Sarah Jarosz draws on Texas singer-songwriter roots for new music

Sarah Jarosz is one of the most celebrated singer-songwriters in American music.

Sarah grew up in Wemberly, Texas and picked up the mandolin at age 9. She started playing with professional musicians at age 10, was signed to a contract at 16 and was nominated for her first Grammy at 18. She studied her craft at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music.

To date, she’s won four Grammy awards across six solo albums and another album released with the Americana supergroup I’m with Her. And she’ll turn 30 just this week.

This week on the Reckon Interview, we chat with Sarah Jarosz about her newest albums, “Blue Heron Suite” and “World on the Ground.”

Sarah’s career has given her the opportunity to see the world. She’s lived much of her adult life in New York City, but with these two albums she drew from her Southern roots. Her music defies genre. The mandolin and banjo are staples of bluegrass but Sarah points to the Texas singer-songwriter tradition as inspiration for her newest work. And Blue Heron Suite is a tribute to her mother and to the Texas coast, while World on the Ground offers a beautiful, novelistic look at her hometown of Wemberly.

We discuss her sources of inspiration, the struggles of releasing albums and saying goodbyes during a pandemic, and what it’s been like to play with some of her childhood idols.

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Below is a transcript of the episode.

John Hammontree: I guess it’s probably a nice coincidence that we’re speaking here heading into Mother’s Day weekend because your latest album, Blue Heron Suite is kind of a tribute to your mom and the Port Aransas, Texas. Tell us a little bit about this album and what your mom was going through and what you were going through when you started recording it.

Sarah Jarosz: This has been a long time coming, this release. I wrote it back in 2017. And it’s rare for me to wait this long in between recording something and putting it out into the world. But it actually now feels like perfect timing. And this was definitely sort of a purposeful choice to have it come out as close to Mother’s Day as possible. Because the suite was largely inspired by my mom. And back in 2017, she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a really tough time for her. And for my family. I’m an only child. And so I’m very close with my parents. She was really going through it. And so I couldn’t help but sort of think back to the blue herons on the Texas coast where I’ve been traveling since I was literally a baby. I mean, it might have been the first place that I ever traveled to, besides my home. And the blue herons we would see them on the coasts there. And they always — my mom is like very into signs and omens and things like that. And she just always felt like the blue heron was a good omen. And so during that tough year, that was like a symbol that we all kind of clung to whenever we would see one. So I thought it would be a cool thing to try to write about.

Hammontree: How’s she doing now?

Jarosz: She is in remission, thankfully. She’s been in remission now for almost, I guess about three years. So thanks. Yeah, she’s doing well.

Hammontree: Wonderful. I guess one of the bits of serendipity for us as your audience of it coming out this year, as well as your last album is even though they were written prior to us even knowing what COVID-19 was, they feel very much of the moment. You mentioned seeing blue herons as an omen. We have a pond in our backyard. And you know, the last year or so I’ve spent a lot more time sitting and watching the birds than I ever did before. And there’s this kind of stillness, almost like the world has stopped that’s kind of prevalent throughout both albums, but particularly this one. Does singing those songs feel different now than it did when you were writing them?

Jarosz: It still feels very healing. I mean, I haven’t had the chance to perform Blue Heron Suite very much. So it was actually written as I was commissioned by the Freshgrass Foundation and Festival, which is a great festival if people don’t know about it. It’s in North Adams, Massachusetts, at the MASS MoCA Museum of Art. And commission is not really a word that… I associate it more with classical music. So I think just the whole process of writing it was kind of different in that sense, but it was also very… just because of everything my mom was going through, even when I was writing it, it was very healing. And so, for it to be coming out now, after this last year, because it was such a healing process of writing it, it feels even more so that way now after this crazy last year. And I was able to perform the suite again. Meaning it was kind of my first chance to actually play the music in a really long time. It still felt really emotional for me. And I think as a creative person, if a song that I write is still making me feel a certain way, even years after I write it, then I feel like I know I might have done something right. Because hopefully, if I feel that way, then my hope would be that the listener might feel that way too.

Hammontree: It definitely comes through that way. And this is your second pandemic release. “World on the Ground” also had some songs that feel a little bit prescient. “I’ll be Gone,” you know, literally evokes a life during an apocalypse, maybe a little bit tongue in cheek. And then “Hometown” and “Johnny” both kind of deal with people who had gotten away from their hometowns, one way or the other, and then suddenly find themselves back home. And I think that was a common story for a lot of people in 2020, particularly being driven out of more expensive cities or just wanting more space. And both albums really draw from, you know, Texas, the Hill Country and Wimberley on World on the Ground and certainly Port Aransas and the coast with Blue Heron Suite. What were you envisioning as you worked on “World on the Ground?” It seemed like a very conscious effort to write about where you grew up in a different way than you’d written about it before.

Jarosz: It’s interesting that these records are coming out in the opposite order of how they were written. So many of the interviews that I did, surrounding “World on the Ground” was I was talking about how “World on the Ground” was kind of the first time that I dove back into a lot of my Texas childhood memories and just the rich imagery that… memories that I have of growing up there and realizing that I had never really written about that. But in a way, you know, I wrote “Blue Heron Suite” first prior to any of those songs. And so it was really “Blue Heron Suite” that opened the floodgates for that. This sort of like Texas-themed music that I’ve sort of been diving into these last couple years. I guess chronologically, it would have made more sense for Blue Heron to come out first. But I’m really glad that it’s coming out this way, because there’s almost like more of a deeper poignancy within Blue Heron Suite. There’s like a rawness about it. And I don’t know, even on my albums, I like to try to create sort of an up and down motion. And so I even like to sometimes think about that from album to album, where it’s like, “World on the Ground” was maybe more produced than any of my prior albums. And so I like the idea of, like, having this bigger sound and then sort of coming down the wave, so to speak, with Blue Heron. It’s like there’s much more space, there’s much more air. It’s a lot rawer in vibe. And I think that sort of somehow relates to the feeling behind the imagery and the words as well. But yeah, definitely, it happened the other way around in terms of the writing process.

Hammontree: You mentioned that going to the Texas coast is one of your earliest memories but you know you had I guess we should say unconventional teenage years, certainly. You were a professional musician at a very early age, got signed on your first record deal at 16 and then went off to Boston for college. Lived in New York for seven or eight years after that. How do you maintain that connection to the South and to Texas, in a way that shows through in songs that I think capture the spirit of the community perfectly?

Jarosz: Texas is still the place, even though I’ve lived in all those other places you mentioned, and I haven’t lived in Texas for a while, it’s still the place that I’ve lived the longest of anywhere. I mean, another part of especially the “World on the Ground” writing process was having this sort of full circle rediscovery of a lot of the Texas singer-songwriter music that I grew up being just totally surrounded by in lots of different ways. I mean, just around the house my parents playing records. I went to a weekly Friday night jam where people, I mean, it was a bluegrass jam quote unquote, but it really was much more than a bluegrass jam it was… bluegrass was a part of it. But it was also people coming in and singing Robert Earl Keen songs and Guy Clark songs. And you know Nanci Griffith tunes and all of this rich Texas singer-songwriter tradition. And so I think, just that sculpted my… that was like the basis of my musicality kind of from day one was this like Texas singer-songwriter tradition.

It’s funny because I think early on, because I played mandolin and I kind of came up in the bluegrass world a little bit people kind of associate the term bluegrass with me, but in a way it’s like the Texas singer-songwriter thing is almost more foundational. It’s like that’s what I heard first before I heard bluegrass just via my parents playing records around the house. So having grown up with that, it’s never gonna leave me. It’s always a part of me. And so I think that’s why it was important for me to, now as an adult and having traveled so much around the world and realizing what a special area Wimberley and the Hill Country is, you know, almost having taken it for granted as a kid and realizing, wow, this is a magical place. I just wanted to explore that even more.

As you said, “Hometown” and “Johnny,” like the narratives of these people who have left and then returned home, whether they want to or not, or maybe never left at all. That was something that I wanted to explore. And, yeah, and then this last year, I mean, I was forced to leave New York, you know, in the midst of the pandemic, and I’m now living here in Nashville, which is great. And I’m grateful to have had another place to go. But it definitely like ties into those feelings of when movement and kind of being displaced almost as is not within your control. And so that’s kind of the first time I tried to tackle that within my songs.

Hammontree: You talked about being forced to leave New York and relocating to Nashville, I imagine that was very hard given the circumstances of not really being able to say proper goodbyes to people because of social distancing and things like that. And it was also a year of an abrupt ending to “Live from Here,” a show you’ve done with Chris Thile for quite some time. And I guess the spiritual successor or direct successor of Prairie Home Companion, which had been on the air since 1974 or thereabouts. So a big loss for bluegrass, folk, Americana, that genre of music. What was it like saying goodbye to that? I don’t think that y’all got a proper finale.

Jarosz: That was a real… there were so many intense things over the course of last year. That was definitely… In a way, for the first few months from like March through May, I think so many musicians didn’t really have a sense of how long this was–not even musicians, just humans, in general. It was hard to say like how long this was gonna go on. And I think by June, kind of over the summer, it became apparent, you know, this is going to be a long haul, especially for musicians at that point, realizing like live music was going to be one of the last things to come back. And so then, I remember, it was actually a few days after my record came out. It was like, that week of just feeling like, oh, man, it was so wild to release this album in the midst of a pandemic. And then a few days later, they announced that “Live from Here” was going to be cancelled. That was probably the hardest thing that there was no finale show.

I especially feel for Chris in that sense. I think he didn’t get a lot of notice with the ending of that kind of being so abrupt. Yeah, it just was shocking. And especially to have left New York. And at a certain point, like being a touring musician, as much as I was touring pre-pandemic, I could kind of be anywhere I wanted to and sort of base out of anywhere and just travel. But “Live from Here” was kind of the thing that was keeping me in New York in a way, because when I was home from tour, I would just do that show kind of whenever I was off the road. And so it was kind of the finality of like me deciding officially to leave New York almost happened simultaneously when that show was cancelled. It was just sort of feeling like, wow, there’s not really a reason for me to be there anymore. Which, yeah, as you said, was emotional and not getting to say goodbyes, and all that. But New York is still there.

And I actually was able to travel there to do these live stream shows that are happening now. And it was almost like, you know, being vaccinated and being back, it was almost like, Okay, this is the goodbye that I didn’t get to have. And almost like I don’t even need to say goodbye. It’s there and I can still visit and that’s okay.

Hammontree: And you will be going on tour to promote I guess, not only Blue Heron Suite, but also also part of “World on the ground?”

Jarosz: There’s still a lot of uncertainty around touring coming back. I’m feeling, even within the last two weeks, I feel like there’s been a lot of forward motion. Noticing a lot of musicians kind of posting tours in the fall and festivals announcing that they’re coming back this summer. And so that’s all really exciting, but there’s still also things being cancelled. So it’s kind of a mixed bag. And my hope is that I can, you know, when things are are more open even than they are now and things are kind of settling back into normal, that I can actually get to tour “World on the Ground” and also “Blue Heron Suite.” I think those are going to be two separate tours in my mind, because, you know, musically and like band-wise, they’re two completely different vibes. Even if you know, if people buy tickets to these live streams, they’ll kind of see.

I mean, the first live stream was my band that I was supposed to go on the road with for “World on the Ground,” that we never got to even play a single show. So that was really, really fun to finally get to play that music like almost a full year after the album came out. And then the other one, the other live stream, will be a different band for Blue Heron Suite. So yeah, my goal, I think, hopefully in the fall, you know, I can hit the road with both projects.

Hammontree: Are you somebody who writes through the emotions that you’re experiencing in the moment? Like, were you actively writing about 2020 in the last year? Are you somebody who might revisit that later? Or just want to kind of separate yourself from that as a lost year?

Jarosz: I think I’m a little bit of both types of writer. Like I oftentimes, if I don’t know my process is sort of like ever-changing. I don’t know, if I have like a quote unquote, process. But the thing that seems to be consistent is that I’m always collecting little snippets of ideas. And then, as you said, looking back and sort of revisiting them after the fact and sort of seeing what works together, melodically and lyrically. I also feel like I work creatively in cycles. And so it was sort of weird timing to have had this, you know, huge outpouring of songs with “World on the Ground,” and it came out. I finished it just as things started to shut down. So I wasn’t feeling very creative for kind of most of the first part of the pandemic and a big chunk of last year. I wasn’t feeling like I had much to say about it. Cause I was at the end of my creative process with “World on the Ground.”

And there were a couple of things, I think, towards maybe the fall. Once I started getting into figuring out my schedule and what my life was like at home for such a prolonged amount of time. You know, I wasn’t necessarily writing all the time but I was discovering why I am a musician in the first place and rediscovering albums that I loved. And just like reminding myself why I fell in love with music. And so a big part of that was I kind of did this like cover series in the fall for like 10 weeks. I just would pick a different song every week and just sort of quickly record it on my GarageBand and put it up. And that proved to be like really healing and helpful not just on a musical level, but also feeling connected to the fans at a time when I couldn’t actually be with them. And so I think after I kind of went through that process, it was like that opened the gates to start to feel like I wanted to write music again. But I still haven’t written a ton this year. I feel like just in the last month, I’ve started to feel like okay, I’m getting into the next cycle, whatever that’s going to be.

Hammontree: Because what would have been the last year that you would have not toured at all? I mean, you would have been, I guess, a child?

Jarosz: Yeah, I mean, it’s like this is my life as I know it. You know, from the time that I was a preteen, I guess, you know, I’ve been playing shows, and I wasn’t touring, you know, internationally as a teen but basically started like right out of high school. Like 18. Just whenever I was not in school or making a record, I was on the road. So that was a big part of this year was just kind of like getting to know myself better, learning healthier habits, things that sometimes get tossed to the side when you’re on tour.

I mean, it sounds so simple because these are things that normal humans deal with on a daily basis but like figuring out a morning routine and, you know, all these things that have helped me stay sane over the last year. Just good, good mental health practices, which I’ve had to work on a lot over the last year.

Hammontree: I’m thinking about your song Broussard’s Lament and how you kind of captured the horrors of Katrina through through the eyes of a person, and it’s not necessarily an overtly political song, but you know, it’s clear that it’s about somebody who’s been kind of left behind and kind of left on their own. And “inspiration” is probably not the right word about what you draw from something like 2020. But it has certainly been as turbulent as the 60s was, and I’m wondering if you are drawn towards telling any of those types of stories?

Jarosz: Well, first of all, nobody has commented on Broussard’s Lament in many, many years. I mean, it’s an older song of mine. And actually I haven’t played it in so long. I’m going to revisit that and maybe work it up, because it feels like that song needs to maybe be played again after this last year. Yeah, I feel like, it’s helpful for me. And I think a lot of the most effective songs I’ve found, in terms of tackling what’s happening in the current moment, you know, politically or socially, are these story songs. Like, I think it’s very hard to write that way from the first person perspective. So I think oftentimes, like the most effective songs are from a character perspective, where you do kind of approach it in this novelistic way. Like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll” comes to mind. You know, something like that. Those types of political songs have always meant the most to me.

I can’t say that I’ve been the type of creator or musician to explicitly write political songs. But I do think that if I were to try to do it or even if I’ve sort of alluded to it in some of my songs, it helps me to sort of get out of my own head and my own experience by writing from a different character’s point of view. And I think that’s also just helpful on a human level to try to not just think about your own life and your own story the whole time. But try to think about how it must be for somebody else, you know, and how somebody else’s experience might be really difficult.

You know, that is actually a little bit kind of the feeling behind my song, “Pay it No Mind” on “World on the Ground,” which is like trying to get outside of your own head. And so I think this is maybe like a long way around. It’s a good question. But I do feel very inspired by the storytellers. And, you know, I also want to add, maybe besides “Broussard’s Lament,” I actually don’t feel like I’ve been that type of writer until “World on the Ground.” I think I kind of owe it to John Leventhal, as a producer, for encouraging me to write from that sort of storyteller point of view. And I do feel like most of my writing, prior to this album was largely the opposite of what I’m saying. Like inward looking, internal monologue, about my feelings. And that’s fine, too. I mean, that’s another way to write. And that can be effective. But I don’t know. It just felt like he was encouraging me like, why don’t you try to tackle things from a different perspective, and I feel like I’m just scraping the surface with “World on the Ground.” Like I want to try to write more that way, moving forward.

Hammontree: Coming up after the break, Sarah Jarosz discusses playing with her childhood heroes and lessons learned from Steve Martin.

You grew up, I assume, kind of listening to Chris (Thile) and Sara (Watkins) with Nickel Creek. I don’t know if they were solely responsible, but they were certainly involved with making bluegrass music, along with Alison Krauss, you know, very cool and mainstream again, along with Sean, have you have you performed with Sean (Watkins) at all or is it just Chris and Sara?

Jarosz: No, Sean is so great. I’ve performed…I guess I’ve sat in with Nickel Creek. I’ve jammed with Sean a ton and we’ve hung out a bunch in California. I guess I haven’t gotten to play with Sean like in a professional manner. But like all of our playing has just been like impromptu and fun. But I would love to actually like work on music with him. It’s funny. I was just talking about him with my boyfriend earlier today. Sean is just one of the best humans and musicians.

Yeah, I cannot understate how huge Nickel Creek’s music was. I mean, it really kind of changed my life. I mean, almost single handedly. Not only to have been on “Live from Here,” with Chris but also to now be in a band with Sara. And also Crooked Still, Aoife’s other band. Yeah, they were wildly influential to me as a young musician. And so it’s pretty cool to be in a band with them. And, you know, I think it says a lot about like the acoustic music world that I kind of grew up in to have heroes be mentors be friends. You know, I don’t think that it necessarily like happens as commonly in other styles of pop music or, you know, rock or whatever. Musicians in general love to collaborate and exchange ideas, but I just feel like it’s really prevalent in, you know, the acoustic bluegrass Americana world.

And so I’ve always been thankful for that and especially, like, to have been so young. And, if I was 10, they were about 10 years older than me. So they were 20. When I think back on that now, it’s like, what? A 20-year-old doesn’t want to hang out with a 10-year-old. They didn’t have to do that, by any means. And this goes for them but also so many of my musical heroes, you know, Tim O’Brien, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas. They didn’t have to extend that time encouraging me, but they did. And they did it in a way where they treated me like a peer. And they showed me respect. And because of that, I feel like the music had to rise to that level, or I wanted to have my musicianship rise to that level of respect that they were showing me because they weren’t treating me like a kid. And so I’m just super grateful for that.

Hammontree : You were saying that that may not be entirely unique to the genre of music, but it’s certainly a major part of it. A lot of people shared those stories last year about John Prine. And I’m thinking about maybe the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sessions and how they connected, you know, the Grand Ole Opry era to the next era, and that kind of long through line of that music. Do you feel any obligation to kind of pay that forward, I mean you’re still a pretty young generation, but to the next generation?

Jarosz: Yes. 100%. I mean, wherever I can. I think sometimes I feel like I was a kid in a really magical era for like bluegrass and acoustic music, in the sense that there were some camps that sort of started while I was in the prime age. Like the Mandolin Symposium comes to mind. It was a music camp that was started by Mike Marshall and David Grisman and Chris Thile, he was a part of the first one. And the first one was when I was 13. And then it lasted for 10 years. And it’s not even around anymore. And so there’s some things like that where I feel like, Oh, man, I wish it was still around so that maybe I could even be a teacher or just go back and kind of give back to the thing that meant so much to me. But I try to do it wherever I can.

I actually just had a really wonderful experience getting to teach a master class for NEC, New England Conservatory, where I went to college. It was on Zoom, obviously, because they’re not, you know, in person. But still, just getting to do that. I think I was more inspired by that than anything in quite a while. To sort of hear these young musicians writing and creating. And it’s just so easy in life to sort of get bogged down in your own zone. And it’s the best to sort of hear new people coming up and being creative. So, yeah, whatever I can do to give back to younger people, because I was certainly the beneficiary of so much wisdom and mentorship for a long time.

Hammontree: Even beyond the music realm, and I don’t want to discount his talent as a musician, but you got the opportunity to tour, at least briefly cause I saw you on this tour in Birmingham, with Steve Martin and Martin Short, with I’m With Her. Can Steve hold his own against you in a banjo. Is he the real deal?

Jarosz: He is the real deal. 100%. Yeah, I’ve actually been very fortunate to spend quite a bit of time with Steve now, and it’s so cool how much he loves the banjo. And he really cares. He really cares about the details of it. He really is just obsessed with it. And so much of my time with him musically has been, he’ll play and then he’ll just like put the banjo in my hands and be like, “please play something for me.” And then he’ll just kind of stare like fascinated, you know, at the finger bar, like, “wow, how do you do that?” You know, and he’s Steve Martin, you know, he’s as funny in everyday life. I mean, like, I can’t even believe that I’ve gotten to spend time with him. And that tour, in particular, with Aiofe and Sara, we got to spend quite a bit of time hanging out with him and Martin Short, which was just totally surreal. And like, I can’t even believe I just said that sentence.

But just even that, like, that feels related to what I was saying earlier about my musical heroes. It’s like Steve and Martin Short, they could get anybody, you know? And the fact that they just want to support us, and I know that they’ve supported a lot of younger musicians, and take us around on on that tour with them, it says a lot about their character. And at the end of the day, when it’s about the art and when it’s about the music, and when that’s sort of the center of gravity or the barometer for creative people, then you kind of can’t go wrong. You know, and that’s what I’ve tried… To have witnessed that in my heroes, that that’s sort of the important thing is the art. And the rest, you know, you have to be smart about the business and all that but if you get too lost in that, you know, you kind of… if it’s about what you’re creating, then you kind of can’t go wrong. 

Hammontree: Well, to wrap up, you know, you mentioned that you’ve been revisiting a lot of albums this year for comfort and peace. I was wondering if you could just recommend a few albums that you’ve rediscovered and why our audience should listen to them.

Jarosz: Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s funny, a lot of what I’ve been listening to has actually carried over from what I was listening to, to get inspired to write “World on the ground.” Just kind of going deeper in the Texas singer-songwriter world. I think that’s also connected to the fact that I haven’t been able to visit home really, once in the last year. And so it’s kind of nostalgic, with just like missing home. You know, a record that’s been really kind of central to me over the last year is this record by Eric Taylor, who I don’t think a lot of people know about Eric Taylor, but I think he actually passed away last March. But he’s a phenomenal writer from Texas, and it’s just his self titled album, Eric Taylor. I think it’s a masterpiece and it’s like one of my go-tos just for inspiration and talk about novelistic approach to writing. I would highly recommend that album. Also constantly listening to James McMurtry. He’s just as good as it gets, I think. And then also, I’ve listened a lot to Big Thief who, maybe they’re like more in the indie world than like the the singer-songwriter world but, actually, the guitarist, Buck Meek, also grew up in Wimberley. Funny enough. Small world. And I went to high school with his younger brother, Dylan. And so I actually knew him in Wimberley. And so it’s been really just so fun to kind of watch their meteoric rise, and I just love Adrianne’s songwriting so much. And I really just think that they’ve created their whole own sonic world. And I’m super inspired it.

Purchase Sarah Jarosz’s music and learn about upcoming performances at www.sarahjarosz.com.

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