal, and I think that’s the hardest thing to do onstage – to really settle and relax into a place where you can just listen, where you can just be a reactive musician and really play based on what’s happening in the moment.  Ultimately, onstage, you settle into a lot of your habits and things that you know work night after night, but I think the best shows and the best nights are the ones where the audience is feeding off you, and you’re feeding off that, and you can be relaxed and just play music and not just kind of go through the motions.

Do you find that there are certain things that make it easier for you to get into the zone?

A lot of it has to do with sound.  I find that on nights that the sound is really great, it’s easier for me to just hear.  It’s hard when you’re battling sound issues, and there’s feedback – it’s hard to reach that point of relaxation.  Because the best times are just sitting around in a circle with folks, really playing music, and if you can try to recreate that on a stage, then that’s ultimately going to affect the music.  I try to have a really low monitor sound, because I feel like it’s just truer if I’m playing more off the room than off of a speaker that’s in front of me.  That makes my experience truer, and ultimately more enjoyable.

And, of course, having that ambient sound is going to change depending on whether you’re in a cozy room or on an outdoor festival stage.  Do you find that it’s harder to manufacture that sense of playing off of the atmosphere as opposed to the monitor?

Yeah, definitely.  And I think in that sense I go for a different vibe – it’s almost like two different shows, and two different types of energy that I would try to create, based on those two settings.  Especially in a festival setting on an outdoor stage, it does have this feeling of wanting to be bigger than life.  In a theatre, you have this limited amount of space that you’re trying to fill, and in a festival setting it’s open-air – it could just go on and on and on [laughs] into the ether, so to speak.  And that’s a daunting task to try to fill that and make it feel intimate in such a large setting.  I think it’s just trying to find that balance, in a festival.

Those are especially the times for me when I need to try to stay the most relaxed.  Because it does feel like it takes so much more adrenaline and so much more energy to put on a big show on an outdoor stage, whereas you can really kind of hone in and be really soft and quiet in a nice performing arts center.  I have grown up doing both, and they’re two things that I really enjoy doing.  I just feel like it’s a totally different show in those two settings.

How do you experience the energy coming off the audience?

I think I’m pretty sensitive to it.  I think a lot of musicians, at least a lot of my peers, would say the same thing.  It’s funny – I’m sensitive to it, but I’ve learned, if it starts really getting to me, to kind of try to shut it off.  Because there have been nights when an audience will not necessarily be super-responsive during the show, and people will talk to me afterwards and say, “Oh my god, that was just so amazing!” and you think, “Oh, well, it didn’t feel like you were being responsive to it during the show…”  [laughs]

And so it’s easy to kind of let that stuff get to you in the moment, because all of the energies are sort of uber-heightened, and you become so aware of every little thing, that sometimes it might not be truthful to how it’s actually happening.  I think it can sort of have negative effects, but it can also have really positive effects.  If you’re feeding off of a great crowd, that can really add to the energy of the show.  But then, also, in times when it might be negatively affecting me onstage, I just kind of have to say, “Ok, well, just settle in and relax into the song and focus on that tonight.”

Do it more for yourself.

More for myself, yeah.  And it’s never going to be the same – it’s different from crowd to crowd and night to night – and you just kind of have to learn to adapt.

Do you have a pre-show ritual that you do to get yourself ready to take the stage?

Not necessarily.  I feel like lately what I try to do is I actually just try to be as relaxed as possible.  I really like to actually sit down [laughs], because when you’re onstage you’re standing and you’re putting out a lot of energy, for usually an hour and a half.  I just try to really conserve my energy.  A lot of people try to get really amped up before a show, and I’ve found that the more relaxed I am, the better I am on the stage.  The more energy I try to preserve, the more energy I have to put out on a stage.  But that isn’t really anything in particular.  I think it’s definitely not having conversations before [laughs] – I really try to just relax my voice, and save that energy for the stage.

And how does your state of mind before a show compare to your state of mind when you come off the stage?

That’s a really good question.  I guess the state of mind leading up to a show is, hopefully, relaxed.  But I think inevitably, certain little anxieties – and maybe anxiety’s not the right word, but you’re about to get on a stage in front of a bunch of people.  So you try to be as relaxed as possible, but ultimately you’re thinking about the show and how it’s going to go.  And then after the show, I do feel like it is this huge energy, because you’ve just been on this adrenaline trip, basically, and you’re just at the height of that when you get off the stage.  I feel like it normally lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour – a kind of buzzing, almost, buzzing from that heightened energy – and then it slowly fades away, as you load up the van and drive away. [laughs]  So it’s trying to be really relaxed and calm leading up to a show, and then it’s really high-energy buzzing afterwards.

Do you like to rehearse a show as a show, going through a whole set to get a sense of the arc of the set?

I’ve never really done that, rehearsed all the way through – well, that’s not true.  Definitely running through the songs, but I think there’s something to be said for mostly working on the songs that really feel like they need more time and more work.  But I feel like I have a pretty good sense in my head about the energy and the feel of different songs and, when I’m writing a set list, keeping that stuff in mind and thinking, how is this going to create an arc for a show to bring people up and down on this wave of feelings.  I really appreciate that when I go to see a show, and someone takes me on this up and down journey and it’s not totally horizontal.  I really appreciate that, and so I feel like that’s what I try to do when I create the set.

But it’s cool to leave some stuff for the moment, and for mystery, and not have every little detail planned out.  That allows you to – what I was saying earlier – to listen and react in the moment.  If it’s all planned out to a T, it’s easier to just kind of not be present and rest on your laurels and that kind of thing.  And so I try to leave a little bit of space for being present in the moment.

Do you feel that music school, and in particular your Contemporary Improvisation major, changed you as a performer?

Yeah, I do.  Maybe not as a performer, so much, because that wasn’t really the focus of my time there.  It wasn’t really on performing, it was more on the nitty-gritty of the arrangements and the music.  But I think, ultimately, having my ear expanded, which was really the thing that happened most during my time at NEC [New England Conservatory], that’s actually going to affect how I carry myself onstage.  It’s mostly going to affect the music, and the music is going to affect the performance.

I think being exposed to so many different styles of music that I hadn’t really listened to before – a lot of free improvisation, a lot more jazz, listening to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln and a lot of great female vocalists that I hadn’t been exposed to before my time at NEC – that definitely influenced me and how I approach the stage.  But mostly I feel like, since I was performing for all my life, basically, that part is still me and was there before I went to NEC, and I think it was more the music that was affected by my time there, more than the performance aspect of it.

Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing?  Do you picture what you’re singing about?

Yeah, actually.  I have this conversation with people that ask me, “How do you remember lyrics?”  [laughs] And I think a lot of it actually is mental pictures of what’s happening in the songs.  And it can be sort of abstract, like a whole verse could have a certain image with it.  Like with my song “Build Me Up From Bones”, for instance, that whole song started based on the image of a fingernail moon.  And so, really, whenever I sing that song I think about that in my mind.  And even with a song like [Bob Dylan’s] “Ring Them Bells”, each one of those verses carries an image for me, like St. Peter and St. Martha and all of those.  It’s almost like when you’re reading a book, at least for me – you have this image in your mind of what’s happening – and I do feel like that’s how it is when I’m singing songs.

So you mentioned “Build Me Up From Bones” – you were thinking visually as you were writing it?

Definitely.  I think the line that was the spark for that song – this is when I was living in Boston, actually I remember it very clearly.  I was walking down the street, I think it was actually Hemenway Street, which was where I lived during my time in Boston, and it was at night, and it was a fingernail moon.  And I think I just wrote on my phone in my Notes app: fingernail moon scratching on the back of the night.  And I had that line for probably a month before I was, like, that’s pretty cool.

It’s very cool, by the way.

And I eventually took that and made it into the song.  So that image was the initial image that stuck with me for a while with that one.

I imagine that helps you in the studio.  It’s so hard to make a three-dimensional performance with just the aural component, so I imagine that would help you with fleshing out the performance when you’re not in the live setting.

Oh, definitely.  I think some of my favorite writers and performers create a whole world within their music, and they kind of transport you there, whether you’re listening to their record or you are at a live performance.  Ultimately, I feel like that’s why a lot of people go to see live music – it’s because they want to be transported for an hour and a half away from their realities.  And if you can create a space, an image, or a world that allows people to do that, that’s pretty powerful.

And obviously, when we’re seeing a live show, we’ve got the visual information as well – what’s the performer’s face doing, what’s their body language. 

Right.

So you have to put that across in the studio, and all the things that you do with your face and body do show up in the sound, but it has to be within pretty  controlled physical parameters.  How do you feel that you do create that visual sense for the listener when you’re recording?

Yeah, that’s a good question.  This is something that I’m thinking about all the time and trying to get better at.  I was having a conversation with Sara Watkins, actually, and Aoife O’Donovan, because we were all recording on Aoife’s record recently.  And we were talking about how, if you allow yourself to be physical in the studio and move the way you normally would on a stage, then that actually comes across in the recording.  If someone’s smiling while they’re singing a lyric, I feel like I can see that – I can hear it and then see it, you know?

Yes.

Or if someone is being big with their body when they’re singing a lyric, I feel like that comes across.  But a lot of times what winds up happening, and I feel like I’ve definitely been guilty of this, is that you get into the recording studio and you get into the vocal booth, and you kind of stand still [laughs] and sing the lyric really straight, and not at all how you would normally sing it if you’re playing with people or being on a stage.

And so I think if you allow yourself to be true to your physical self in the studio – we were all saying this – that definitely comes across on recordings.  I think it’s just that some people change their whole vibe when they sit in front of a microphone in a studio, and I think if you can allow yourself to just be relaxed and play how you would normally play, then at that point it’s up to the engineer to know how to capture that physicality within the recordings.

And that gets harder when you’re actually recording it live in the studio and you’re stuck behind your instrument.

Right.  Yeah, it’s tricky, and that’s what sets a great recording apart from a not-so-great recording.  And I think that’s why sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, well, I’m not crazy about the record, but I love seeing that person live…”  I think maybe that’s just a product of that, where it is hard to capture that spirit in the studio.  And I think some people are masters of that.  Some people are truly fantastic in a live setting, and might not have figured out how to capture that in a studio, and vice versa.  Some records are products, truly, of the magic of the recording studio and all the different devices and sounds that you can put to use in a studio, and then maybe they aren’t able to recreate that in a live setting.

So it works both ways.  And that’s why I feel like it’s fun to have each be their own thing, and try to bring in elements of both to each.  For me, anyway, a lot of my recordings have a lot of stuff going on that I don’t do in my live shows, and that’s fun.  I think it’s cool to see the different forms that a song can take on in different settings, and be this one thing on a record, but be this maybe more stripped-down thing in a live setting.

How has being in the studio, and doing producing duties in the studios, affected you as a performer – having the producer hat on?

I think it definitely goes back to the whole bandleader thing.  You have to be able to get outside of yourself a little bit, to be able to listen to it as a whole, and to be able to make comments and critiques based on the thing as a whole.  And I think that is actually kind of harder to do in a live setting, because you’re battling all of those other energies, like I was talking about, and so it’s easy to kind of fall into your routine and the way that you proceed through a live show.  Sometimes it can be hard to step outside all of that and see, “Oh, ok, this is the bigger picture, this is what’s going on.”

But having worked with [producer] Gary Paczosa so much, and shared those duties, he’s taught me a lot about noticing things and really taking everything into consideration.  The challenge then becomes, when you consider all the possibilities, how do you narrow it down to the ones that are really crucial to giving the song its life.  One great thing about Gary is that, from a very early age, he encouraged me to dream big and really consider all my options.  And now we’re at this point where we’re, like, “Ok, well, how do we see all the options and then become really picky about what’s really crucial and what the song really needs, and kind of strip it down to that?”  And that mindset in the studio definitely carries over to sculpting a live show as well.

[To be continued…]

In the final installment, to be posted next week, Sarah talks about how she would describe her sensibility, what has shaped her character, and how she keeps her focus on her artistic pursuits. — VA