By Michael Lello
With Grammy nominations, critical acclaim (“one of acoustic music’s finest talents,” says the New York Times) and collaborations with some of Americana’s biggest names, Sarah Jarosz has achieved a career’s worth of accomplishments. Consider that she’ll turn only 23 in May, and it’s all the more impressive.
Signed to Sugar Hill Records since she was 16, the Texan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – she plays mandolin, octave mandolin, banjo and guitar – has worked with Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas and was just last month featured on the PBS concert show “Austin City Limits” with The Milk Carton Kids. Last September, she released her third album, “Build Me Up From Bones,” and in December it earned Grammy nominations for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song for the title track. Her first two records received Grammy nominations as well.
A recent graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Jarosz will bring her tour to the Ardmore Music Hall on Thursday, March 6. We spoke with the affable musician about building her latest album, covering Bob Dylan and Joanna Newsom and what she considers to be her “perfect instrument.”
H81R: “Build Me Up From Bones” is very diverse musically but seems to have a consistent mood throughout. What was your approach for the album and how did you keep that balance?
SJ: I guess this one was a little different since it was my third time around recording. So I was coming at it with a little more experience and just knowing what had to be done to get the sounds that I wanted to make. But I think the biggest difference with this record was just having more involvement from Alex (Hargreaves, violin) and Nat (Smith, cello), who play with me in my live show. We’ve been touring as a trio for about four years now, and they both played on my last two records, but I really wanted to capture that trio sound and the textures that that brings. So I think that’s what really makes this album different from the last two and what gives it the vibe and the feel, just because there’s so much space that’s created within a trio.
H81R: Your version of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist Of Fate” on the current album is quite different from the original and is somewhat jazzy and sparse. What inspired you to take the song in that direction? I
SJ: It actually happened pretty naturally. I wasn’t even necessarily considering covering a second Bob Dylan song (Editor’s note: She covered “Ring Them Bells” on 2011’s “Follow Me Down”), but I was just jamming with Nat before a show a few years back, and that song came up in conversation. And pretty much the first way we played it is close to how you hear it on the record. It just kind of fell into that magical zone of just voice and cello. As far as making the decision to actually include it on the record, I was just psyched about having something that sparse. I had never recorded anything that simple with that much space. So texturally I thought that brought something that wasn’t already on the record. I love the song and I think it’s one of the greatest ever written.
H81R: And you also covered Joanna Newsom’s “The Book Of Right On” for the album, which is quite a contrast from Dylan or even you. What drew you to that song of hers?
SJ: My friend Aoife O’Donovan is in the band Crooked Still, she was the first one to show me Joanna’s music. I don’t know; when I choose covers for an album, I kind of think, what can these songs bring that are not already in this crop of songs? The stuff that she’s writing is obviously very quirky and extremely different from how I write songs. So I was kind of drawn to the quirkiness of the lyrics and also in terms of translating what one woman is doing on one instrument, the harp, to three musicians, because there are so many complex things that are going on in her harp parts, to break that down and how do we accomplish that with three of us with violin, cello and mandolin? So that was a fun process to go through.
H81R: You’ll be playing at the Ardmore Music Hall near Philadelphia this week. How would you describe your live show to someone who hasn’t seen you previously?
SJ: It’s a lot of all of the music from all three of my records, and there’s usually a handful of covers thrown in as well. The shows for all of March will be with Alex and Nat, so people can definitely expect the trio sound, and sometimes I’ll do a couple solo songs in there too. I’m excited to visit that venue, I’ve never been there before.
SJ: I like having variation in places that I play. Energy-wise, my set is very varied. It can go from kind of high-energy stuff to extremely mellow, kind of softer music. And that’s really important to me when I put together a set, to not just have one feel but to kind of take the listeners on an emotional kind of rollercoaster. So I think obviously if we’re playing a festival setting I’m going to cater the set maybe a little more higher-energy if it’s something like that and it’s outdoors, and vice versa, in a listening room.
H81R: You recently earned two more Grammy nominations. How does it feel to get that type of recognition for your work?
SJ: Oh man, it’s totally thrilling (laughs). I sort of pinch myself. It’s hard to believe I already have three so early on in my life. It’s really special. I had a blast out there in L.A. I think the coolest part for me, especially this time around, was seeing how many of my peers were also nominated and share in the experience with them. The Greencards, The Milk Carton Kids, so that made it really particularly special this time around.
H81R: You’ve been signed to a record label since you were 16. Have you ever had a chance to be a “normal” teenager or young adult?
SJ: (Laughs). Umm, I mean maybe not (laughs), compared to other people. That’s a good question, because that was totally a big part of why I decided to go to college and do that. Even though it was still a music school, I felt it was just really crucial to my well-being to not go straight out onto the road after high school and give myself the four buffer years of going to college, living in a new city and having that time to not just be a road dog (laughs) right out of high school. Now that those four years are over, I’m incredibly grateful that I made that decision. Even though I was performing and doing shows all through that, I felt that it was really healthy for me to have that time to kind of do my own thing outside of just my music career, you know?
H81R: With the various instruments you play, do you consider one of them to be your primary instrument?
SJ: It’s interesting. I’ve always been singing my whole life, so honestly I’d consider that my main instrument (laughs), but then kind of behind that would be the mandolin because that was my first instrument and I feel like I know my way around it the best. But with that being said, I almost never write on the mandolin, in terms of when it comes to songwriting. I find octave mandolin has been a great instrument to write on, and I’m playing a lot of my songs on the octave mandolin just because as a singer, it’s a really kind of great instrument because it gives the support and the fullness that guitar might bring behind a singer, but it’s like I’m playing the mandolin, so it’s really the perfect instrument for me. I kind of write on that and guitar and banjo mainly, but I still consider mandolin to be my primary instrument.
H81R: In addition to continuing to tour behind “Build Me Up From Bones,” are there any other projects you have in the works?
SJ: For now, since I just got out of college, I’m focusing on touring as much as possible. And maybe – it still feels so fresh, this record came out just last September — I probably wouldn’t start thinking about another record until at least the end of this year. For now the main thing on my horizon is just to continue touring and getting out as much as I possibly can.
Sarah Jarosz, Ardmore Music Hall (23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, Pa.), Thursday, March 6, doors 6 p.m., show 7 p.m. Tickets: $25 advance, $20 day of show. www.ardmoremusic.com, (610) 649-8389