by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
The talent that Sarah Jarosz wields is truly something to behold. Like some of her peers — Sierra Hull, Parker Millsap, Mipso, and others — the width and depth of what she has done and will yet do is a little bit mind-boggling. And her gorgeous new album, Undercurrent, warrants even further acclaim as it plumbs depths not previously explored by the roots music phenom.
Kelly McCartney: The new record has been cited by critics as being a bit darker, perhaps a bit heartier, than records past. Is that a fair estimation? Why or why not?
Sarah Jarosz: Yes, I would say that is a fair estimation. Even though this is my fourth record, it feels like there were a lot of firsts for me, in terms of the process of writing and recording this time around. For one, it’s the first record I’ve made while not also simultaneously being in high school or college. It’s the first record I’ve made since moving to New York City. And it’s the first record of mine that doesn’t have any covers on it. The fact that it’s all original music makes it feel like the most personal album I’ve made so far.
I went into the studio with this batch of songs wanting to capture them in as sparse of a manner as we could, and to me the record feels like it’s anchored around the four solo performances throughout. A lot of the imagery on the record is inspired by my time in New York City, but also there are themes of water throughout. This sense of the tide changing, feeling one way and then another, grappling with the desire to look back but ultimately wanting to look forward. There’s a darkness in there, for sure, but I think the record also contains a sense of hopefulness in trying to push through those ever-changing feelings.
Considering the rave reviews ‘Bones’ received, what kinds of pressure — internal or external — did you feel going into the making of this record?
After touring the music from Build Me Up from Bones for a couple of years, it became apparent that I needed to have the chance to step away from my own project for a bit and get involved in some really exciting collaborations. I did a collaborative tour with the Milk Carton Kids at the end of 2014. Singing three-part harmonies with those guys every night was quite the transcendent experience.
From there, I was honored to get to perform on A Prairie Home Companion quite often, which eventually led to being invited to sing on Garrison’s America the Beautiful tour which lasted a whole month last August. Getting to work with Garrison in that close proximity for an entire month was priceless. Our shows on that tour would often be three-plus hours long, and they were never the same twice. He was constantly writing and revising and trying to make things better, and I was just ultra inspired by that.
And on top of that, I started a new band with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan called I’m With Her which has truly been a joy to dive into and write and perform with those women, whom I just hold in the highest regard. All of those collaborations allowed me to approach my own music in a refreshed, inspired way. Especially with Sara and Aoife, having the opportunity to suddenly be a team member, an equal player in a band, really pushed me as a singer, and I think made me a better listener on stage and in the writing and arranging process.
So, going into this album, I didn’t really feel pressure, I just felt renewed with this new-found sense of inspiration from having the opportunity to take a step away and think, “What is it I really want to write about?!” With school, my schedule hadn’t really allowed for that kind of full-time level of attention to my music, and I think because I was able to have that, I felt more present for the making of this record than ever before.
Which song, to you, is the head of the set and which one the heart?
That’s a tough one… hard to narrow it down to just two because this whole record really feels like one concise statement to me. But, I suppose that “House of Mercy” would have to be the head and “Jacqueline” would be the heart. “House of Mercy” was a co-write with Jedd Hughes, who will now be joining me on the road to play guitar and sing harmony, which I couldn’t be more thrilled about! There’s a darkness in that song — a headstrong sensibility throughout. “Jacqueline” is inspired by my time spent walking around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. I was reading about her and, on the Central Park website, it says that that was the last place she was ever seen in public before she passed away. I was really inspired by that image of her, combined with all of my time spent by the water there. At the end of the song, there’s a glimmer of hope: “Maybe in a little while I’ll feel alright.” To me, that felt like the appropriate sentiment to end on.
What did attending the New England Conservatory of Music bring to your work?
NEC really gave me the chance to expand my musical palette. I listened to a lot of music growing up, but hadn’t really dipped my toes into most things jazz-oriented or world music-leaning. I had done a little bit of that at the Mandolin Symposium, studying Choro mandolin songs with Mike Marshall and Irish tunes with Tim O’Brien, but that only made me more curious to want to learn new things.
I think there was also this feeling, after high school, of wanting something to be a bridge between high school and life, and not necessarily immediately hit the road full-time. So, I decided to head to Boston, where, even aside from NEC, there was, and still is, a thriving music scene. When I wasn’t in school learning Abbey Lincoln tunes with Ran Blake or writing a 16th-century counterpoint line, I was writing music or traveling to play a gig or record. In retrospect, it was a lot on my plate at one time, but I’m so thankful for it all, and I think I came away from it with a more assured sense of my own work and a deeper musical pool to swim around in.