Riding the Undercurrent: An Interview with Sarah Jarosz

After a whirlwind three years, Jarosz finds herself at the precipice of her most-anticipated release yet, and it all begins with stripping things down.
Sarah Jarosz
Sugar Hill

When Sarah Jarosz jumped on the phone with PopMatters, she was in the midst of a media blitz, conducting a string of interviews—ours included—in preparation for the impending release of her fourth full-length album, Undercurrent. As if being just ten short days away from its being let out into the world wasn’t enough for the rising Americana artist’s ongoing journey and where it had brought her up to that point, she was also readying herself for a tour in promotion of her latest studio effort which would first bring her on an hours-long flight from her new home in New York all the way to Grass Valley, California for a performance that very next day.

As if this one snapshot of her life in that moment were not enough to establish a ripe vision of Jarosz’s dizzying work ethic, one only has to look back in the three years between Undercurrent and her previous album, Build Me Up from Bones, in 2013, to have the idea driven home. Jarosz had established herself further as a folk singer-songwriter during this time, having most prominently performed alongside Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins in their superband I’m With Her while also sharing hosting duties with Garrison Keiller and Chris Thile on A Prairie Home Companion, teaching at Yo-Yo Ma’s world-renowned Global Musician Workshop, and so on.

Though our conversation took us across much of the developmental process of Undercurrent, Jarosz had also spent a good amount of time focusing on the points that had brought her up towards its initial inception.

* * *

A lot has happened between the release of Undercurrent and your previous album — perhaps more-so than any other previous period of time between albums for you. Where are you now as an individual, as opposed to where you were around the time of your previous album?

One thing about Undercurrent is that it’s an album that represents a lot of firsts. It’s my first album written since moving to New York from Texas, it’s my first album written since graduating from college, it’s my first album composed of all original songs and no covers.

It’s my fourth album, but it’s the first one that I was able to fully wrap myself within because of all of these other elements in my life. Touring with Aoife and Sara and The Milk Carton Kids really helped, because songwriting had always been such a normally solitary thing to me up until we had worked together, and being able to be a part of a situation where we were all equal players helped me understand more about music and myself. Even working with Garrison, and even Chris Thile, on Prairie Home and being able to teach at the workshop helped in establishing myself in where I’m at now as a songwriter.

The album has a more stripped-down feel to it, which I think allowed myself to display a more interconnected, personal message—something more poignant.

Speaking of Aoife and Sara, you were able to work with them on Undercurrent. Could you tell us about that?

Just since living in New York, I’d been getting together with Aoife, who also lives in New York, to try to write some music. We wrote a song together that’s on her new album, and she came over to my apartment one day and we wrote the song “Still Life”. As kind-of a theme, Sara Watkins and I both appear on Aoife’s record, Aoife and I are both singing harmonies on Sara’s record, and so we thought it would be cool to be consistent with that. So, both Aoife and Sara play on “Still Life” that Aoife and I wrote together, which is a cool, full-circle kind-of thing that we managed to make happen.

You’ve also had quite the history with the Milk Carton Kids, from Telluride to Austin City Limits and the Fitzgerald. Just recently, you were also able to collaborate with the duo’s Joey Ryan on a couple of songs on Undercurrent. What was that like, to work with him?

It was just the best. We did a three-week collaborative tour at the end of 2014 because we loved singing and playing together so much. I went out on the road with those guys the summer before that tour to try and write some music, and Joey and I ended up writing both “Back of My Mind” and “Take Me Back”. I had “Back of My Mind” sitting around almost completely finished for a while and he just helped put the finishing touches on it, and that helped in leading to “Take Me Back”. I feel like I’ve had a musical connection with those guys since the moment I’d met them, so it feels cool to be able to incorporate those songs on this album.

The album also features many other co-writes, such as with Parker Millsap on “Comin’ Undone” and Luke Reynolds on “Green Lights”. What draws you to certain songwriters when looking for co-writes?

It can be a combination of different things. With Jedd Hughes, for instance, who I wrote a couple of the songs with, we had written together on my previous album. A lot of the co-writes just come from working with Gary Paczosa who I co-produced the record with, too. He was the first performance who introduced me to Jedd, who also was introduced to me by way of The Greencards, who I was friends with in Austin.

With Parker Millsap, Gary had just finished producing his record the month before and was like, “I think you guys would really hit it off. You should get together and try to write some music.” This came across similarly with Luke Reynolds, as I met Luke through Gary. Sometimes co-writes work and sometimes they don’t, but I found that I had put off the process for such a long time because I was such a solitary writer, and this time I allowed myself to be more collaborative.

Like in working with I’m With Her and The Milk Carton Kids, I’ve realized that it’s good to keep yourself present in what other musicians are doing at any given time, and so I tried to be more open to that process this time around. I think it allowed me to write better songs to get in with these other people who I admire musically. I’ve found that it also positively affects the songs I’ve been writing on my own, too.

I remember your statement on Facebook about the recent passing of Guy Clark and how, as a songwriter, you continue to find inspiration from his music. What is it to you that makes Guy a hallmark songwriter to have felt inspiration in?

I think I alluded to it a bit in what I wrote on Facebook, but it’s so powerful and poignant when a person’s music can be so ingrained in a place, making the people that live in that place feel like their music is just an extension of it. I feel that way about not necessarily about a specific place, but also about a thought process or a state of mind. There’s a simplicity that is required of a songwriter to reach that realm, and I think of someone like John Prine achieving that, or any number of people, but I totally feel like Guy Clark lived within that world and was able to just inspire so many songwriters in that process.

It’s so nostalgic for me, too, because I really do associate so much of that music with my childhood and growing up in Texas. As a bit of a side-note, I just so happened to be home in Austin for my twenty-first birthday and I said, “The first place I’m going to get a drink as a twenty-one year-old is at the Chili Parlor Bar.” That really stands out as a cool memory for me of him with “Dublin Blues” being so closely associated with it.

With Undercurrent just around the corner, what are you looking forward to most about its release?

I’m really excited that this feels like the first record that I’ve made where I can perform the songs in a live setting very true to how they were recorded on the record. It’s easily the most stripped-down of any of the CDs that I’ve made, and so, it’s super exciting for me to go out on tour and play those songs for an audience. If they’re into it, they can buy the record and that’s what they’re gonna get. That’s the first time I’ve felt like I’ve been able to do that.

I’m really excited about the guys who’ll be performing with me for this tour, too. I’ll be joined by Jedd Hughes on acoustic and electric guitar and vocals, and Jeff Kicker is gonna be playing upright bass.