The Art of Being Natural
by Hermon Joyner
By her own accounts, Sarah Jarosz has been singing since she was two years old, picking the mandolin when she was ten, and things have been rocketing skyward from there. She recorded her first album, Song Up In Her Head, six years after her first introduction to the mandolin and one instrumental track from it, “Mansinneedof,” was nominated for a Grammy. Her next CD, Follow Me Down, was released in 2011 when she turned 20. This was followed up with her recording, Live at the Troubadour in 2012, which featured her touring back-up collaborators, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and Nathaniel Smith on cello. Her latest album, Build Me Up From Bones, was released 2013 and it was nominated for Grammy Awards for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song for the title track.
In a relatively short amount of time, Jaraosz has garnered an enormous amount of accomplishments and taken her career to places many musicians can only dream of, but watching Jarosz play and sing, and listening to her talk about her music, it’s obvious that she has yet to reach the limits of her potential. Her career is still gaining momentum with little sign of letting up.
Sarah Jarosz grew up in Wimberley, Texas, near Austin in the eastern part of the state. Her parents (Gary and Mary Jarosz), though not musicians themselves, filled their home with the sounds of an eclectic mix of musical genres and were always willing to including Jarosz in new experiences. Jarosz said, “I’m fortunate to have parents that just love music and so I grew up listening to different styles of music around the house and going to live concerts.”
Just before Jarosz turned ten, she was visiting the home of a friend and saw a small string instrument hanging on the wall. When she asked her friend what it was, she found out it was a mandolin. Jarosz asked to borrow it and began to learn to play it. When the next Christmas came along, her parents worked out a deal to buy the mandolin for Jarosz. She still has that Lotus A-style mandolin. Jarosz said, “It now has tons of signatures from a bunch of my musical heroes that I’ve acquired at festivals over the years.”
Shortly after getting that Lotus, Jarosz heard about a near-by bluegrass jam. It turned out to be a significant turning point for her. She said, “I found out about the weekly Friday night bluegrass jams down in Wimberley and right from the very start it was an incredibly encouraging thing for me as a young girl trying to learn the music. The people [at the jam] had a huge part in what made it so exciting for me. Everyone was so encouraging and supportive, and they could tell that I was really getting excited about this music and playing the mandolin. One guy in particular, Mike Bond, was kind of the ringleader of the jam—and he still goes every week—and he was the first to notice my love for the mandolin and the music. Week by week, he would show me new things.”
Then two things happened that would further capture her imagination about playing music. First was Nickel Creek. Jarosz said, “There was something about them that really caught my ear and I just latched on to it. Seeing a band like Nickel Creek, as a young girl playing the mandolin and just starting off, it made it appealing. It is a cool thing to be doing.” The second thing was that her parents, as a way to encourage her, began to send her to festivals and workshops to learn more about the mandolin. The instructors and fellow students she met at these would become a second family to Jarosz. She said, “I had the opportunities to meet other young kids my age at music camps and festivals around the country. And that’s really when I caught the bug. It started being this really fun thing to do. I think the community aspects of it had a lot to do with it.”
Some of the people—instructors and musicians she met at the festivals and workshops—would have a big impact on her approach to the mandolin. Jarosz said, “There’s a festival down in Texas called the Old Feller’s Music Festival and Tim O’Brien was playing there that year in 2001. I was about to turn 10 and I had just gotten a mandolin, and I got to meet him there for the first time. A year or two later, he came back to Austin and played at the Cactus Café during a festival called the Rice Festival, and he invited me to sit in on a couple of tunes with him, which was a total thrill. He’s one of the first people I remember hearing and I just love his songwriting, his musicianship, and his singing. I remember thinking, ‘You know, this is really cool.’ This is the kind of music that I love and want to try and model myself after.”
A year later, Jarosz would take the next step. Jarosz said, “The first workshop I went to was the Rocky Grass Academy when I was 11 and that’s where I had the opportunity to meet Mike Marshall for the first time. Mike Marshall has always been a big influence on me in terms of the mandolin. He was the teacher at Rocky Grass. He really opened up a new world for me, in terms of what I was thinking about as far as the mandolin goes.”
Jarosz’ choices for instruments that she plays were also influenced by these people. Her primary instrument is the mandolin, which is where she started. After her Lotus A-style, her parents bought her a Weber Bitterroot F-style mandolin. Then she moved up to a professional instrument, one that was made about a half-hour from where she grew up in Texas. She said, “I’ve had the Collings MF5 for several years now. It’s been a great mandolin for me. But I’ve always been a big fan of Gilchrist mandolins, too, so I’m sort of on the lookout for acquiring one of those as well. But the Collings people have been really, really amazing in my life, and I have a Collings guitar as well. It’s a D1A. It was built for David Bromberg—they built two guitars for David Bromberg’s 60th birthday and they sent both of them to him and this is the one he didn’t wind up taking—and it’s been an amazing guitar. I just love it so much and I can’t say enough good things about the folks at Collings. They’ve been really supportive of me throughout the years.”
Jarosz also plays an octave mandolin made by Fletcher Brock. It’s based on the design of an arch-top guitar. She was inspired to get a lower voiced mandolin by seeing Tim O’Brien play his bazouki and Mike Marshall play his Monteleone mandocello. She said, “The Fletcher Brock octave mandolin has been absolutely incredible. I’d been on the lookout for one of those for a while and I’d been saving up money to get one if I ever came across one. I got that one at the IBMA conference in Nashville. It was kind of one of those ‘ah, ha’ moments. I walked into the trade show and it was like a light was shining down on it. I played it for five minutes and knew that I had to get it.”
Her banjo is more unusual and more than a bit special. Jarosz explains, “My banjo is a six-string clawhammer banjo, which is kind of rare. It has an additional low string. It’s built by Bernard Mollberg from Blanco, Texas, who has only built a few banjos, but he’s an excellent luthier and he was my first clawhammer banjo mentor.” Jarosz met him at the weekly bluegrass jams in Wimberley and Mollberg is one of the founders of the Austin Friends of Traditional Music.
As her career matures, Jarosz is more known for her voice than for her incredible technical skills on her instruments. In a way, that is probably only natural, since her voice is the instrument that she was born with. Besides listening to and being inspired by Tim O’Brien, and Shawn Colvin, and Gillian Welch, Jarosz went as far as to take voice lessons with a jazz vocalist, Dominique Eade, in Boston, while she was going to college. Jarosz said, “Singing is something that has always come natural to me. I’ve always loved singing, but it’s something that I’m constantly working on¸ building up strength, and figuring out ways to preserve my voice. My voice has changed and grown over the years, and they’ve all been positive changes.” Her record producer, Gary Paczosa, has noticed the changes as well. Jarosz said, “He’s certainly noticed a positive change in my voice between the first and second album. I have a lot better control of my vocals, but it’s still something I work on and try to get better.”
Most of the changes in her voice came from Jarosz’ decision to study music in college. She decided to temporarily put off a life on the road as a full-time professional musician while going to college. It was a choice that was not without its share of controversies. Jarosz said, “Gary and I talked about the pros and cons of going to college or just touring on the road. I know him and some other important people in my life thought, ‘School is awesome, but we don’t want you to lose the soul of it.’” But Jarosz felt it was important to be pushed out of her comfort zones and to try new things.
So Jarosz enrolled in the New England Conservatory (NEC) of Music in Boston. At first, a classical music institution seems like a strange fit for a mandolin- and banjo-playing girl raised on bluegrass, but you have to remember the house that she grew up in valued all music, from jazz to classical, and from folk to rock. And it didn’t hurt that Jarosz’ friend, Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer for the band, Crooked Still, was a graduate of that school and recommended it strongly. O’Donovan said that Jarosz should get into the Contemporary Improvisation Program, a program that stresses the importance of personal style, the role of creative improvisation, and the need to push the boundaries of music. Jarosz took O’Donovan’s advice and found that she loved college.
Jarosz said, “On any given day, I had liberal arts courses, musical history classes, private lessons, and ensembles. I was in a songwriting workshop, a world music ensemble, and a Jewish music ensemble, and on top of that there was the classical tonal harmony and theory classes, which required you to have a keyboard class. So it covered a lot of the musical spectrum. It was totally awesome.” And she even was able to play her banjo in the music ensembles, which was a definite plus for Jarosz. She graduated from NEC is 2013, moved to New York City, and began her musical career in earnest.
Part of the guiding philosophy of NEC comes from the classical composer and conductor, Gunther Schuller, and his idea of the Third Stream, which mixed elements of jazz and classical music while stressing improvisation. This was popular in the mid-20th Century and was represented by composers like George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, and Duke Ellington. Today, Americana Music is a similar movement and is represented by groups like The Decemberists and Trampled by Turtles. Americana music, or Roots music, draws diverse influences from other musical genres like Celtic, folk, blues, R & B, pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass, and country. All these various musical ideas are mixed together and come out in an original way. Sarah Jarosz and her music fits rather neatly into this movement.
The music she writes and performs isn’t bluegrass, but you can see the elements of bluegrass, along with pop, folk, rock, and old-time music in her songs. That’s why her songs sound familiar to the listener; familiar, but not specific. And this all goes back to the home she grew up in. She explains, “I think for me it’s always been a natural process, just because I’m always listening to different styles of music, and growing up, I was never just confined to really one style. I feel fortunate to have parents who are pretty open minded and were always listening to different things around the house. Taking me to different shows and things. So I think it’s an amalgamation of all those different styles coming together and me listening to them and absorbing them and them coming out into my own music in possibly a new way.”
Feeling at home and comfortable with her music, her performances, and her audiences does a great deal to explain her continuing popularity. In February of this year, in Bellevue, Washington State, she walked out on the stage at the Wintergrass Music Festival flanked by her instruments—octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo—and acted like she was in her own home; open, relaxed, and gracious. The crowd, which filled the large auditorium, was as wide-ranging in age as the sources of Jarosz’ music, was ecstatic and cheered nearly every song she played when she announced them. Her playing was flawless and her voice sprang straight from her heart.
In 2015, Sarah Jarosz will turn 24 years old, will work on her next album, and will tour with her friends Aoife O’Donovan, formerly from the band Crooked Still, and Sara Watkins, from Nickel Creek, of course. They will tour throughout Europe and the UK as the “I’m With Her” Tour, and will continue that tour in the US this coming summer. Together, these three are an obvious force to be reckoned with and can be seen as possibly the future of roots music in the US.
For Sarah Jarosz, she finds the idea of musical genres is counter-productive and ill-advised and resists trying to put a label on what she does. Personal authenticity is far more important. She said, “What it all comes down to is music is just music, and if it’s good, it’s good. People can tell when something’s honest and when something’s contrived. Generally, people are always drawn to the honest thing first. So I’m just writing the music that feels natural to me.”
[This article was originally published in a different version in the Fall 2011 issue of Mandolin Magazine.]
Build Me Up From Bones, Sugar Hill Records, 2013
Live at the Troubadour, Sugar Hill Records, 2013
Follow Me Down, Sugar Hill Records, 2011
The New 45 (EP), Sugar Hill Records, 2010
Song Up In Her Head, Sugar Hill Records, 2009