Sarah Jarosz on Recording Her Grammy-Winning Album, Undercurrent

Photo courtesy of Artist.

American folk singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz has been playing and performing music since she was a child. Initially captivated by the mandolin, she picked up the guitar, the octave mandolin, and the banjo soon after. By her senior year of high school, Sarah had released her debut album, Song Up In Her Head, on Sugar Hill Records

Three more albums have followed her 2009 debut, all of which have been critically lauded. Publications like Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and NPR have all referred to Sarah as a contemporary bluegrass prodigy, and she has received four Americana Music Honors & Awards nominations and five Grammy nominations to date. This past February, Sarah took home her first two Grammys for Best American Roots Performance and Best Folk Album.

We had a chance to talk with Sarah about her songwriting process, her various musical collaborations, and her most prominent current influences. To buy her most recent album, Undercurrent, or to find tickets to her shows, check out her website here.

First, congratulations on your Grammy wins.

Thank you. I’m so stoked.

It was nice to see you get that recognition. I remember seeing you back in 2010 at Newport, when you burned down one of the side stages during the early afternoon.

I think to have been there with Gary Paczosa, who I’ve made all four records with, to celebrate almost ten years worth of work together that way was pretty cool.

And this wasn’t the first time you’ve been nominated, either.

Right. This my third time going, fifth nomination. It’s still sinking in that it actually happened.

You recently moved to NYC. How has that change of scenery impacted you as a musician?

Especially being from Texas, growing up there and being involved in the Texas music scene for a long time, to then move to Boston was a big change. Boston, at the time, felt like a big city.

Once I was finished with college, a lot of my music friends were flocking down to New York. I had always wanted to live there. It seemed like the right time and the right place to move. I got lucky with finding a place almost immediately. I’ve actually been there for three and a half years now. It feels like home at this point.

To have the contrast of growing up in the Texas music scene – I think the music resembles the landscape a little bit. It’s more of a raw, bare bones kind of thing. Now, being in New York, I try to incorporate where I came from with the influence of being in the city.

Carving out your own little place in the city is important, but being able to enjoy the craziness of it all is great. I feel like both of those things affected the songwriting on this album.

Sarah Jarosz - "House of Mercy" (Live on The Current)

That’s interesting that you mention the music resembling the landscape, given that there is a pretty happening bluegrass scene in New York. How does city life impact what you hear at those jams?

That’s a good question. Any kind of music can be created anywhere, but I think with bluegrass being popular in New York, it’s an example of a style of music giving people something they long for, something they don’t have.

Music can be created to mirror a landscape, but it can also be created to contrast with it, which is how [bluegrass] serves in New York. It’s giving the opposite of what the landscape is, in a way, and balancing that out.

It amazes me how great of a scene there is there. It’s really fun. Especially when I first moved there right after college. It’s so fun to be swept up off the streets of New York and walk into a bluegrass jam at the 11th Street bars. It’s still one of the great things you can go do.

It’s a fun place to live for now. I don’t see myself being there forever. But as a young person, it’s so vibrant and exciting.

And now you’re working with Chris Thile on A Prairie Home Companion on NPR, which has just become a who’s who of great instrumentalists and singers. What has that been like?

It’s been so fun and such a great musical challenge. It also feels full circle for me, because, in a way, I’m not really sure I’d be playing mandolin or that I’d have stuck with the whole music thing if it weren’t for Chris. From the very beginning, since I was 11 or 12 years old, he was so kind to me and taught me all along the way.

To actually play with him on a regular basis on A Prairie Home Companion is very full circle. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to check that it’s even happening.

I just feel like I learn so much every time. It’s different than any other musical context I find myself in. Most of the time I’m singing my own songs or leading my own thing or playing with Sara [Watkins] or Aoife [O’Donovan]. It’s a nice exercise to almost be in a sideman role on Prairie Home and to get to learn Chris’s new song and the guests' music every week.

It’s a great challenge, and to get to stand alongside Chris, who is, you know – it’s hard for me to imagine anyone could come in and take over that job Garrison did the way Chris has. It’s been a thrill. Hopefully, now that they’ve been renewed for another season, I’ll get to do more.

I hope so. You’ve mentioned before that touring and collaborating with others – like Sara, Aoife and The Milk Carton Kids – has taught you a lot about your own playing. What kinds of things has it surfaced for you?

Similar to the Prairie Home thing, at the end of 2014 and throughout 2015 was really the longest chunk of time that I had stepped away from my own projects. Like you said, I had done a collaborative tour with The Milk Carton Kids and started a band [I’m With Her] with Aoife and Sara.

It was really good for me as a listener and a player to not be at the forefront of something. It changed the way that I sing and the way that I play. But then it also forced me to listen and figure out how I could be a better supporter.

Up until then, I had always been singing my own songs and touring my own thing. I think it’s good as a musician to put yourself in situations that take you out of it for a second so you can look at what you’re doing from an outside perspective. This is why I think sidemen are some of the greatest musicians in the world. They’re doing that constantly. They’re seeing it from a different perspective.

Coming back to write songs for Undercurrent, I was able to occupy my own writing, singing and playing in a new, freshened-up way. Because of that, I wanted to capture the intimate nature of the songs that I was writing more than ever before and almost do a 360 – here is just me. I feel like the record is really anchored around the four solo songs in that sense.

It’s an interesting contrast, having your four solo pieces spread throughout what is otherwise a very collaborative album.

It’s symbolic of the year that I had going into the making of this record, and I wanted to try and capture that.

Seeing you perform beautiful songs on a handful of different instruments is one of the highlights of seeing you live. How do you go about choosing an instrument to write with, and how does that influence which instrument you use to record the song?

Because I play so many instruments, I go through phases with which one I lean to when I’m writing. For instance, with Undercurrent I felt like I was constantly going to the guitar. That was just a phase. The ideas that I was having seemed to lay out well on the guitar.

Before, I’ve had long phases of being drawn to the octave mandolin. One reason I fell in love with that instrument is because I never really loved songs on the regular mandolin. I’d write instrumentals with a regular mandolin, but songs with lyrics never seemed like a natural thing for me to do.

But the octave mandolin is the perfect instrument for me. It brings the tone and support of a guitar, and it’s lower than my vocal range. But you play it the same way as you do a mandolin, so all the skills transfer over. It just feels like a more supportive instrument as a vocalist.

Those two – guitar and octave mandolin – are probably the two I go to the most when writing. When I write on the banjo, I’m going for a more specific, old-timey sound.

Often the instrument I use to write the song with will be what I use to record it with. That’s not always the case, but nine times out of ten it is.

Sarah Jarosz - "Green Lights" (Acoustic)

As a reference point, are you playing octave mandolin on “Early Morning Light”?

No. That’s actually a little parlor guitar. All the solo songs are on guitar. “Jacqueline” is on an electric.

Did you play most of the instrumentation on the record?

I did. On all the solo ones, obviously. With the ones with other people, it was a mixture of things. With “House of Mercy,” we recorded all together live in one room. It was me on octave mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass, and Jedd Hughes on guitar.

There were a couple of things, like “Still Life” with Sara and Aoife, that I recorded first with octave mandolin and vocals and they recorded later because of scheduling. Pretty much it was a combination of recording live in the room with someone or having someone go back and add to what I’d done.

I was listening to “Green Lights,” and I was really taken by that lead part. What instruments were used for that?

That was probably the most intricate and layered song on that record. We started it with me and Luke Reynolds, who I wrote the song with. We cut the bones of it live in the same room. I was playing octave mandolin, and he was playing acoustic guitar. He played the lines with his acoustic and then went back and overdubbed with a National [resonator] guitar, which gives it that hollow, metallic sound.

We doubled up his acoustic. Then we did all sorts of crazy stuff. He doubled some of those lines with electric, too. It’s basically octave mandolin and these layered guitars and bass.

The vocals were layered, too. I recorded once live in the room. Then Gary [Paczosa] said, “I think you need to belt this one out. Why don’t you go outside?” So he wired an old Turner mic – like the ones you’d see used for radio that sits on top of a desk – and had me sing out on his driveway. Some of the reverb comes from a take where I sang into a megaphone pointed at the body of a National guitar, which created a really cool natural reverb sound that we loved.

So we layered a lot of that together.

What model octave mandolin and guitar are you playing?

The octave mandolin I play is built by Fletcher Brock. He just makes one kind of octave mandolin. I don’t think there’s a model. I’ve had that since 2008, when it was new. That instrument is my heart and soul. I love it.

The guitar that I play is a Collings D1A. It has an Adirondack [spruce] top. I got that when I was 13 or 14, so 2004/5. That was actually one of two that was built for David Bromberg’s 60th birthday. It was the one that he didn’t take [laughs]. So...I got a deal on it.

Yeah. And a story behind it. That’s really cool.

I love that guitar. I also play a Collings MF5 mandolin. The banjo that I have is actually a 6-string banjo built by Bernard Mollberg [of Blanco, TX]. They’re called Burnin’ Sun banjos. It’s a six-string, but it’s not like a guitar-banjo. It’s tuned like a banjo, but with a low sixth string on bottom.

For instance, if you were in double-C tuning on the banjo, it would be a low G.

We’ve got one of those six-string banjitars laying around the office that I think is the bane of everyone’s existence. Anyone can pick it up who plays guitar and thinks they know how to play banjo licks.

Yeah. I try to be real specific when I talk about this one because it has six-strings but is not like that at all.

There are some pretty gritty guitar parts on Undercurrent. Was that Jedd Hughes?

Yeah. That’s Jedd, and then Luke Reynolds was on pedal steel on “Green Lights.”

What instruments did you bring with you on tour?

I travel with four instruments. The four that I mentioned: guitar, banjo, mandolin and octave mandolin.

So I have a mandolin that I recently put new strings on that had been collecting dust for years. Having played guitar for 17 years and knowing that I still have so much to learn, what would you say to someone like me who feels like they have to master one instrument before they deserve to move on to another?

My advice is to play as much as you can. If you’re interested in multiple instruments, then play them all. Try to get good at them all. I don’t think necessarily if you pick the mandolin for awhile that it’s going to hinder your guitar skills if you’re a great guitar player. It will only benefit it.

It’s almost like what we were talking about earlier. When you step out of a lead role into a side role, the same thing applies when you pick up a new instrument. It will only help the main event.

As long as you’re playing a lot, it’s hard to go wrong. If guitar is what you really want to get good at, then spend a lot of time on guitar. If mandolin is what you want to get good at, then spend a lot of time on mandolin. But if you’re interested in both, then spend a lot of time on both.

Who are you currently listening to?

I’ve been really into this record by James McMurtry, his first record, Too Long in the Wasteland. I grew up hearing and loving it when I was a kid. Recently, I’ve been circling back around to it. And I just am obsessed with the whole thing from start to finish.

That’s what I’ve been listening to the most. But I’ve also been listening to Jesca Hoop’s new album, called Memories Are Now. Some older Shawn Colvin, Steady On. And then I’m also getting back into The Joshua Tree by U2.

Well, good luck tomorrow playing with Ben Folds down in Louisiana.

Thanks. He’s amazing. He’s actually also someone I’ve also been listening a lot to lately. It’s so cool getting to see him do his thing live. He’s such a charismatic, incredible performer.

I’ve seen a few times live, just him and his piano. It is absolutely incredible.

Yeah. So he’s still solo on this tour, like me. We’ll play together on stage for a bit. Last night we played a Roger Miller song called “A Million Years Or So.” And then we did his song, “Do It Anyway.”

That is an incredible duet I’d love to hear sometime. Thanks again for your time.

Thank you!

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