Sarah Jarosz grew up with music, but now she’s finding the music is growing up with her.
Jarosz will perform at the Freshgrass Bluegrass Festival at Mass MoCA on Friday, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m.
Austin, Texas. native Jarosz was 18 when she recorded her first album. Now 22, she’s able to look back at her two previous recordings and see her own growth on her latest, “Build Me Up From Bones,” which is due to be released on Sept. 24.
“I think my music has definitely changed and evolved as I hoped it would,” Jarosz said. “I think a lot of that comes form my time spent at the New England Conservatory in Boston. I just graduated there in May. I think a lot of the musical inspiration from that really affected the songs on this record. Also, just including the trio more or less, fiddle and cello, that was a big change on this record, more of a use of negative space in a way, if I could say that. I’m just trying to push my songwriting further, too.”
Jarosz is given the tag “bluegrass” and she certainly runs in those circles, but she’s not entirely sure that her music strictly falls into that category, especially following her recent work.
“I’m not quick to say that my music is bluegrassy, because I don’t think it is, just in the traditional sense of what bluegrass is,” said Jarosz. “Certainly, it incorporates acoustic instruments and has some of the same instrumentation. It’s more of a departure from that, at least in terms of the songs and structure, and texturally, with the different instruments, some electric stuff going on. Also, cello is not generally thought of as a bluegrass instrument.”
Collaborator Nathaniel Smith’s cello, one of the defining differences in her sound, has been a part of Jarosz’s music for the last three years.
“I knew Nat long before I went to the New England Conservatory,” she said, “and I have always known that I wanted to incorporate the cello into my songs and music, so I think NEC only pushed that further with arrangement ideas and stuff like that.”
Jarosz also credits the New England Conservatory for help with her lyrics, which now pull from experience with contemporary poetry that she feels has freed her of structure, opening her up to new depth in what she conveyed, and bringing the influences of her college years to their fullest form so far.
“A lot of these songs are more image-driven than in the past and that was something that was enticing to me, but it’s all just a gradual growth, it takes time,” said Jarosz. “I feel like this is the first record that my time in Boston really affected. Even though I was at NEC while I was working on my second record, I feel like it took the full four years to have a lot of that experience at school and in Boston in general sink in.”
Jarosz has been a life-long singer, but she embraced mandolin when she was 10 years old.
“That’s when I really thought ‘this is cool, this is something I want to get serious about,’ “ she said.
Her parents were big music lovers, who took her around to see all kinds of live music and exposed her to a variety of sounds, including mandolin, on records at home at a very early age. Her first experience with mandolin was one she borrowed from a friend in another town, just to see if she liked it.
“Around the same time, I found out about this weekly Friday night bluegrass jam and started going to that,” Jarosz said. “I fell in love with the community of folks and just the nature of the music, passing around the circle, the songs, trying to take solos. I was only 10, but it was really fun. I was a small, little girl, so the mandolin seemed to fit my size.”
Jarosz continued to work at mandolin with others and by herself, but she credits the connects she made through the instrument as the real driving force behind her embrace of music.
“I certainly did a lot of playing alone in my room and a few lessons here and there, but I think the reason I really fell in love with it was because it was this community-driven thing,” said Jarosz. “And then, shortly thereafter, I started going to these music camps around the country, on the West Coast, California and also Colorado, and started meeting kids my own age who were into it, and that’s when I really felt like this is cool, this is a lot of fun, I want to keep working at this.”
Six years later, she began to think seriously that playing mandolin could actually be her real job.
“I think the turning point, when I thought that it could be my job, was when I was 16,” Jarosz said. “I had my first opportunity to play my set at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. That’s where I met Gary Paczosa, who co-produced all these records. He’s really done so much for me and my music. Just meeting him there was a turning point, thinking, ‘Okay, maybe this really could be my life.’ “
Going to college had been a long-time goal of hers and she had no desire to turn her back on that, even though her music career was taking off. She looked to her community for some guidance in this decision, which lead her to Boston.
“A lot of the friends that I was meeting at music camps in the summer, who I became very close with, were migrating to Boston and the music scene there,” Jarosz said. “I knew I wanted to be in Boston and then it was sort of through my friend, Aoife O’Donovan in the band Crooked Still, and the bass player, Cory DiMario, they both went to New England Conservatory, so they were the first people who told me about it. I checked out the program and thought that it was a perfect fit for me and that it would take me out of my musical comfort zone a little bit, or a lot.”
Jarosz juggled school and career for the four years — each one affected the other, but now Jarosz says the she’s happy to take the fruits of one area of sacrifice in order to build up a whole musical existence for the first time ever.
“I wasn’t playing a ton around Boston regularly, just because I already had records out and was with Sugar Hill, so a lot of my free time from school was spent touring and making records,” she said. “It was like a balancing act. And, in a lot of my downtime from school, I would come to Nashville or fly elsewhere to play and tour and record, so it was a juggling act, so to speak, of those two different things going on at the same time. I’m so happy I had that experience and got through all four years, but it’ll be interesting to see now that I don’t have that and I can focus on the career side of it now.”
As for what Jarosz sees coming next, that’s a question that’s hard for her to answer. She’s too busy living the moment and seeing what lessons come of that to just look ahead and try to figure it all out now.
“It still feels so fresh that I’m done with school it’s hard to even have that sink in on a deep level,” said Jarosz. “I feel like I’m still figuring out what my next set of goals are, now that I’ve finished that big one. Obviously to keep touring and recording, but I think I’ll figure out the next big dreams in the next year or so. It almost seems too fresh and ripe to answer that question.”