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EXCLUSIVE: Sarah Jarosz on Sara Watkins, New England Contemporary Improv and Her Next Solo Album

By Lisa Helfer Elghazi on Jul 10, 2015 12:27 AM EDT

Sarah Jarosz grew up in Wimberley, Texas, a town just outside of Austin. At a very early age, she earned credibility in the space where roots, Americana and contemporary folk intersect. Ever since, Jarosz's sterling reputation has been built on three fronts: gifted multi-instrumentalist (guitar, mandolin, banjo), expressive and distinctive vocalist, accomplished songwriter.

It's not just her peers who are taking notice.

Jarosz has twice appeared on Austin City Limits and also on the BBC's Transatlantic Sessions--as well as A Prairie Home Companion, eTown, Acoustic Café and Mountain Stage. In 2014, she made her late night television debut on Conan, followed a day later by an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

The two chat show appearances were filmed while she was in Los Angeles to attend the GRAMMYs, nominated for Best Folk Album (2013's Build Me Up from Bones) and Best American Roots Song (for the title track).

Her first album, Song Up In Her Head, released when Sarah was just out of high school, yielded its own Grammy nom for the instrumental "Mansinneedof."

Since graduating with honors from New England Conservatory in May of 2013 with a degree in contemporary improvisation, Jarosz now makes her home in New York City. She maintains a busy touring schedule both in the U.S. and abroad. Capping 2014's Build Me Up from Bones dates was a special collaborative tour with The Milk Carton Kids featuring Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Nathaniel Smith on cello, and bassist Sam Grisman.

In 2015, Jarosz's focus will be on writing and recording her next album. She is also taking the opportunity to explore various new configurations for performance.

One of those special configurations is the I'm With Her Tour with Sara Watkins and Aoife O'Donovan.

CLASSICALITE: Firstly, how was your tour with Sara and Aoife? I understand you played some new countries.

SARAH JAROSZ: It was amazing! I think I had the most fun ever on this tour. The "I'm with Her" tour is brand new, and I'd never been to Sweden or Spain. Also, getting to go back to England and Ireland was a treat. This experience is unique. We are not coming at this project from an individual perspective. We are creating a whole band separate from what we are doing in our solo careers.

C-LITE: And how did the three of you, as a proper band, come together?

SJ: Sara and Aoife had performed together a lot before. And we've all played together for years, but in impromptu settings. About a year ago, all three of us were at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival doing our own stuff. We were at a workshop and Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers asked Aoife to put together something for the opening of their show. She asked Sara and I to join her. We actually rehearsed in the bathroom and put together a little set. It was so special; it was so in the moment. When we played as the opening, our music was very well received. Sara, Aoife and I kept in touch over the next few months and decided to make a go of a band. It can be challenging because we are balancing our independent careers, but I'm so glad we did this. It wound up being a really incredible year for all of us.

C-LITE: We're so glad all of you finally released an EP.

SJ: Yes, we holed up in Aoife's apartment in Brooklyn for three days of rehearsals and also recorded two songs. That EP was released a few weeks ago. We covered "Crossing Muddy Waters" by John Hiatt and "Be My Husband," which was a song we learned from the music of Nina Simone. The EP is a dual release by Sugar Hill Records and Yep Roc Records. Later in July, all three of us are getting together in L.A. to write as a trio.

C-LITE: You, yourself, started playing music very young. What was about the act of playing, the act of performing that first interested you?

SJ: For as long as long as I can remember, my parents, who are are big music lovers, took me to see live music. I grew up outside of Austin, Texas, and there is always so much music going on. From the age of two or three, I loved to sing. At age 10, I picked up a mandolin and went to music jams, where everyone was going around in a circle taking a turn playing. Bluegrass was my first music obsession. There is such an improv element to it.

C-LITE: So, bluegrass was an early influence. What about now, today?

SJ: It's funny. Nickel Creek was a huge influence on me, and now I play in a band with Sara. That's pretty cool. Also, Tim O'Brien, Gillian Welch, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan are always inspiring. When I attended the New England Conservatory, I was introduced more deeply to Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Abbey Lincoln.

C-LITE: OK, then why did you choose New England Conservatory, specifically?

SJ: New England always felt like it would be this great launching pad for everything I was doing. I knew I'd find a platform for my music. I'm definitely not a jazz musician by any means, but studying jazz helped expand my ear and push it. I traveled out of bluegrass' realm of three chords and also the verse-chorus-verse songwriting model. This education was a great way to expand the way I create music.

C-LITE: You and Aoife O'Donovan both went to NEC. She graduated in 2003, you in 2013. Have you talked about your experiences there at the New England Conservatory?

SJ: Aoife was actually the big decision-making factor for me to attend NEC. She was one of the first people who told me about her experiences while studying at the conservatory. I'm glad so that she did! We did have similar experiences at NEC because we both grew up in the folk tradition. Many young musicians talk about going to NEC or Berklee. So, I was pretty set on getting to Boston to study. I was aware of NEC's contemporary improvisation program, but Aoife gave me more of her take on the whole NEC experience. We've talked about how NEC expanded our ears, knowledge and repertoire far beyond the folk world. Also, we both studied with Dominique Eade--who opened up our eyes to so many different ways we could use our voices. We both really enjoyed studying with her.

C-LITE: Be it the breadth of the contemporary improv program, private studies with Dominique Eade and even just the support of an alumna like Aoife, in the two years since you've been out of NEC, how has that education, that training impacted your professional life?

SJ: Well, when I started NEC, I had already begun my musical career. My first album came out in June, right after I graduated high school. My experience was a little different because I was looking to study at NEC partly for some normalcy--as a break from touring and being a professional musician. I wanted to be a regular student and study music intensively for four years. I started New England the fall after I graduated high school.

The faculty at NEC was very supportive of what I was doing in my professional life, but they were very clear that my education at NEC took precedence. My second album was released in May of my sophomore year. I spent my breaks touring in my junior year. Then, my third album came out my senior year. I honestly don't know how I did it.

Even with all the recording and touring, I think I only missed one week of school at NEC (to perform at the BBC Transatlantic Sessions in Scotland). The whole point of being at NEC was to be there and be immersed, so I recorded and toured only on the weekends. Throughout my four years at NEC, I studied with Hankus Netsky. He guided me with arrangements and ideas for the songs on my third album during our lessons together. I really felt by my senior year at NEC that my professional and academic lives were beautifully connected.

Brooklyn! So stoked to open for Punch Brothers tonight at Celebrate Brooklyn! I'll kick things off at 7:30. It's FREE...

Posted by Sarah Jarosz on Thursday, July 9, 2015

C-LITE: What's your favorite piece of music to perform? Why?

SJ: That's a hard one. But I'd have to say "Ring Them Bells" by Bob Dylan. I recorded it on my second record. I've probably sung it hundreds of times, but it is really a song that feels close to impossible for me to ever get tired of singing. Every time I sing it, I always learn something new about the lyrics or the song...it's so special.

C-LITE: And where is your favorite place to perform, why?

SJ: It really depends. I think it's because of the way I grew up with music. I appreciate a great listening room, but also a large festival. That's how I was exposed early on to music. So, I like the smaller vibe of a performing arts center or intimate café. But a big outdoor fest is really fun. All in all, I'd have to say the Telluride Bluegrass Festival--where we came up with the idea for "I'm With Her"--is the cream of the crop place for me to play.

C-LITE: Finally, I know that you're working on a new album of your own. When is that going to be recorded?

SJ: Yes, I will be working in the studio in September and October. My next album will most likely be released around March of 2016.

 Day two of writing with I'm With Her. @aoifemaria and @sarahjarosz - and introducing, Pat.

A photo posted by Sara Watkins (@sarawatkins) on Jun 30, 2015 at 7:52pm PDT

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, Chris Thile, I'm With Her, New England Conservatory