• Looking Forward with Sarah Jarosz

    Sarah Jarosz has been on our radar since at least the Spring of 2008 when the then-16-year-old signed with Sugar Hill Records. She'd already played with the Austin Symphony Orchestra and appeared in a cameo with Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs as part of the 2005 Country Music Association Festival.

    Well... in the blink of an eye, that talented girl has turned into a young woman with plenty of musical accomplishments behind her and big plans for the future.

    At 24, she's a multi-instrumentalist with an international performance schedule and ambitions that include a fourth solo album, multiple recording projects, and a gig in what can only be called a super-group (she hates that label) made up of three of the greatest singers in neo-trad/alt-grass/singer-songwriter/Americana (she's not big on keeping to any one genre either). Bradley Klein visited with her in her in New York City to get a few hints of what's in store.

    Author Bradley Klein is a freelance journalist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. His production company Twangbox makes audio and video content for radio, television and the web. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and a Vega cylinder-back mandobass named Tubby.

    Most stories about Sarah Jarosz stress how busy she's been. Finishing high school. Graduating college. Making a new home in a new town. Add to this, recording three albums and touring to support them, and you have a snap shot of her life these past few years. But now, she's settled into an apartment on New York's Upper West Side and seems comfortable with her new home base, mixing the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a new arrival with the sophistication of an experienced touring musician.

    She recalls the Texas hill country near Austin as, "a great place to grow up," while embracing her new home. "Running laps around the Central Park reservoir, going out to play or see music most nights, I feel like this city is challenging me in a way I need in my life. To wake up and see everyone on the move and the need to rise to that level. That's the way to start every day."

    Sarah and Michael Daves

    Sarah recording with Michael Daves for his upcoming bluegrass album.

    On a recent Tuesday night, I caught her performing with bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves in Manhattan's Lower East Side. She's recently finished recording as part of a group of bluegrass all-stars for a soon-to-be released album of his. And besides, sitting in at Michael's weekly gig has become something of a right of passage for rising NYC bluegrass players. "It's been great playing and recording with Michael... crucial in making me feel part of the community here."

    It's a modest, one hour show in a small room with a bar, an excellent sound system, and room for 50 fans packed tight. Later that week, Sarah will play across town in Brooklyn for closer to 5,000. In between those two gigs, we met for coffee and chatted about music, instruments, and the value of being part of a musical community.

    Growing up in Wimberly, Texas, was mandolin your first instrument?

    I took piano lessons, but that was like... my parents would say, "practice the piano." But once I got a mandolin I was in my room all the time, obsessed, playing, learning. That being said, I sang my whole life. I sang with my mom. Folk tunes. And she wrote songs as a hobby, so I always considered that just something people do.

    And when you picked up the mandolin?

    That was about bluegrass! At about the time I borrowed my first mandolin, I discovered this weekly bluegrass jam in Wimberly. I was this little girl, but they welcomed me into the circle. This guy, Mike Bond, immediately had me taking solos even though I didn't know what I was doing, and I just fell in love with it.


    Sarah Jarosz performs Mansinneedof (nominated for a Grammy) during her performance at The Troubadour in West Hollywood, California on August 9, 2012. She is accompanied by Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith.

    Did that passionate interest in bluegrass seem kind of baffling to your friends as a kid?

    Definitely, all through school, and even in college there were times I felt the double life thing. Especially when I started going outside central Texas, going to festivals and camps and started meeting people my own age who got what I was doing. And Id come home, and be like, "You're trying, and you're being really polite about it, but you don't know... these are two very different worlds."

    Was that OK? Living in two worlds?

    Yes, it was rich and it was good, and my parents, being teachers, were always adamant about my staying in school and finishing and having the perspective and the work ethic. And then the music became the reward. "If you work on your homework and get good grades, you get to go to this festival."

    And did you work on your homework? And get good grades?

    Yes, yes (laughs). That was always very important to me, and to my parents.

    Sarah's Collings Mandolin

    Sarah with her 2003 Collings MF5 Mandolin at a recording session in 2015 for Michael Daves' new bluegrass album.

    Jumping ahead, why make New York your home base?

    I first came to New York when I was fifteen. Ben Solee (cellist, singer/songwriter) invited me to go see the Tension's Mountain Boys at Zankel Hall.

    Oh! I was at that show! It was before Chris Thile and the boys came up with the name Punch Brothers. Maybe their only show under that name.

    It was the first time I flew without my parents. I fell in love with the city during that trip. As a fifteen-year-old from rural Texas, it was thrilling, and I knew then I would live here some day. It was just a matter of when. And the East Coast thing made sense, because the people I met at music camp and growing up were in New York or Boston. By the time I was 16 or 17 I knew I would go to either the New England Conservatory of Music or Berklee College of Music, and NEC turned out to be a better fit.

    By the time you graduated in 2013, you'd released your first two albums, scored a Grammy nomination (Mansineedof, nominated for Best Country Instrumental) and started work on your most recent album, Build Me Up from Bones. Let's talk about your current projects. You've been touring with your own band, and I loved seeing you with the Milk Carton Kids (Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale) on Austin City Limits last year.

    I'll never forget the first time singing with Joey and Kenneth. They were opening a show for me in Dallas. I was going to sing a song with them Years Gone By. I was obsessed with them, and I had already worked out a third part with the record. We sat down backstage to try it, and got through three lines and Joey was like, "Stop. Stop. This is too good... I just have to take a moment." It really was magical from the first time we sang. I immediately knew I wanted us to tour together.

    And it was like that with Aoife and Sara, too. The difference being that this is a band. We're writing new music and that's exciting.

    Ring Them Bells

    Sarah performs Bob Dylan's Ring Them Bells from her 2011 recording Follow Me Down.

    That's your new trio, I'm With Her, with Aoife O'Donovan (Crooked Still, Sometymes Why) and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek). You've barely started playing in the U.S. and already the term supergroup is being used.

    We kind of hate the term supergroup, mostly because in my mind when I think of a supergroup it's a bunch of great people each playing their own material.

    It is kind of tainted from various 1960s record company executive schemes.

    What we want to do is to be a band. That's why we're writing original material. We want it to be a new platform for new music. We all came together for a workshop at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last summer. The last night of Telluride, Chris Thile called up Aoife and asked if we could put something together for the late night show that ends the festival. We put together six songs, literally, in the bathroom backstage. Luckily, I think it was Sara who texted us later that week, "that was really fun and we should continue to do that, right?" And we were all super-into giving it a shot.

    It's kind of a balancing act between all of our solo careers. We're all coming out with solo records next year but after those cycles, we're pretty committed to make this a real band and a real thing. This Summer in LA we wrote four new songs and we're getting together in December to try and write more. It's exciting to have a new project.

    I'm With Her

    Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan form the new group I'm With Her.

    Although I'm With Her has toured already in Europe, hosting A Prairie Home Companion was your American premiere for most folks here, and you did a 26-show tour with the crew and host Garrison Keillor.

    I totally listened to PHC growing up, never thinking I'd be a part of it someday, but this year was very Prairie Home heavy.

    What's it like singing with Garrison?

    It's satisfying and difficult. You never quite know what he's going to do. You might work up a song and you're doing the melody and he's doing the harmony, and the moment you go to sing it on live radio he may switch it. You never know, but when it works that makes it special. I love his voice — it's great, it's very nostalgic. It's a total honor to witness the whole process.

    A Prairie Home Companion

    Garrison Keillor and Sarah Jarosz perform When We're Gone, Long Gone on a live production of A Prairie Home Companion as part of her June 27, 2015 appearance on the show.

    And now Chris Thile is getting ready to step into that role as A Prairie Home Companion host.

    I'm really thrilled for him. There's never going to be another Garrison, but Chris is the kind of guy... whatever he's committed to, he'll make it great. I really believe that about him. Change is scary and good, and he's the man for the job.

    Going back to your solo performing, alone or with your band, has that changed much over the years?

    I think for me, the biggest change — and often being the only girl in those musical situations early on — there's a tendency to show off, just to get in there and have a foot in the door. I think it's nice now not to feel the pressure to be flashy and serve the music for it's own sake.

    And is there a practice routine?

    I play so many instruments and a lot of my time is spent on songwriting, so it's work on the mandolin, work on the banjo, work on the guitar. I write on all three, but I mainly write on guitar. I rarely write on the mandolin but I often write on the octave mandolin, it's a little more guitar like. When I got it in 2008, I wrote soooo many songs, it was just a wealth of new ideas. I think that can often happen with a new instrument. It just changes the ideas you gravitate toward.

    OK, here's a question that would only be asked at the Mandolin Cafe. What's it like meeting the larger members of the mandolin family as a child? For most of us that's an experience we don't have until adulthood.

    I had an opportunity to play Mike Marshall's mandocello at a Mandolin Symposium. And I also played Tim O'Brien's octave mandolin, which has a guitar sized body, and that was the sound. I think it was growing up with all those Tim O'Brien records, that was the sound that I loved. I saved up and I think it was at IBMA in 2008. (Luthier) Fletcher Brock was at the trade show. The way I remember it is I walked toward Fletcher's booth and there was a light shining down on the OM. And I played it for literally two minutes and I was like, "Sold. I'll buy it. This is the one for me!"

    You've sold a lot of OM's I suspect.

    Yeah, Fletcher says he has like a two-year waiting list. As a singer, it's been the perfect instrument for me. The lower range supports what I'm doing with my voice.

    Sarah at Celebrate Brooklyn

    Sarah Jarosz with her Fletcher Brock octave mandolin performing solo at Celebrate Brooklyn, July 9, 2015 in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York.

    Are you a collector of instruments?

    I may be going down that road. I'm still very young, I just bought a new mandolin. It has to be set up before I can play it out. It's a Nugget, one serial number from Tim's, so it's a black A model, 1979, I think.

    Does it have the thick neck like Tim's?

    Yes, it's stunning and that came about because I'd been looking for a different sound from the Collings I've been playing. Sam Grisman (bass player and son of David Grisman) was on tour in Colorado with Dominick Leslie, and I got this text, "There's this mandolin here. Dom is playing it right now. This is the mandolin for you." It was at the Olde Town Pickin' Parlor, run by Nick Forester's daughter. She sent it to New York just a couple days before I left to play Europe with Aoife and Sara.

    And did it feel different? I'm under the impression that Mike (Nugget) Kemnitzer hadn't handled an enormous number of mandolins in those early days when he started building.

    Yes, it's very different from what I've been playing, but that's what I like about it. It's a different sonic space, so that's exciting.

    And do you lust after Loars when you get a chance to play them?

    (Laughs) That would be amazing, but I'm happy with two great mandolins. I just bought this Eastwood electric tenor guitar and I have two banjos by Bernard Mollberg and two guitars.

    But you are intrigued by the vintage stuff?

    For sure. I would walk into Crandall's or Retrofret everyday if I could. But it's just too tempting... it's like a toy store.

    Picks and strings? I don't know if I should feed the insatiable hunger on the Mandolin Cafe for picks and strings, but...

    I just switched to the BlueChip CT55. I like the bevel on that one. I've only lost one so far. It's such a bummer (laughs). I used D'Andrea Pro Plecs for a long time. As for stings, Elixir medium Nanowebs on the mandolin. I use D'Addario's on my banjo.

    Do you do much social media?

    I fought it for a long time. I was already so busy, and also, how much do you want to share with people? It's a decision. I'm in control of all that stuff. It's the way of life as a 21st century musician, to try and draw your fans in that way. Mostly Facebook, and Twitter, and I just went public with my Instagram.

    I've had conversations with lots of musicians about this. So much of the beauty of the musicians we looked up to was the mystery. I mean, Bob Dylan wasn't posting "here's my breakfast." That's part of the mystique. You want to preserve some element of mystery — you don't want to give it all away. You don't want to say exactly what the song is about. It's a balance to draw them in and make them feel included and yet not give it all away. It's a daily challenge.


    A few days after I spoke with Sarah in the coffee shop she opened for Punch Brothers at Celebrate Brooklyn, an enormously popular outdoor concert series. It was a free concert on a warm summer night. Three thousand are in the seats before the big stage, and many more picnic on the grass beyond.

    I think it's fair to say that Sarah killed it, playing solo. The audience hung on every word as she briefly introduced songs, and alternated between mandolins, guitar and banjo. The sound was beautifully transparent. And for the finale, she was joined on stage for an a capella trio by I'm With Her. I'm probably not the first to describe the blend of those three voices as angelic, and I know I won't be the last. But these are angels for our time. Hip, savvy, and fearlessly exploring music without boundaries.

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    Comments 16 Comments
    1. Jonathan James's Avatar
      Jonathan James -
      Nice, comprehensive interview Brad. She's one of my favorites...and beyond her immense talent, her wonderful sense of humility and respect for the music is equally impressive.
    1. Ron McMillan's Avatar
      Ron McMillan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jonathan James View Post
      Nice, comprehensive interview Brad. She's one of my favorites...and beyond her immense talent, her wonderful sense of humility and respect for the music is equally impressive.
      Jonathan just said everything I was thinking. Great interview.
    1. Darren Bailey's Avatar
      Darren Bailey -
      Thanks for this. Met Sarah over here in the UK after a show and she couldn't have been a more humble, sweet presence. It's great to live in a world where people create such beautiful music.
    1. JEStanek's Avatar
      JEStanek -

    1. Flattpicker's Avatar
      Flattpicker -
      She's such a treat. I saw her live when she was about 13, playing a set for the Austin Friends of Traditional Music with Erik Hokkanen. They were amazing together and I've enjoyed seeing/hearing her progress since then.
    1. Randi Gormley's Avatar
      Randi Gormley -
      She was on the roster the first year I went to Grey Fox and was one of the highlights of that fantastic experience. A great musician. Thanks for this!
    1. Mark Wilson's Avatar
      Mark Wilson -
      Just listened to some "I'm with her" videos. I am a fan

      Interesting article - thx!
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Thanks folks. Here is an I'm With Her out-take that I took at Sarah's 'Celebrate Brooklyn' concert. I like this one, even though nobody was looking my way! The encore was accompanied by a hand-clap rhythm section.

      Any other Cafe regulars make the show? Sadly, thunder and lightning swept in just as the Punch Brothers began their set. (outdoors and no roof over the seats) Argh.

      Attachment 140908

      AND I notice that the gals JUST uploaded this U Utah song. Sweet.

    1. darylcrisp's Avatar
      darylcrisp -
      the wife and I have saw her in concert twice-once a few years ago at Bristol Rhythm & Roots, she was on stage by herself-this was our first introduction of her music-it was great. She played mandolin, some banjo, and I think she had a J200 Gibson guitar she used for a few songs-she killed it.

      A year or so later, we saw her in a small venue in North Carolina, can't remember the name now, something of an older small auditorium.

      She is an amazing artist, so versatile.

      Great story btw!
    1. GRW3's Avatar
      GRW3 -
      Wimberley was her home base but her mama took her around to other jams too. She was unfailingly polite and never, never precocious (in the negative sense which word is often used). Everybody knew she was way better than the rest of us and we encouraged her to let loose.
    1. Jim Hudson's Avatar
      Jim Hudson -
      As a frequent participant in those early Wimberley jams when Sarah and I were both learning to play mandolin (and Mike Bond was encouraging us both), and knowing Sarah's parents, I can say without reservation that she is one of those rare talents with a truly sweet and pure heart, and it comes out in her music in such a delightful and refreshing way. I look forward to watching what she will accomplish with her music and what her music can accomplish in this troubled world. Love what you're doing Sarah, Louise and I send all our love.
    1. willysunday's Avatar
      willysunday -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jonathan James View Post
      Nice, comprehensive interview Brad. She's one of my favorites...and beyond her immense talent, her wonderful sense of humility and respect for the music is equally impressive.
      I can wholeheartedly agree with this statement. My first view of Sarah was on Transatlantic V sessions. She looks so much younger than her young years : ) But what talent and reverence for the music.

    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      I'm so happy to see that Sarah's new project, I'm With Her, got a rave from the NYTimes's Jon Pareles the other day.

      Review: I’m With Her, Three Americana Virtuosos

      I ran into Sarah tonight and asked her how the new/old Nugget mandolin was coming along. She's having it regretted and a strap button installed this week. Now THAT's the kind of detail you won't find in the Times.
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Reviving this thread, for breaking news. It's great to see the hopes and plans that Sarah expressed in our interview two Summers ago, coming to fruition. Here's a video from I'm With Her, now the 'real band' that she promised us - with their first release of an original song by the group.

    1. ollaimh's Avatar
      ollaimh -
      her group with grisman and hargreaves is great. i bet the new one will be as well. there is a your tube video of her singing and playing ireland's green shore on banjo at the bluebird cafe. solo. a great rendition that i think she learned from tim o'brien. i play celtic traditional music but the blue grassy take is very entertaining to see, and her singing is fantastic. her song solo on banjo as well, of :"tell me true" is one of the best songs i have heard.
    1. guidoStow's Avatar
      guidoStow -
      I'm going to see I'm With Her with the Punch Brothers and Julian Lage next weekend. Can't wait!