Sarah Jarosz
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Grandstand Media

Sarah Jarosz Is Electrified By Her New Music

Polaroid Lovers, the seventh studio LP by Grammy-winning songwriter Sarah Jarosz, finds the songwriter capturing a new energy with her take on American music.

Polaroid Lovers
Sarah Jarosz
26 January 2023

A story unfolds across the covers of the seven records released by the Central Texas-born songwriter Sarah Jarosz. Her face, either directly or in artistic rendering, appears on all of them but the 2020 LP World on the Ground, which features a spartan painting of two birds. Excepting the biographical suite piece Blue Heron Suite, which displays a childhood photo of Jarosz on the shores of Texas, each of her album covers is a close-up or medium-close shot of her face. This progression of images communicates a songwriter letting her listeners closer in as she refines her voice lyrically and musically.

The animated version of Jarosz’s side profile on her 2009 debut Song Up in Her Head, recorded when she was 18 years old, evolves into the fragmented visage on 2011’s Follow Me Down. She allows the viewer a fuller view of herself on the 2013 release Build Me Up From Bones, whose gentle, almost hymnal title track remains a staple in her live shows to this day. On 2016’s Undercurrent, she turned her face to the side. Throughout those releases, Jarosz never comes across as one who prioritizes the confessional singer-songwriter mode. Her songs on those first four records convey genuine emotions, but never to the point where one gets the sense that a soul is being laid bare.

World on the Ground and Blue Heron Suite changed things for Sarah Jarosz. The former, a superlative set of story songs inspired by the Central Texas region, which nestles her hometown of Wimberley, expresses a personal point of view through specifically realized characters. While not “confessional” in the stereotypical sense, Blue Heron Suite processes her struggles following a fraught 2017 year, in which her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and a beloved family beach spot in Port Aransas, Texas, was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The song cycle, initially commissioned by the FreshGrass Festival’s Composition Commission, centers on the image of the great blue heron, a bird that was long an object of affection for Jarosz and her mother.

It is not as if Jarosz was particularly taciturn in her music prior to World on the Ground and Blue Heron Suite. But the way a distinct personality comes to life through those songs stands out, unlike anything that came before those records. Lyrically, Jarosz found new ways to imbue her life in her art, and the quality of her compositions rose to match the level of detail in her words.

What might be suggested by the bold colors of Polaroid Lovers, Sarah Jarosz’s seventh album? In contrast to her past cover art, her whole body is visible in the frame. She dons a sharp orange suit and green heels. She sits on the floor of a room with a cool blue-painted door and a well-matched wallpaper serving as her background. If one were to lack knowledge of its context, this image looks like it might come from a fashion or interior design magazine.

When I spoke to Jarosz a month before Polaroid Lovers‘ late January release, I hesitated to ask about her inspired sartorial choices, knowing as little as I do about fashion. Instead, I pivot to the album title, a phrase that appears in the chorus of the second single, “When the Lights Go Out”. Of all the possible lyrical phrases on Polaroid Lovers, she chose it because “it sounded different than previous album titles” of hers.

“I felt like it encapsulates the vibe of the record,” she explains, “in that each track is a snapshot of a different love story in a particular place or time. Not necessarily my own story, but anything that anyone could experience over the course of a relationship.” The aforementioned “When the Lights Go Out” she describes as sung from the perspective of “being curious about someone before a relationship,” whereas the rollicking “Runaway Train” – whose sound brings to mind the great early 1990s records by Mary Chapin Carpenter, with who Jarosz has shared stages with before – dramatizes “when things are really exciting at the start of the relationship” in the vernacular of a Western. (The reference to California’s infamous 405 freeway, though, keeps the track squarely contemporary.)

This “snapshot” lyrical approach evokes the storytelling ethos of World on the Ground, albeit anchored in more general images of human relationships rather than the specifically Central Texas local color of that earlier record. Sarah Jarosz says that the storytelling she unlocked on World on the Ground “very much” remained with her in the writing of Polaroid Lovers. The stories on the former came partly due to inspiration from her producer on that record, John Leventhal; for the latter, a host of new collaborators, principally her producer Daniel Tashian, who also became a core co-writer.

“I did a ton of co-writing in the traditional Nashville sense,” she says of her home since 2020. “But not with a whole room full of writers, just meeting up with one or two people. That allowed me to continue down the path of not having to write from a confessional standpoint. I’m always intrigued by writers who write from an honest place, but it’s easy to find your own story within the song. Sometimes, if a song is too hyper-personal, it’s hard for people to find a universal message. I’m always trying to strike that balance between truth – there’s got to be genuine honesty for it to be real – and also looking outwards from within the song.”

For Sarah Jarosz, her most tremendous success thus far in marrying the personal with the universal happened with Blue Heron Suite, which she calls “the most personal thing [she’s] written”. However, she found that her version of personal narrative connected with her audiences in a way unlike any of her previous releases. “I’ve had more people come up to me after shows or comment online, saying they relate to that music so much. We all know somebody or know somebody who knows somebody who’s gone through a cancer diagnosis. So it was interesting how that hyper-personal writing connected to the people listening to it.

“When I was writing it, even though it was my experience, I knew I wasn’t alone in it. That’s a beautiful thing about songwriting: it allows you to process a personal thing and make it more universal.”

One dimension of Jarosz’s personal life that resounds throughout Polaroid Lovers is a wider sense of place than the Texas-focused World on the Ground and Blue Heron Suite. Joining the allusion to the 405 on “Runaway Train” and the collaborative Nashville ethos of the songwriting throughout the record is “Columbus & 89th”, a tribute to the corner on which she once lived in New York City. After her time as an undergraduate at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, she resided in New York City before moving, somewhat accidentally, to Nashville at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US in 2020. “That’s what ‘Columbus & 89th’ is about,” she says, “me not really realizing that I was leaving for good.” With Polaroid Lovers touching on the many places she’s lived, I ask her if she identifies as distinctly belonging to one place over the other: Sarah Jarosz, the Texas songwriter, or the Nashville songwriter.

“It is very important to me, a sense of place in my songwriting,” she replies. “I really realized that with World on the Ground. It was the first time I’d really written about Texas, but I couldn’t have written it without having spent all the time away from Texas that I did – that looking in the rearview mirror perspective. Ultimately, I’m trying to bring a little bit of all of it to my songs. All those places are a part of me; there’s some fluidity there. It’s just like anyone else: wherever you live, wherever you’re from, it’s always going to be a part of you.”

Texas, though, remains especially close. Just months before the release of Polaroid Lovers, Jarosz was gifted with a surprise that evinced the strength of her deep roots in Wimberley. In November 2023, she and her husband and regular musical collaborator, Jeff Picker, journeyed to Wimberley for the Thanksgiving holiday. Despite the rapidly changing metro area of nearby Austin, Jarosz feels that Wimberley retains its small-town charm. “When we were driving in, Jeff pointed out that the population sign still says 2600; when I was living there, it was about 2000. I’m happy to say it’s been preserved in the right ways.”

Though it’s not to say that Wimberley is totally stuck in time. One local controversy stands out: “You have to get a ticket to go to Blue Hole” – a regional park fine for swimming in the blistering summer climes of Texas hill country – “which you didn’t when I lived there.”

This Thanksgiving trip also came with a musical agenda. “We were going to do a little duo show for a little series that was started to raise scholarship money for arts graduates of my high school, Wimberley High School, and Katherine Anne Porter School, the other school in town. I was going to play on the local radio station for a former high school teacher of mine, Coach Smith, who’s now the host of one of the radio shows in my hometown. That morning, the mayor [Gina Fulkerson] came by the radio show and presented me with a plaque that had declared 22 November Sarah Jarosz Day in Wimberley. My parents were there, and a bunch of my old friends who are really ‘friends like family’ came out. It was so special, more than anything that’s happened to me in my career.”

Now, in Nashville, Jarosz still holds a connection to the city that she built in the early years of her career. “It’s been an easy transition because, except for World on the Ground and Blue Heron Suite, I made my records in Nashville with [producer] Gary Paczosa. So Nashville felt like a home in a way, even though, of course, it’s different now to actually have a home here.” When she talks about Wimberley, it is with the warmth of a person fortunate to grow up in a world that they still cherish and – rare, in the modern world – recognize for the thing it was so long ago. When she talks about her new home, she emphasizes possibility, especially the opportunities on which she capitalized in creating Polaroid Lovers.

Sarah Jarosz
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Grandstand Media

“The musical community here is so rich, beyond even what I thought I already knew about it,” she says. “That’s what spurred me to reach out to some writers I really admired and respected at the beginning of writing for this album. And really, it wasn’t even that I thought I was writing for this album at first; I wanted to make some connections in town and get a sense of the community. It just so happened that the first writing session was with Daniel [Tashian], and we hit it off right away. The first song we wrote together was ‘Take the High Road’, which felt so exciting to me: the vibes of the sound, the spirit of the music, the energy had this “new-ness” to it. I then felt the path for my new record opening up in front of me.” Tashian joins a roster of songwriting collaborators present on Polaroid Lovers, including Ruston Kelly and Natalie Hemby.

The results of Sarah Jarosz’s eagerness to collaborate became a set of songs far more numerous than her usual writing process. “I wrote, and wrote, and wrote over the course of 2022. I ended up for the first time coming into the studio with many more songs written than I needed for the record, and I had to whittle it down to the best ones. I’ve always wanted to do that; I’d hear writers saying things like, ‘Oh, I had 40 songs, and I cut it down to ten.’ I’m usually like, ‘I’m always showing up with 12 or 11, and those are the ones I record,'” she says with a laugh.

One of the standout moments of the resulting set of songs is also the first song the world heard from Polaroid Lovers: “Jealous Moon”, a catchy rock number with a chorus that ranks among Jarosz’s best. Following a fluttering of electric keyboards, a booming snare hit ushers in the lead guitar riff, which mirrors the chorus melody with enervating distortion. In summing up my reaction to the record to Jarosz, I reach for a word to summarize its overall aesthetic, ultimately landing on “electric”. The twangy guitar on the “Jealous Moon” riff was at the forefront of my mind. “That energy you’re describing,” she says, “came through because of how we recorded.”

Sarah Jarosz has long recorded in sparer studio arrangements and has performed live in solo and trio capacities. When recording in the past with Leventhal and Paczosa, she says, “We would record my part and then layer stuff on top of that.” By contrast, Polaroid Lovers exhibits a vivaciousness that stems from live performance, owing to its being tracked live with a full band: Picker on bass, Rob McNelley on guitar, Tom Bukovac on guitar and organ, and Fred Eltringham on drums. The immediacy that came from playing with a full band spurred the LP’s speedy recording process at the Sound Emporium in Nashville. “It came to life very quickly in the studio, faster than any album I’ve made by far; it came together in about a week and a half. We had eight or nine tracking days at the Sound Emporium in Nashville. It was electric; there was so much energy in the room.”

As far as first singles go, “Jealous Moon” effectively encapsulates the record on which it appears. “Ultimately,” Jarosz says, “I went back and forth about ‘Jealous Moon’ being the first track, but I’m so glad it is. Daniel and I decided it’d be best to come out guns a-blazin’ and state my intent with this. There’s an element to [“Jealous Moon”] in particular that, if I’m being honest, scared me a bit. It felt so different than anything I’d done before. And now, I took whatever that energy was that might have scared me and turned it into pure excitement.”

Polaroid Lovers is a document of Sarah Jarosz embracing that uncertainty, as well as the natural challenges that come with any collaborative process of making music. “I don’t think I could have made this album ten years ago,” she explains. “I didn’t want to co-write with people when I first got started because I was worried my voice would get lost in the writing room. I didn’t even know my own voice yet, so how could I bring it into a space with other amazing writers and musicians? It’s really cool to feel confident in my ability to bring my identity as a musician to a recording process like this one, where I was exploring new things for my sound.”

This “electricity” doesn’t exclusively appear in the uptempo moments. The closing track, “Mezcal and Lime”, awash in synths straight out of a Destroyer record and reverb that echoes like a drawn-out note rebounding around a cavern, deviates more than anything else on Polaroid Lovers from the sounds most associated with Jarosz as a songwriter. The musical reference she names in talking about the composition of “Mezcal and Lime” might surprise some who think of Jarosz exclusively in the Americana scenes with which she is associated: Sting. The song’s title derives not from the simple (but delicious) cocktail one could make with those two ingredients. It turns out Jarosz took a vacation that proved to be a fount for artistic inspiration — though the booze did play a role.

“Just a month prior to a writing session, she says, “I had just gone to Oaxaca for the first time. Being from Texas, I’ve always liked tequila and margaritas – my drink of choice. But I was curious about mezcal culture, and obviously, Oaxaca is the place for it. I wound up taking this incredible day-long tour with this guy Randall Stockton, who runs mezcal educational tours, and it was honestly life-changing. It was very special.”

The trip’s impression is evident in more than just the song. Her recall of what she learned from Stockton comes out effortlessly: “[Mezcal] is kinda controversial now because it was originally just meant to be made within families, or for religious ceremonies, not meant to be exported and turned into a bigger thing. This tour was cool in that it very much honored the traditions and gave us direct contact with the ‘maestros,’ as they call them, at their palenques, the places where the maestros distill their mezcal and often live. It was an incredible process to see. As to the mezcal itself, you can’t really compare it to what we get here in the States.

“It was just such a special trip that I felt like I was living in its afterglow when we wrote that song. I wanted to write a song about the dreamlike quality that came with the mood of that trip. It does capture that ‘glowy’ feeling.”

Sarah Jarosz
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Grandstand Media

For all the unfamiliar sonic explorations Sarah Jarosz undertakes on Polaroid Lovers, one constant – present on “Mezcal and Lime” and “Jealous Moon” – is the octave mandolin, an instrument whose virtues are oft-unsung. So named because its four sets of paired strings are tuned the same as a traditional mandolin (GDAE) but an octave lower, the instrument allows the player the comfort that comes with the standard acoustic guitar size and offers a particular appeal to those who struggle to situate their fingers on the close-together strings atop the narrow mandolin fretboard. Jarosz grew up playing the mandolin but found its pitch at times too close a match for her vocal range.

Jarosz’s voice picks up when I ask about the place of the octave mandolin in her music. Those who know the folk instrument community will be familiar with the long tradition of instrument fetishization, evidently most of all in the absurd prices fetched by the Holy Grail of mandolins, the early 1920s Gibson pieces made by Lloyd Loar. For Jarosz, the octave mandolin solved a practical issue she discovered as a budding musician. “Early on, when I was playing regular mandolin and singing, I would feel like they were in too similar of a range. So then, when I started learning guitar, I thought, ‘Okay, this is more balanced. My voice is up here, and the guitar is down here.’ But then I missed playing the mandolin; that’s where my technical abilities and skills are.”

The octave mandolin gave Sarah Jarosz more than just a third way between the guitar’s range capacity and the mandolin’s familiarity. In her telling, the instrument unlocked a whole component of her songwriting she had never had before. With no hint of exaggeration, she declares, “I think of the octave mandolin as my soulmate of an instrument.” Its presence throughout Polaroid Lovers “kept [her] voice grounded amidst these sounds that are exploratory for [her].” Though she has played many instruments on her albums throughout the years – banjo and guitar principally – she says, “If someone came to me and said I could only play one instrument forever, it’d be the octave mandolin.”

Her instrument was crafted by the Seattle-based luthier Fletcher Brock. She delivers her account of first seeing the instrument with a tone that suggests she’s related it many times before but never once gotten tired of telling it. “I had heard about octave mandolins and bouzoukis, as some people call them, first through Tim O’Brien. Those instruments were popping up a lot on some records of Tim’s that I loved. Then, in 2007, when I was 16, I was at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) conference in the conference center, and Fletcher Brock had his octave mandolin set up at a booth there.

“I like to describe it to people like there was a light shining on the octave mandolin, the heavens opened up,” she says, with a little laugh. “I played it for five seconds and knew right away it was my instrument. It was a total ‘aha!’ moment. I took it home, and then it was just this explosion of creativity. I was able to find my voice and melodies with my instrument.”

Following Jarosz’s now decade-plus years of touring and recording as a solo artist, I wonder if the octave mandolin she usually brings out onstage is the one from that fateful day at IBMA. “I still have that same one,” she says, “but I just got a second Fletcher Brock. I was getting to the point where, especially traveling overseas, that first one was so sentimental that flying with it and checking it felt risky. I wanted a second one as a backup. There are many people making great instruments, but I’ve never played one that feels as good as Fletcher’s. Now I’ve got this second one as backup, but it also feels so amazing that I’m nervous to fly with it, too!”

Longtime fans of Sarah Jarosz should recognize her way of using the instrument through the new textures she brings to life on Polaroid Lovers. Weeks before our interview, Jarosz’s first few records seemed fresh on her mind. On her Instagram, she posted a video of her playing the Undercurrent number “Take Me Back” on a guitar in preparation for the upcoming tour for the new album. She posed to her followers: “Counting down the days until tour! Working on some older songs of mine to play amidst all the new material. Which songs do you want to hear most?” She was delighted to receive requests for songs from all crevices of her discography. “The response to [that video] has been so cool – it’s been so many different songs! It makes me feel like people really are listening to all of my records.”

Jarosz began her songwriting career at 18 with Song Up in Her Head, and in the intervening time, has put out what I say to her is a “maddeningly prolific” amount of music as a now 32-year-old songwriter. (Jarosz and I were both born in 1991.) As our conversation closes on this note about the entirety of her artistic output prior to Polaroid Lovers, I was reminded of a sentiment expressed by her friend and frequent collaborator Sara Watkins, who Jarosz admired as a youngster listening to the first three records by Sara’s band Nickel Creek, and now counts as a close friend and collaborator on the I’m With Her project, where the two are joined by Aoife O’Donovan.

When I interviewed Watkins for the vinyl reissues of those Nickel Creek LPs back in 2020, she talked about how – for all the fan adoration of that music – there is a distance between herself and the person she was in her late teens and early 20s such that, as she put it, “It’s impossible for [her] to separate how I felt in my body and my soul at the time from the music itself.” Watkins and her bandmates Sean Watkins (her brother) and Chris Thile, when interviewed on the tour for 2014’s A Dotted Line after a nine-year hiatus, likened the return to some of their earlier music to, as an adult, looking back on awkward high school photos. I ask Jarosz if she, now seven records removed from her nascent musical days as a teenage professional musician juggling school and shows, has any trepidations going back into her archive of songs.

“It’s funny,” she says, after a pause, “If you’d asked me maybe five years ago, I might have answered similarly to [Nickel Creek] in terms of the cringe reaction. But I’ve gotta say: sure, there are things where I think, ‘That’s hard to listen to,’ or ‘Maybe I wouldn’t do that now,’ but I don’t feel that cringe so much anymore because I’ve come to this point where I realize that I wouldn’t be the person I am now without all that music I’d written before. I’m happy to be at this moment where I can look back on my early stuff and acknowledge it while honoring it for what it is. Enough time has passed between especially those first few records where I can play some of the songs and put some new energy into them, maybe some new arrangements.”

Ultimately, I never asked Sarah Jarosz about the eye-popping colors that animate Polaroid Lovers‘ cover art. But our conversation revealed that there didn’t need to be any particular deep meaning behind them. The word “color” itself suffices. Seven albums into a musical life, Jarosz is finding new hues that add vibrancy to her style. One might even call Polaroid Lovers a glow-up.