Aspen Times Weekly cover story Part 2: Music up in her head |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story Part 2: Music up in her head

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Cover by Afton GroepperPhoto by Scott Simontacchi

When Sarah Jarosz got seriously interested in music, one of the things that appealed to her was how not-serious the music-making was. About 10 years ago, Jarosz and her mandolin began showing up at the Friday-night bluegrass jams at Collie’s, a burger joint in her hometown of Wimberley, Texas, 20 miles south of Austin. No one seemed to mind that she was 10 years old, new to her instrument and to the bluegrass genre.

“A big part of it was how welcomed I was,” Jarosz said of the appeal of those picking sessions. “As a little girl, that was so huge. It became a fun thing to do. As a little girl, it wasn’t this thing – practice eight hours a day, this really serious thing. I fell in love with it initially because it was so much fun.”

With that comfortable entry into performing, Jarosz became enthused about sharpening her skills. She attended the bluegrass camps at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, at Rockygrass in Lyons and at the Mandolin Symposium, led by top pickers David Grisman and Mike Marshall in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Three years ago, Jarosz took an even bigger step in her music education and began studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Jarosz, now 21, hasn’t gotten on the orchestral track; her major is contemporary improvisation, a small, 40-student department in the school of 750 students. Jarosz studies a range of styles including jazz singing, instrumental improvisation and ensemble playing, and she has dabbled in free jazz. Her main teacher has been Hankus Netsky, a multi-instrumentalist who specializes in klezmer, a dance music that originated among Jews in 19th-century Eastern Europe. Mixed in is a liberal-arts education that, depending on the semester, can be nearly as big a portion of her curriculum as music.

Also mixed in is a career. A few years after those bluegrass jams, Jarosz began playing gigs around Wimberley, then branched out to Austin and found she was a natural. “I knew early on, I loved performing, loved getting up in front of people,” she said. At the age of 16, she had her major breakthrough, with an invitation to play the main stage at Telluride Bluegrass. Performing under her own name, she was flanked by sidemen Marshall and cellist Ben Sollee. Backstage was like an all-you-can-meet buffet of her heroes: Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss. She also met Gary Paczosa, a producer who has worked with Krauss and Dolly Parton. Paczosa invited Jarosz to his studio in Nashville, Tenn.

“That was a big turning point in my life,” Jarosz said from near Birmingham, Ala., where she had played the night before. “I had grown up going to these festivals. So to have a main-stage set at that age, that was huge.”

The relationship with Paczosa led to a contract with Sugar Hill, a prominent North Carolina-based roots-music label whose roster has included Sam Bush, Nickel Creek and the late Doc Watson. In 2009, she released her debut album, “Song Up in Her Head,” which featured contributions from the picking world’s finest: Thile, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan. “Mansinneedof,” an instrumental written by Jarosz that featured Alex Hargreaves, a fiddler around the same age as Jarosz, earned a Grammy nomination. Last year came “Follow Me Down,” with a guest list that included Jerry Douglas, the Punch Brothers and Shawn Colvin. The album didn’t earn any Grammy attention but did win Jarosz mainstream praise; The New York Times called her “one of acoustic music’s most promising young talents.”

Around 2005, Jarosz began playing extensively with Hargreaves, an Oregon-bred musician who had been attending the same bluegrass camps as Jarosz. A couple of years later, Nathaniel Smith, a young cellist from Mississippi, joined the two to form what has been Jarosz’s regular trio. When Jarosz makes her valley debut, on July 26 at PAC3 in Carbondale, it will be in the combo with Hargreaves and Smith. Opening the show are Jamie Wilson and Kelley Mickwee of the young Texas-based, all-female group the Trishas.

The private school that Jarosz attended through eighth grade had what seems like a fairly determined music program. The program – which followed the Kodaly Method developed by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly and used the solfege approach, which teaches using the “do-re-mi” scale – included music theory as early as kindergarten.

Jarosz, for one, took the training to heart. It helped that her parents, both teachers, were music fanatics and brought Sarah along to concerts in Austin, particularly by singer-songwriters.

“I felt like some of my happiest memories were associated with music – driving in the car, going to see a show,” she said.

A memorable performance was by Nickel Creek, a trio of sensational pickers who, even to Jarosz’s adolescent eyes, seemed reasonably young.

“That was very inspiring to me. Because here’s some people not much older than me, rocking it, and it was awesome,” said Jarosz, who comes off a little kid-like herself – unguarded, enthusiastic.

Even as her career kicked quickly into gear, she kept her eye on conservatory. She wanted something like a typical college experience. Moreover, having been enveloped by the bluegrass world by age 10, she wanted to keep herself exposed to all kinds of music and all sorts of musicians.

“More than anything, it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone musically,” she said of her three years, with one more to go, at the New England Conservatory. “I’ve learned a lot of styles that would have taken me a lot longer to learn about or not as in depth as I have. It’s another community of musicians, outside the community I grew up in.”

Jarosz plays at bluegrass festivals (though she also has appeared twice at Bonnaroo) and plays bluegrass-type instruments (mandolin remains her main instrument, though she also plays clawhammer banjo, associated more with old-timey music than bluegrass). But like most acoustic pickers who have come up through the festivals in Telluride and Lyons, Jarosz has developed broad-minded, inclusive thinking about the music. “Follow Me Down” includes a version of the Radiohead tune “The Tourist” (a string-band cover of a Radiohead tune is pulled straight from the Punch Brothers book, and the Punch Brothers back her on the recording) and a take on Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.”

But Jarosz asserts her individuality even more with her own compositions, which can touch on atmospheric indie sounds, Irish accents and a folky singer-songwriter approach. “Annabelle Lee,” from “Follow Me Down,” is inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe poem, and Jarosz gives it an appropriately old-timey, minor-key setting.

“I don’t necessarily consider the songs I’m writing to be bluegrass. But it’s acoustic – I’m so inspired by that world and those people,” she said. “But for me, the way I grew up, I was encouraged to expand outside of the older stuff.”

“I want to keep doing what I’m doing and keep growing,” she added. “That’s why I went to music school – to keep surrounding myself with musicians who are better than me, who keep pushing me. It doesn’t get better than that, more rewarding than that.”

Jarosz is allowing herself plenty of room to keep growing as an artist. Her performance style to date has been on a relatively small scale, playing in a trio. (This summer, she also appeared as a solo act in a string of dates opening for Vince Gill’s bluegrass band.) She says she’s not closed off to the idea of expanding her combo.

“But I love the trio, trying to make it sound as full as it can with just the three of us,” she said.

And she hasn’t locked herself into a style; she could see moving past acoustic string sounds, even the expansive take on bluegrass she has been exploring.

“The goal is to be open to whatever,” she said. “I’m not going to force it to happen, but if it does happen, OK.”

For the moment, Jarosz is similar to most 21-year-olds going into their final year of college. She wants to keep her options open; she can see a lot of flexibility ahead. But even among her fellow students, Jarosz stands out a bit.

“Sometimes it’s interesting being the only one who’s gone every weekend, doing what I’m doing, which is gigging,” she said. “The majority of people at the New England Conservatory are just focused on the music, playing the music. They’re more focused on studying music than on figuring out a music career.”

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