The singer-songwriter on new album World On The Ground, writing in character, staying inspired by new music and winning Grammy Awards aged 18
Over the course of the last 10 years American singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz has proved she’s very much an artist able to forge her own musical path while respecting and taking inspiration from previous musical generations. Her music may be varyingly defined as folk, country or bluegrass but there’s also something in her songs that allow them to bypass such categorisations, allowing them to stand on their own.
New album World On The Ground is her fifth album in just over a decade, with each release sounding progressively more polished and assured than its predecessor. Her songs have a levelheadedness and maturity that belie her relatively young age, something that also comes through during our conversation ahead of the album’s release. Given the turbulent nature of the world in 2020 and the rocky road ahead for the music industry they’re qualities that should serve her well.
We begin by talking about how it feels to be releasing an album in the middle of a pandemic. “I absolutely have mixed emotions. Even just this week but also over the last couple of months it has been difficult for me to know if this is the right time to release this album. In the end I’m really glad I stuck with my gut feeling and went ahead with it. I’m really excited for it to be out and for people to hear it. I have to keep believing music can be healing because it has been for me.”
She’s been based in New York for the last few years but temporarily relocated to Nashville after the pandemic situation had started to worsen. How has she been coping? “I’ve just been trying to manage the best I can. In a way the hardest part is that I’m such a planner, that’s my nature. As musicians we often know our calendars and where we are going to be in the world sometimes two years in advance so it’s definitely very strange to have this open-ended situation and so many unknowns to deal with. I’m trying to take it one day at a time and focus on what I can do in the moment to help and contribute to the world in a way that I can.”
“For this album I wanted to allow some room for growth and discovery along the way”
Her last solo album was 2016’s Undercurrent which she followed by joining forces with Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek to form the band I’m With Her. Do some of the songs on World On The Ground date back to around those times? “They are more recent. The I’m With Her project was wonderful but we were touring constantly for about two years. Once I finished Undercurrent, I’m With Her just came as such a creative breath of fresh air for me to be able to put a pause on thinking about my solo music for a little while. I didn’t start writing these songs until the last half of 2018 and some were written during the recording process. On all four of my solo records prior to this I went in having all the songs written. For this album I wanted to allow some room for growth and discovery along the way and have the writing coinciding with the recording as well.”
She explains how a lot of the songs were inspired by her hometown of Wimberley in Texas. “Wimberley is in central Texas, just south of Austin. It’s where my family is still based. I had this realisation that Wimberley and Texas are such a huge part of my character and my identity as a person but realised I had never spent any time writing about that.” She goes on to talk about how a lot of the songs are about people moving around the world, about themes of travel and escape.
“Something I tried to do this time round as a writer was shift my perspective a little bit. A lot of my writing prior to this, especially on Undercurrent, was really soul-baring in a way that was deeply personal and introspective. I noticed most of my favourite songwriters had found a way to be personal but not write from their point of view. They were able to incorporate characters and that getting outside of yourself was helpful to me in opening my eyes to the world a little bit. The songs Johnny and Maggie are perfect examples of that.”
Maggie was written after Jarosz met an old school friend and reflected on how their lives had gone in different directions. Johnny ponders the main character’s journey through the world in similar fashion. Does she enjoy writing from the perspective of someone else?
“Yes. Usually I’m a painstakingly slow writer when it comes to lyrics but as soon as I took that simple shift of perspective the lyrics flowed so quickly. I think that’s a lesson for life too. We all have the tendency to really get bogged down in the things we are dealing with on a day to day basis and if you can just take a step back and a step outside of yourself sometimes things start to click and make sense a little easier. That certainly happened with the writing process with these songs. I was trying to be more of a storyteller.”
In the case of Maggie, she explains how it was an experience that affected her so much she wanted to see if it could find its way into a song. “It’s a case of recognising these deeper moments that happen in life and then zeroing in on them and trying to see how the details of the story can convey meaning to someone else.”
Four of the songs were co-written with John Leventhal, a musician and producer who has worked with some of the biggest names in Americana over his career (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Ry Cooder among others). Jarosz is understandably enthusiastic about it.
“That was a wildly positive experience. John is also a musician as well as a producer so we were collaborating on a musical level. I think because of that, having that respect for John’s musicianship, I really wanted to just see where things went, be a little more open-minded and just learn along the way.”
“Sometimes it takes that distance to be able to really analyse exactly what you feel about something”
Does she find the environment she’s in informs her songwriting? “Yes, totally. This is the first record that I recorded in New York even though I’ve lived there for the past seven years. I had made all of my prior records in Nashville. It took not being anywhere near my hometown to allow me to write about it. Having that distance and polar opposite environment helped. Sometimes it takes that distance to be able to really analyse exactly what you feel about something.” She talks of how some of the detail in these songs is informed by “the dream-like influence of a memory”.
I mention how Orange And Blue, one of the key tracks on the album, feels less explicit in its storytelling. “For sure, I think that’s a good observation about that song. That’s always something I’ve been conscious of, finding the balance between detail and mystery in songs. That’s the hardest part about talking about songs after the fact, you almost don’t want to explain them too much. As a listener I like to not always know everything about those songs and have that room and space to find my own meaning.”
Jarosz has been compared to some esteemed musicians over the years, artists like Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Does she still find herself inspired by other musicians and new music?
“Definitely, I feel it would be really bad if I was complacent and became too settled in my ways. With this record, I listened to music all the time. It’s funny how so many of my musician friends say they stop listening to albums while writing. I’m still an album girl in my heart. I love getting into an album and listening to it for weeks. I was listening to lots of Texas singer songwriters while making this album. For example the James McMurtry album Too Long In The Wasteland was maybe the record I was obsessed with the most when I was making World On The Ground. Listening to others is how I stay inspired. I was also listening to a lot of Big Thief when I was making this record. I love them” (there’s an additional connection in that Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek also grew up in her hometown Wimberley).
She recently shared covers of songs by Nanci Griffith and John Prine and it feels like she’s been steeped in that classic country music. Were these artists you heard at home while growing up? “Yeah, full on since childhood. As a kid I remember my parents playing those records by Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Guy Clark and people of that realm and musically that stuck with me. I was so young that I wasn’t processing the weight of the lyrics or what any of the songs meant but it’s been really special to get to discover them as an adult and hear the lyrics in a new way.”
Over recent years former Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash legend David Crosby has become one of her most vocal fans. Being championed by someone like that must be pretty special? “I still pinch myself about it. He’s been so encouraging, we’ve spoken on the phone several times and the last time I played at the Lobero in Santa Barbara he came to the show. It means the most.” Maybe such attention shouldn’t come as a surprise given she was nominated for a Grammy award at the age of 18 and won two Grammy awards for her last album Undercurrent. How did that feel?
“All those experiences have been so exciting and positive and joyful. I’ve tried to keep them isolated to the present moment that it happened. Those have been some of the most thrilling moments of my life so I’m not going to lessen it and say I don’t care. It means so much when your work is honoured in that way. I do think you do need to separate it and try to make music unrelated to however. You have to honour it but also disconnect from it.”
For now, her focus is on World On The Ground. “I’m so proud of it,” she declares, and with justification; it’s the latest instalment in a career that goes from strength to strength.
Sarah Jarosz’s World On The Ground is out now through Rounder. Tour dates and further information can be found at sarahjarosz.com