Growing up, you’re told that extracurriculars are the key to a well-rounded education. So you pick your poison: run track and work on the yearbook in high school, write for the campus paper in college. Sarah Jarosz’s choices? Tour the country and release records. It makes sense for Jarosz, 20 years old and in her third year of studies at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, and it helps that she’s quite good at both. Seven months removed from the release of her sophomore folk/newgrass album, Follow Me Down, Jarosz seems to be learning more every day — be it in the classroom or on the road.
I’m sure you’ve had your share of these moments already, but has their been one particular moment that made you certain music was the right path for you?
Sarah Jarosz: I was always pretty certain that I knew I wanted music to play some role in my life, and I knew it would be a big one. But probably one of the biggest turning points was in 2007, I got invited to play a set at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. I had been going to that festival and others for years, so it was a huge deal for me. It was because of that set that I was able to meet Gary Paczosa with Sugar Hill Records, with whom I’ve produced the last two records. Meeting him was a huge turning point in my life, because so much has changed and he’s been such an incredible person and force in my life.
Do you ever regret going to school, or wonder what might have been if you had just hit the road immediately and focused on your career?
One of the reasons why I decided to go to college, aside from the music education, was to have the college experience. I wanted to savor these great years of my life and let myself be a 20 year old. I went back and forth for a while as to whether or not I wanted to do school or go on the road, and now that I’m a few years in, I’m really glad I chose the school route.
So where have you done the most learning? In a classroom setting, or in the real world? What are the differences there?
I’m definitely glad that I had more of a festival and music camp learning experience before I went to school. I feel so fortunate to have grown up in that festival scene where music was such a fun thing I was able to fall in love with, and now because I grew up with that feeling, I’m able to think of it in more of a somewhat serious way and get deeper into it. I’m able to better appreciate what I’m learning. In a school setting it’s disciplined and you have to get things in on time and finish assignments, where at a festival it’s just fun and hanging out with friends and meeting new people. And that’s not to say that school isn’t fun, but that’s just the difference.
Take me through the last seven or so months since the new record came out.
It’s been so cool to get to travel as much as I have. The tour following the release of the record this summer was the biggest and longest tour I’ve ever done in my life, so that in itself was exciting to get to play so many shows and really feel an immense amount of support for the record. I’m at the point where it’s been six months or so since it came out and I’ve been loving playing all those songs, but I’m also starting to look ahead to writing a lot more for whatever comes next.
What’s behind the title, Follow Me Down? I know it’s the lead lyric from the song “Run Away,” but why does it work thematically?
I felt like it was a good title because it evokes this sort of darker mood, first of all. When you compare my first record with this, it definitely has a little bit of a darker feel to it than the first one did. It’s my second record, and it’s sort of an invitation for people to see what I’m doing musically.
What are the biggest differences between Follow Me Down and your first record?
A huge difference has come from being at school in Boston at the New England Conservatory. This is the middle of my third year, and musically and personally I’ve just been placed out of my comfort zone. I think all the influences that I’ve gained from studying music in a conservatory setting have really affected my music and my songwriting. Moving away from Texas, away from home, that personal change in my life had a lot to do with it, and I think everything that’s happened has a lot to do with my music.
Did you have a very musical upbringing? Who were some of your influences growing up?
I am really lucky to have really supportive parents who love music, so growing up I was always surrounded by lots of styles. Some of my biggest influences have always been Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Chris Thile, Darrell Scott. I’ve always had a lot of respect for people who are amazing singers, great musicians and composers, as well.
What’s a typical songwriting process for you? How has that changed over the last couple of years?
I don’t feel like I have a typical process. The thing that keeps drawing me back to it is that there isn’t a formula, at least for me. I get inspired when I’m being the best listener. Sometimes we can all be closed off to things, and when I’m able to allow myself to open up a bit more is when I’m able to be inspired by a lot of things, whether that’s by other musicians or if I’m reading great book or something like that. It all makes its way into the songs.
Two covers on your record are very well done. Tell me how Radiohead’s “The Tourist” found its way onto the disc?
I’m a huge Radiohead fan. I was backstage at a festival hanging out with Chris Thile, and he stated playing that song. I was sort of just getting into Radiohead at that point and hadn’t heard a lot of their music, but I loved the song. I went home and worked it up and learned how to sing it. The next time I saw The Punch Brothers was in Austin, and I told Chris I had learned how to play it, so they invited me to sit in and sing it with them. Ever since then, I had always thought it would be a really cool thing to record, and they were kind and generous enough to record it with me. I felt like it blended with the other songs on the record really well.
The other is the cover of Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.” What about that song resonates with you?
I was pretty young when I first heard that. My dad was playing it, and he said ‘you should listen to this song. Pay attention (laughs).’ I loved it immediately and played it at shows for a couple years when I was young and getting started. I sort of forgot about it and stopped playing it for a while, and then was looking for material for this record and went back and forth with that one. I laid it down and actually didn’t think it was going to work that well, but it wasn’t until I was able to record it with the actual musicians on that track that it totally came together and settled into that place it finally did. I love that song and I never get tired of singing it.
I think a lot of people underestimate the difficulty of putting together a good cover. What have you always enjoyed about that challenge?
A lot of what I’ve learned over the years has been from learning other people’s songs. It was through learning other people’s songs that I was able to really start working on my own and forming my own stuff. It’s always been something I love doing. When it comes to choosing covers for a record, it comes down to obviously artists that I love and admire and respect, but also songs that I love to sing. I have to see what the bulk of my original material is like before I can really see what mood is lacking and might need to be created by another song that I love.
Who is your dream jam?
Oh gosh (laughs). I feel so lucky to have been in so many of my dream jams (laughs). That’s one of the cool things about these festivals, is that so many of the artists are just accessible and hanging out and jamming. But if I had to pick one person who I haven’t gotten to play with, I’d have to say Paul Simon. I’m so inspired by his musicianship and writing. That would be a dream.
It would be very understandable for someone in your position — with so much happening so early — to feel pressure, but you don’t strike me as feeling any. How do you avoid that?
I’ve been working on it since high school. Having to balance the school and music career thing has been a great learning experience for me, just working on myself and trying to figure out ways to balance all these things. It gets really overwhelming sometimes, but with that being said, I feel extremely fortunate to be surrounded by a great team of people on the business side of it all. That helps me keep a level head, as does just trying to constantly surround myself with people that inspire me.
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