Sarah Jarosz: ‘I was the only 11-year-old going to the bluegrass jam with my mom’
At just 25, the singer already has Grammy nominations and praise from the likes of Elton John powering her career
Sarah Jarosz: ‘I was an N’ Sync girl. It wasn’t until I heard Nickel Creek I started to say, Oh, this is really cool’
At Christmas 1990, the most popular children’s toys - according to the Internet - were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurines. Sarah Jarosz, however, has always done things a little differently. Then nie years old, the Texan musician requested that Santa Claus deliver a mandolin to her home.
“My parents are both big music lovers and I remember hearing the mandolin on a Nickel Creek record,” she recalls, laughing at the memory. “I always liked the sound of it and in the church that we went to at the time, there was a lady that had a mandolin. My mom and I would play some music every Sunday - mostly, I was just singing - and I totally fell in love with it. My parents ended up buying that mandolin that I’d borrowed from that lady, and it was under the Christmas tree that year. ”
So how did the 25-year-old from small town Texas go from burgeoning mandolin virtuoso to an artist who prompted Elton John to publicly credit with ‘restoring his faith in music’? (After attending a concert co-headlined by Jarosz and her fellow Americana musician Parker Millsap last October, John took to social media to call it “one of the best concerts I have ever seen”, praising Millsap and Jarosz as “astonishingly good.”)
“The whole thing was pretty incredible,” she says, on the phone from her New York home. “Randomly one day, I got a missed call from a UK number early in the morning. I checked my email and I had an email from my manager that said ‘Elton John is asking for your number’. He had left a voicemail saying ‘I just wanna say that I have your record and I love it very much, I love your voice - please give me a call.’ We wound up chatting on the phone - this was maybe a month after the record came out - and we had a really great chat. The coolest thing he said was ‘I really love seeking out new music and calling people, and telling them that I love it - because when people did that for me when I was young, it meant the world to me.’”
When John found out that Jarosz and Millsap were touring together, he caught their concert in Atlanta. “We all hung out backstage maybe for four hours altogether; all he wanted to do was talk about music and hang out and sit on the couch, and it was totally surreal.”
Jarosz has become a darling of the Americana and bluegrass scene, and with good reason. Her style pays homage to the tradition but also adds a contemporary flourish to update it for a modern audience. Coupled with her beautiful, beguiling voice, it makes for a concoction that hits the sweet spot for those with even a passing interest in the genre. She has worked with some of the biggest names in bluegrass, from Bela Fleck to Jerry Douglas, as well as her Nickel Creek idols Chris Thile and Sara Watkins.
Yet growing up in idyllic Wimberley, Texas - a town with the motto ‘A Little Piece of Heaven’ - Jarosz had a mostly normal childhood, though she admits that she was “the only 11-year-old going to the bluegrass jam with my mom every Friday night”, but still went through the usual musical fascinations of every adolescent.
“I was an N’ Sync girl myself. When I was little, I loved them, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, and all the while my dad was playing The Beatles and Bob Dylan and Texas singer-songwriters around the house. But I feel like it wasn’t really until I heard Nickel Creek when I was around 9 or 10, that’s when I started to say ‘Oh, this is really cool, there’s young people playing mandolin and fiddle’. That’s when I went more down that path; discovering Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien and all that stuff.”
She played her first proper gig around 13 or 14, recorded her first album at 18 and bagged her first Grammy nomination the same year. On February 12th, she will attend the ceremony for the third time, having been nominated again in 2014 and this time, for three awards for her latest album ‘Undercurrent’.
The album, she says, feels like a new start in many ways; her first since moving to New York, her first since the end of a relationshipm and the first record she has been able to devote all of her time to without juggling college work, having spent four years studying Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
“I felt a little bit more of a sense of ownership about the process and wanting to really dedicate a huge chunk of time to it, as opposed to just fitting it in whenever possible,” she explains. “So I think that affected the writing and the arrangements of the songs. [But] it’s funny – I think living in New York and being exposed to so many different sounds and cultures all the time almost had the opposite effect; it actually turned me more inward.
“For my three albums prior, the process was very much, go into the studio, lay down my part and then feel boundless in what we’re going to add to it. So there’d be millions of overdubs and making it really lush; this time, I really put my foot down. There’s four solo tracks on the record, which I had never done before, but I really just wanted to capture that intimate, stark nature.”
In many ways, the down-to-earth Jarosz has taken the road less travelled to someone like Taylor Swift, who began her career with similar aspirations to break into the country and Americana scene before becoming one of the world’s biggest pop stars. She talks about her future ambitions not in terms of “this year” or “next year”, but of “the next twenty, thirty years.”
“It never felt like there was just one day came and it was overnight success; I’ve been working and chipping away at it for about a decade now, basically,” she says. “I’ve just been fortunate to be surrounded by other musicians from a very early age, who were always super-encouraging and giving of their time and knowledge. I think that really affected me, especially early on, to want to keep working hard. Now, it’s cool because a lot of those people who were my heroes then, I think of them as friends and as peers.
“It’s an exciting time, being 25 and having really worked hard at this for the last 10-15 years and feeling like I’ve accomplished a lot; but also feeling like it’s a new beginning, in a way. I still feel that there’s so many things to be done. There’s so much music to be played.”
Sarah Jarosz plays St Werburgh’s Church as part of the Temple Bar Trad Fest on January 25th