Sarah's Muse

Up in the head and heart of Sarah Jarosz

Sarah's Muse
Photo by John Anderson

In June 2009, one month after Sarah Jarosz turned 18 and graduated with honors from Wimberley High School, her first album was released. Song Up in Her Head on North Carolina roots beacon Sugar Hill Records took off, not only in the sales market, where it did respectably, but in critical circles. Rolling Stone praised it, NPR interviewed her, and she appeared on A Prairie Home Companion, as well as on stages in the bluegrass and folk festivals she'd grown up with. On New Year's Day 2010, while the world slept, she recorded with the Decemberists spin-off Black Prairie.

Jarosz stands apart from her peers. She's not Miley Cyrus Twittering her life away. She's not Taylor Swift, around whom she can sing circles. She's not Jewel or Hilary Duff or Shannon Curfman, all of whom preceded her down the teen path. She's not the 14-year-old who giggled to the Chronicle in 2005 that things were "a blast." She doesn't use Auto-Tune.

She's the product of Central Texas' rich musical heritage and her own inborn talent. She is also the face of young musicians everywhere. Her triple threat is a marvelously mature alto, a prodigious mastery of clawhammer banjo and mandolin, and songwriting a woman of any age would be proud to claim. Later this month, she'll attend the Grammy Awards thanks to her nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance on Song Up in Her Head.

'Song Up in Her Head'

Teenage girls are the romance paperbacks of music. They're a never-ending, nonstop audience of hormonal angst and bright-pink heartache, an audience that starts when 12 trades up for 13, a merciless time for the heart. To be 14 and female is to experience usually unrequited love with exquisite pain. Never again will you be so unprepared for the soul-crush of love lost than at 15. Even love fulfilled makes 16 pure agony, and 17's got nothing on 18 when it comes to the hazards of love. Nineteen makes no promises when el corazón goes loco.

Teenage girls make up a ridiculously large and profitable segment of the record-buying public, but they – like the romance authors whose sales keep the paperback publishing industry afloat – get no respect. Not only is the absence of respect outrageous considering the revenue that demographic generates, teenage girls are traditionally jeered at and ridiculed for their intense devotion and fan worship, a quality usually desired in most other musical circles.

Teenage girls hold their own as performers in rock, pop, country, and folk music, commanding idol status commensurate to the tides of popular taste. Charts are packed with one-hit wonders as well as enduring talents who were teenage performers; country and pop music are especially fond of young girl singers. The voice of the teenage girl is so pure, so real, it transcends artifice and strikes the deepest chords of the heart throughout decades. Jarosz bears career similarities to 1980s pop queen Debbie Gibson, the youngest teen girl to write, produce, and sing a No. 1 song. She's also connected by home state to LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, Texas teens whose talents took them to the top – on compositional skills giving an edge to their estimable careers. What do they all sing about? The one topic common to all young women.

New love, old love, faded love, unrequited love, sweet love, denied love, misguided love, tender love, lost love, unattainable love, hot love, desperate, wild, bittersweet love. All of it guaranteed at that age to be fleeting, acute, and lethal. Where all is love, the world is periphery in soft focus, an Impressionist painting with growing pains. The glorious cycle of song, the medley extemporaneous, begets dances at dawn, waltzes under the moon, springtime, flowers, rainbows, and oh yes, sometimes sobering cultural commentary.

Jarosz tackles the topic of love in her songs with guileless grace.

This flame burns brighter with every poem read

This bird flies higher with a song up in her head

Sarah, have you been in love?


Sincerely, Sarah

About eight years ago, Jarosz's career took shape, though she'd been singing since age 2. Conventional wisdom decrees that an artist must toil in clubs, climbing the long way to the top from opening act to headliner, developing an audience along the way by wowing 'em with that elusive combination of charisma and talent. But the folk and bluegrass festival circuit offers an alternative for young musicians to develop that trickles down into the community. That familial closeness brought Jarosz, winner of the 2006-2007 Best Kid Band award at the Austin Music Awards, onstage during the 2005 CMA Music Festival to salute Earl Scruggs and during New Year's Eve 2008 at Ryman Auditorium with Del McCoury.

At home for Christmas break before returning to the East Coast, she's the picture of collegiate confidence, recounting her accelerating career while sitting inside Nutty Brown Cafe near Dripping Springs and north of her native Wimberley. Clad in jeans and high-heeled boots, a black scarf wrapped around her neck with Boston flair over a cream-colored blouse that flatters her fair skin and ripe lips, Jarosz reflects the late December sky outside in her large blue-gray eyes. Whatever adolescent awkwardness she experienced, growing up agrees with her.

"I really started at the weekly bluegrass jams in Wimberley on Fridays," she explains. "Mike Bond was the ringleader, and to have one of my first experiences playing like that be so welcoming meant a lot to me. And going to festivals around the country. [Colorado's] RockyGrass is a great example. It's put on by Planet Bluegrass, who does Telluride. Being a young musician and a young girl, it was extremely important to be around people who encouraged me. I've been going there for nine years of my life, and it's like a family reunion.

"I was 11 or 12 when I got my first 'tweener' [minisets between major acts] at RockyGrass. I am so lucky that people like Craig Ferguson, who runs Telluride and RockyGrass, and Stephen Ruffo, who does Wintergrass, were willing to let me play. Old Settler's [Music Festival] too was a huge part of my growth as a musician. It opened a lot of doors that opened more doors. Little things like that built up."

Sarah's Muse

Built up meant beginning a tightrope act of school, lessons, practices, performances, and, somewhere wedged between, a young girl's life. For that, Jarosz credits her parents, Gary and Mary Jarosz, who intellectually stimulated and musically cultivated her nascent career.

"They are not stage parents. They've been amazing, so encouraging, and really made it possible for me to travel around the country and do so many of these things in music.

"They are both teachers. My mom plays guitar and has written songs. My dad is not a musician, but he loves music probably more than anything. He's one of those guys who can't walk into Waterloo Records without walking out with 10 new CDs."

Crucial in her development as a performer is the caliber of musicians she's met along the way. Some, like Sam Grisman, are second-generation players, carrying tradition in their young blood. Others, their names high in the bluegrass and folk fields, like Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas, Abigail Washburn, Stuart Duncan, and Darrell Scott, also lent their talents to Song Up in Her Head, as did Alex Hargreaves, Luke Reynolds, Mike Marshall, Ben Sollee, and Tim Lauer.

"I've stood in autograph lines in festivals," says Jarosz. "That was how I met [Nickel Creek's] Chris Thile. I had just started mandolin. It was at the Old Settler's Music Festival at Stone Mountain in Dripping Springs. I was 9 or 10, and he wrote on my program, 'Let's jam sometime.' At that moment, I knew I wanted to be good enough, and since then, he's become one of my greatest mentors.

"I also met the Decemberists like that, at [Austin City Limits Music Festival]. There's a new band called Black Prairie that's three of the Decemberists. On New Year's Day, I'm going up to Portland, Oregon, where Sugar Hill Records is doing a Shel Silverstein tribute. I'm doing a track on the record with them for it. That'll be the start to the new year. Spend the night with my family, then fly out."

Collecting Ideas

"I have been patient in the CD-making process," Jarosz nods.

"Growing up as a young musician, I always had people ask me, 'When are you going to make a CD?' so there was definitely a little pressure. But I always knew I wanted my first CD to be the best representation of my art and music as possible. I also knew I wanted the majority of it to be original songs. So, having been patient, I'd developed a lot of ideas in my head I wanted to include on the CD. That, with [producer] Gary Paczosa's mastery of things and his having done it for so long paired with my newness to it all, was a great match."

That innate understanding of the music-making process is a benefit that Austin's sophisticated scene provides to young musicians, and it's turning their coming-of-age into arrival on the scene (see "Bluegrass Up in Her Head," April 17, 2009). In that sense, Jarosz is in a league parallel to the likes of Suzanna Choffel, born and raised in Austin and a product of a scene that made her recognize how "you could play and get your stuff out there and don't have to be a crazy-big pop star" (see "The Next Fun Fearless Female Rock Star," Nov. 28, 2008).

The making of Song Up in Her Head with her self-composed Grammy-nominated instrumental track "Mansinneedof" also provided Jarosz with lessons reflected in her everyday life. Wimberley isn't Austin, and not even in the same county, but its relative proximity feeds off and shares its energy, particularly encouraging to the composing dynamic.

"Songwriting is a different process every time. It's ever-changing, and I think one reason I like it so much is it's never predictable. Sometimes it just comes, and those are the real gems and gifts when it just kind of happens. Recently, I've tried to sit down and just work at it, but I think that just having things come are how it works. I feel like I try too hard to explain it and it's an indescribable art. For me, it's about being a good listener and not being closed off to the world.

"Writing ideas down, recording a little melody idea, coming back to it and piecing things together, that's how I've been working. Balancing school and work, it's hard to find time to write. Music is constant learning. I have a couple of notebooks, documents on my computer, notes on my phone .... The ones on my computer were probably when I was writing a paper," admits Jarosz, who confesses she wrote many of the lyrics for her CD during high school classes.

Years on the festival circuit and her musical background exposed Jarosz to songwriters traditionally cited – Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, a recently developed interest in Joni Mitchell – as well as younger, more contemporary players and writers such as Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, for whom she flew back here to play a two-night stand at the Parish in December before whisking herself back to the New England Conservatory in Boston and completing finals. "Collecting ideas" is a phrase that crops up repeatedly in conversation, an indicator of her awareness of her circumstances.

"Since I was always surrounded by musicians and people excited about music, it helped me have an open mind – and listen to as much as possible and be influenced by everything. Notice what's good and what's bad and take what you can from it. It's getting harder and harder to be original. Find what you like, and make it your own."

Sarah's Smile

The smile on Sarah Jarosz's pretty face is irresistible as she considers the success of Song Up in Her Head (see "Texas Platters," June 12, 2009), and more so, 2010, eager to work with producer Gary Paczosa again, a summer festival dance card filling up with Telluride and Grey Fox, and an imminent trip to the Grammys. She's aware that eyes are upon her, too, yet her confidence is casual and filled with curiosity.

"Now I feel like because I've done it once, I'll do things a little quicker. Maybe not though. It's always fun to be in a studio for hours and fool around creatively. I feel like I accomplished a lot I wanted to recording the first CD, so I feel like I'm open to newer things, too – no boundaries. I want to be true to myself. I even have a new song called 'My Muse.' It's about someone in particular who's been inspirational, but the idea of the muse is that it's different for everyone. That's why it's so cool.

"The last couple of interviews I've had have started going in a new direction. The questions are not so much about where I grew up but are turning to the future. It's good for me because it makes me think and analyze what's really important. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm not a little girl anymore.

"I'm only 18. The more I live, the more I'll have to write about."

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