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Former Texan Sarah Jarosz Is Attracted to "Utter Fearlessness Within Music"

Former Texan Sarah Jarosz Is Attracted to "Utter Fearlessness Within Music"
Scott Simontacchi

For anyone paying attention, the term "prodigy" has been linked to Sarah Jarosz for years now. Such easy labeling is perhaps fair when you're an insanely talented teen or a college student with a fantastic album under your belt. But Jarosz, who grew up in Wimberley, Texas and now makes her home in New York is no longer the young phenom, regardless of her actual age. She's a poised and skilled vet that's continuing to open eyes and ears around the country as her excellent new album; Build Me Up From Bones rightfully collects hosannas. This is her third full-length from roots-kingpin Sugar Hill Records in four years, and now she doesn't have college courses to balance with her run as a full-time artist.

Indeed, each offering has shown growth and a heightened sense of confidence Jarosz has honed when performing on some of the largest stages the Bluegrass world has to offer. More so than other albums, the new record seems to represent the variety of styles that she's absorbed over the years. With Jarosz swinging through Dallas for a show at the Kessler Theater this week, we recently caught up with the 22 year-old to discuss Bluegrass snobbery, soaking up the Musical Conservatory experience and Andy Samberg's significant other.

Many genres have their own sets of snobs and purists. Do you feel like "Bluegrass snobbery" is on the decline, thanks to emerging ways to employ variety, or is it as steadfast as it has always been in your opinion?

I think there will always be purists out there no matter what genre you're talking about. And honestly, I think to a certain extent, that's a good thing. I wouldn't have been so emerged in the bluegrass tradition early on in my life were it not for the people who studied it closely and passed down the traditional music relatively unscathed. However, the musicians who I most often find myself looking up to, and in-turn, wanting to model myself after are those that recognize and honor tradition but aren't afraid to move beyond it and make something new. It's that utter fearlessness within music that I find myself most attracted to, and that is a trait that goes above and beyond genre or labeling of any kind.

When writing and recording the new album, how much emphasis was placed on being able to replicate the songs in a live setting?

One of the biggest differences between this album and my previous two was the decision to include a lot more of Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith, who are the other two members of the trio I have toured with for the past few years. So automatically by including them, the recorded songs were geared more towards incorporating the sound we create together at the live shows. I certainly didn't view that as a limitation in the studio, either. Having worked with Gary Paczosa on all of my CDs thus far, we have developed a great sense of honest communication, and he always pushes me to allow the songs to reach their full potential. So I didn't feel that any of the songs had to just stop at a point when they couldn't necessarily be easily reproduced in a live setting. I really appreciate that about working with Gary. His work ethic is inimitable, and he's never afraid to consistently push boundaries and experiment with any of the songs and see what shape they could take.

Do you envision a time when you record an album of tunes that are primarily plugged-in and electric?

I could definitely see that happening at some point. I'm not one who's quick to close any sort of doors, especially when it comes to music. Right now, the new album still feels so fresh to me, so I think it will take time for me to discover what lies ahead within my music.

Fans and critics often refer to a roots and folk explosion of the past few years thanks to bands like Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers. You've been at this for years, not to mention artists such as Carrie Rodriguez, Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have been popular for a while. What do you think of the fuss that's been made of this so-called explosion?

Well I certainly understand why critics refer to it as an explosion considering the massive fan following that bands like that have obtained. I had the chance to open for Mumford and Sons at the Telluride Bluegrass Fest back in 2010 when they were first getting really big over here in the states. They're all incredibly nice guys and I'm happy for all of the success that they've had. I think if they've been able to turn some people on to more traditional music by way of theirs, then there's nothing wrong with that.  

The Joanna Newsom song "Book of Right On," from both a sonic and lyrical perspective, doesn't seem like a song that you would've covered for your last record. Is that fair to say?

I've been very interested in Joanna Newsom's music for quite some time now. Her voice is obviously unique, and I find her use of textures to be really interesting and fresh. I think I totally would have been interested in a song like that earlier than this record, but the arrangement that I worked up with Alex and Nat definitely took time to come to fruition, so it didn't feel completely ready until this record. Also, with that in mind, the quirkiness of the song stood out to me as different from the rest of the material on this record, which is why I wanted to include it alongside those other songs.

Bluegrass artists have long worked-up some great covers of rock and indie tunes. You obviously enjoy doing that, too. Is there a song that you have wanted to cover -- or still want to -- but it's just too extreme of a choice, even for fun's sake?

So far I don't think there's a cover that I've been interested in learning that's felt too extreme. That's the fun thing about doing covers in the first place. It sort of gives me a chance to try something else, even if it is radically different, and still infuse it with my own musicality.

On that note, what's the album released in the past year or two that you love which would surprise people the most?

Honestly, I feel like I listen to so much old music. I'm constantly discovering old albums - which I love, because they're old, but they're new to me. An album which I've been rediscovering as of late which has always been one of my absolute favorites is Nat King Cole's After Midnight Sessions. It's so great! New music which I've been obsessed with is that of the Milk Carton Kids, who are actually opening a bunch of the Texas shows, including Dallas. I just think they're spectacular. Everything from the singing, to the musicianship, to the songs -- truly refreshing music. I just can't get enough. Their records have been on constant repeat for the last couple of months.

Did your time at the Conservatory give you a greater appreciation for a variety of styles outside of acoustic and bluegrass?

Definitely. That was a big part of my decision to study there in the first place. I think I recognized that's what I wanted to get out of music school, a chance to be pushed out of musical comfort zone. And I certainly was. I was learning and playing everything from Abbey Lincoln to Michael Jackson to Ornette Coleman, and the list goes on. What a gift it was to be able to study and learn from that faculty. I will forever cherish my four years there.

Sarah Jarosz Performs With The Milk Carton Kids on Wednesday Night at the Kessler in Dallas

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