It’s Sarah Jarosz’s last day in London. She doesn’t seem at all tour-weary as she meets me in the cafe of her hotel for a chat. The Texan singer songwriter has just completed a run of concerts as part of the Transatlantic Sessions, alongside established country/folk acts such as Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien. Before packing her bags and heading home to the US, Sarah’s decided to hang back in the capital for a couple of days and play two solo shows at Camden’s Green Note – yesterday and tonight. She may still be something of new name on these shores, but with three albums under her belt and a headline UK tour coming up in the summer, her emerging star may be about to shine more fully on this island.
You’ve been touring with the Transatlantic Sessions and playing major venues including the Royal Festival Hall. How different is your approach and the audience reaction when you play a gig like tonight’s at Green Note, which is a really intimate venue?
Transatlantic was a total dream – Tim and Darrell and Shawn Colvin. I mean I’ve grown up listening to them almost more than anyone, so it was really special. All along the tour we played at the most beautiful venues. As a musician, most of the time when you’re on tour it’s your thing, your show, all the pressure’s on you. So, it was a nice change to just be on a few of the songs and get to sit back for some of the show and watch other people do their thing, too. It was great, but I also love the contrast of getting to do a solo show. I think the Green Note is a lovely little venue and especially it being solo – it feels fitting that it’s such an intimate little venue. Sort of like playing in someone’s living room. People really listen and it’s nice. So yeah, I like the contrast of it. Somebody said after the show yesterday, cause he was also at the Royal Festival Hall, he said ‘it’s great to see you get to shine in there, but it’s also cool to be so close and get to see your facial expressions’. So, I think people feel that and connect to that. That ultimately affects how the music is perceived.
When it comes to songwriting do you wait for inspiration or work at it like a craft and has that changed over the years?
I guess I wait for inspiration. I would like to be the kind of person who’s always working on it, day in and day out. I have great admiration for people that can do that, but for me, I need to be really deeply moved by something or be contemplating something to move into that process. If I’m feeling that way, then it’s kind of a collection process of taking down little ideas, taking down notes, recording little melodic phrases and then sitting down and going through that stuff and sometimes a song comes out. I actually wrote a song last night for the first time in a year. So, I can start to sense when I’m being bitten by the bug again, so to speak. It kind of creeps up on me slowly – there’s that feeling, there’s that pull to want to write. I’m luckily finally feeling that again. I think it had been a bit of drought just because I was in the thick of so many life changes – graduating college, going on tour full time for the first time in my life and moving to New York City. I didn’t really have a moment to just sit down and think about everything that was happening. So, it’s nice to have a little bit of time.
Can you tell me anything about this song that you wrote, the new one?
(Laughs.) I don’t know, it still feels fresh. I’m very excited about it though. Normally, when I’m tour I’m with the trio, I’m surrounded by a bunch of people. I never really have alone time. I think being so inspired by all of those guys last week in Transatlantic, then having these three days in London on my own to really think about everything that’s happened, just the combination of that was really good.
Does the music come together first or the words or both at the same time?
I guess it’s kind of together. Normally, I’m writing down words and phrases and I’ll have one line that really sparks something. Then, if I’m playing along with that line, I’ll kind of mumble through that line and something will come. Or I’ll keep working a specific section or verse for a while, it really varies.
On the new album, Build Me Up From Bones, you’ve recorded Bob Dylan’s Simple Twist of Fate. Is it difficult to chose a song like that to cover – is there a worry when it’s from a seminal album that people could put up barriers to a cover of a song that is so familiar and perhaps means a lot to them?
Well, that one just kind of happened really naturally. I wasn’t necessarily thinking consciously ‘I want to cover this song’. Nat, who plays cello on that track, and I were hanging out backstage before a show and we were talking about that record and we just started playing for fun. Not with the intention of ‘we want to put this song on an album’, just playing it. Pretty much the way that we played it for the first time is pretty close to how you hear it on the record and I think there’s something to be said for that. I think just the fact that it was done out of pure love for the song, not with any other intention whatsoever, says a lot. Then with a song like The Book Of Right-On (by Joanna Newsom), the other cover, that one was about taking time to really go through it and really work through the arrangements. To have three musicians have to figure out what one lady is playing on the harp – cause there’s so much going on in her harp parts – is just a fun puzzle to figure out. They show both ways that you can come at a cover – just for the pure love of a song and then also for the pure love of a song but just trying to figure it out and make a real arrangement out of it.
You play lots of different instruments – which one did you start with and what inspired you to want to start playing?
Well, I guess I’d been singing my whole life, so that was really what came first. I had taken piano lessons when I was around six – I’m glad I did it, but it was never the kind of thing that I was really psyched up for. (Laughs.) I had to be forced to practise! But then, when I was about ten years old, I came across the mandolin for the first time and that was my first instrument. I just fell in love with it. I became really excited to play on my own and just got really obsessed with it. Simultaneously, I found out about this weekly Friday night bluegrass jam in my home town and I started going to that. I just fell in love with the people and the community and kind of along the way picked up banjo and guitar and it all just fell in naturally, but it really started with the mandolin.
Are there instruments you still want to learn?
Yeah, I’m a closet fiddle player. I feel really self-conscious about playing the fiddle around people, but it’s something I want to keep working on. My parents, for this past Christmas, went on the search for my grandmother’s violin, which they knew existed but they didn’t know where it had ended up in the family. They found it and the distant cousin that had it said that, were my grandmother still alive, she would have wanted me to have it. So, now I’ve ended up with this really special fiddle to practise on.
That seems really appropriate because the style of music you play is very much based in history and tradition in many ways. Speaking of families, you have an exotic surname where’s it from?
It’s from Poland.
Have you been to Poland?
No, I wish! My last name is Polish, but way more of my family are Irish. So, I have a lot of Irish roots and that grandmother, who had the fiddle, her mum was from Ireland.
Have you played in Ireland?
Never! I think finally it’s going to happen this summer. We’re coming back over in July for another tour and I think we’re going to get to Ireland on that trip. It’s been a dream to go there. I’d love to go to Poland too, though.
What sort of music do you listen to on the road?
It’s always changing, but when I get into something, I really listen to it. I think I make a conscious effort to still be discovering new things, but also to really get deep within something that I really love and just listen to it over and over and over again. That’s how I’ve always been when I really love a song or a record. It’s funny, I feel like when I was in college I was all about trying to discover new music that I had never heard before – a lot of jazz, a lot of different stuff, world music. But now, I feel that I’m almost coming back to my roots, rediscovering a lot of the music that I loved initially. Like Gillian Welch – I’m kind of obsessed with The Harrow And The Harvest right now. That’s what I’ve been listening to the last week. Also these guys The Milk Carton Kids. I‘ve been lucky to do a couple of shows with them, we taped an Austin City Limits (US television music show) that just aired in the States. They’re awesome, I think they’ve got really great songs. And Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. I’ve been listening a lot to that Paul Simon song Duncan lately. I’m into certain songs right now. One of Joni’s first songs, Cactus Tree, from Song To A Seagull, I think is just beautiful. Right now, that’s currently what’s on my radar, but it’s always changing. And I’m always trying to keep my ears open to what musicians I really love are listening to.
Are there artists that you’d specifically like to work with, either live or recorded?
It’s a tough question. At this point I feel so lucky – I mean Shawn Colvin was up there at the top, so to just have this experience to get to know her a little better and get to sing with her every night, was a total dream come true. I don’t know. I’d love to meet Paul Simon. He’s just the ultimate, I think, when it comes to a musical hero. I’m always drawn to the people who are not only great singers and musicians, but great writers as well and always paying attention to all of the aspects of it and not just one. Those are the kind of artists that I’m drawn to and would like to work with. I mean Gillian Welch is a true hero. I’ve had the opportunity to meet her several times – to get to do something musically with her would be pretty awesome. Aoife O’Donovan – we’ve actually played together before, but we’ve talked about trying to play a lot more together.
You’ve played such a range of venues and with a lot of different people – do you ever suffer from nerves for any of these types of shows?
It depends, not a lot. It’s almost like the waiting is the hardest part. You do your soundcheck and then you wait around for two hours and mingle and then finally you go on. I feel like I’m most relaxed if I could just get up there and do it. You do have the time to get into your head a bit when waiting. But with a show like this, it’s so intimate, it just feels really calming actually to get to do a show like this – they make me really thankful. I get to go to work today and that’s getting to play music for an hour or a little longer than an hour. That’s pretty cool. I’m thankful for these kinds of experiences that bring me back to that place.
How long have you been performing?
I guess I started playing around Austin when I was around 12 or 13. Just real simple local things with other musicians. Then when I was 14 or 15 I started developing my own songs. I was 16 when I had the feeling that maybe this is more than just a hobby and this could really be my life.
So you’ve had time to get over the nerves?
It’s been about ten years, yeah. (Laughs)
What would you like the audience to take away from your show tonight, when they’re walking out of the door into the Camden night – what would you like them to have experienced or be feeling or thinking?
That’s a good question. I think these days people are just really longing for honesty. So, I would hope people would walk away feeling like they experienced something really honest and raw. For me it’s a very stripped down experience because it’s just me standing up on a stage. It’s a pretty special experience actually to have that interaction with the audience. I feel like I’m able to open up a lot more cause it is just kind of you and me, you know, when it comes down to it. So, I would hope that people would feel moved and maybe inspired in whatever way seems right to them.
Sarah Jarosz in interview with RockShot Magazine. Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk on 10 February 2014.