In a way, Sarah Jarosz is the anti-Taylor Swift. They're almost exactly the same age, and they're both tremendously talented writers and performers. They even sorta look alike.
But while Swift has crafted a mercenary career of pretty pop songs disguised as country music, Jarosz is following a more artistic path. Taylor Swift is a star. Sarah Jarosz is a musician.
At 21, the native of Waverly, Texas (near Austin) has already shared the stage and studio with the likes of Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile, Alison Krauss, David Grisman, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs. These pioneers in the ever-expanding acoustic universe recognize a kindred spirit in Jarosz, who is skilled on mandolin, banjo, guitar and other instruments, has a light, sweet singing voice just right for airy harmonies, and can more than keep up with instrumentalists who started playing long before she was born.
Jarosz cut her first album while she was still in high school. Her second appeared a year after she'd been accepted into the New England Conservatory of Music.
She makes her second Savannah Music Festival appearance accompanied by Nathaniel Smith (cello) and Alex Hargreaves (violin); they'll open for the David Grisman Folk Jazz Trio.
Jarosz reports she started a new record over her Christmas break, and — woo-hoo! — will graduate from the conservatory in May.
You're a pretty accomplished musician already. Why go to a music school?
Sarah Jarosz: I knew that I wanted to go to college, if not just for the experience. But there's so much to be learned. I had gotten so much out of the camps and music festivals that I had gone to growing up, I wanted to be able to push myself in new ways that I hadn't really done before. Specifically, honing in on my own writing. And by listening to all this new music that I'd never heard before, I think it's really opened my ears up in a new way. So it's been totally great. I can't believe it's almost over.
But does it make you a better musician? More intuitive? Do you play, like, faster? I imagine it helps your brain and your ears.
Sarah Jarosz: Yeah, yeah, I think it's helped my ears more than anything. But yeah, I think it's helped make me a better musician. That's not to say that I'll ever be done learning. It's an endless process.
I'm curious how someone so young got interested in acoustic music living in the Austin area. You could just have easily become a rock 'n' roll bass player. Why did it go this way for you?
Sarah Jarosz: My parents are big music lovers. They were playing all kinds of different music, so I could have just as easily gone any way just based on what they were listening to. I remember loving it all, but I remember specifically being drawn to some of the more rootsy, folky stuff — and bluegrass — from an early age. I think it was a kind of culmination of a lot of different things happening at the right time.
And one of those things was this bluegrass jam that I found out about that happened every week. I was really lucky that the people that were involved in that were super awesome and encouraging. And I think that as a young girl, the fact that it was so warm and welcoming had a lot to do with why I wanted to keep going back, trying to get better with the music. I think that's a huge part of the reason I was drawn to this music — because there's such a community aspect to it. Especially in the Austin area.
What I love about acoustic music today is that there really are no boundaries. Chris Thile's stuff is a prime example. If you want to put rock guitar and Japanese percussion next to a string section, you can. Does any of that play into what you're working on now?
Sarah Jarosz: I've been working live with this trio for the last three years, and there's definitely more of a focus on that this time around. Which is different for me in the sense that it pushes me to be a little more scaled-back than I have in the past. And really zero in on the essence of what I want happening with these songs. That's not to say that the whole record is just the trio, that's definitely not the case. But just compared to the last two, there's more of that, for sure.
It's been such a thrill to work with my older heroes and everything on the last two records, but this time around it was really exciting to be working with people my own age. Especially Alex and Nat.
That's the biggest difference, I'd say. But even though it's a little more scaled-back, I feel like it's pushing me just as much.
Can you see 10 years down the line?
Sarah Jarosz: My parents are always encouraging me to look ahead and have dreams. And when you reach one plateau, try to think up some new dreams. That's kind of where I'm at right now — I'm getting close to the end of something that has been a huge deal for me in my life, finishing school and graduating. I think it'll be exciting to see what happens next. You know, I've never done this and not been in school!See sarahjarosz.com
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