Sarah Jaffe Faces One Last Hurdle

The worst-kept secret in Dallas music? C'mon, that's an easy one. It's Sarah Jaffe. Has been for some time now. Since before the 2008 release of Even Born Again, Jaffe's debut EP, it was clear that the indie-folk artist boasted something special—more than just one thing, actually.

For starters, there's her beautifully heartbreaking voice, which at once warbles, wavers and flutters—but in the best way possible, coming across as exposed and untamed, and yet surprisingly and pleasingly, somewhat ordinary. Like she could be your neighbor, your cousin, your best friend. Lyrically, that same accessibility is at play: She sings of ordinary things, of ordinary occurrences, and of not understanding the reasons behind these simple things happening around her—namely relationships, to be sure—things with which most everyone struggles. And then there's the musical accompaniment to these other stellar elements, a tasteful indie-folk blend that rises and builds and plods and thumps—not as a barrage of sounds with which to overwhelm the listener, but as adornments that are elegantly applied as necessary.

It's a powerful mix, one that's rightfully turned Jaffe into something of a local music heroine. Need we remind you that, with just her six-song EP to her name, Jaffe swept our 2008 Dallas Observer Music Awards? Yeah? Well she did, taking top honors in three of the awards' most prestigious categories that year: Best Solo Act, Best Folk Artist and Best Female Vocalist. Not bad a bad take for the shy then-22-year-old.

Two years later and on the verge of the release of her first full-length, Suburban Nature, which will officially be released by Dallas' own Kirtland Records on Tuesday (it's been available for download purchase for a few weeks now), Jaffe's grown a bit, and her music has too. But it's done so appropriately and progressively. As such, Suburban Nature, which Jaffe says is about the way growing up in the Dallas suburbs shaped her into the woman she is today, stands to propel her onto bigger and better things.

Should all go accordingly, at least. So far, it has: Early rave reviews are already trickling in at this point—among them, a four-star review from American Songwriter and a shout-out from Paste magazine deeming Jaffe as "the best of what's next." They're well-deserved nods, too; Suburban Nature shows Jaffe lyrically baring her soul with little restraint over music that deftly does the opposite.

And yet somehow Jaffe, despite all this praise, still seems nervous and tepid.

"It's a very weird thing," Jaffe says in a recent phone call during one of her few days off in the ramp-up to her new album's release. "Even the recognition that you do get. For me, the criticisms or whatever, they all get in my head. And there's a lot going on in my head."

It's a surprising offering from a singer who on record sounds so confident—at least vocally. Thematically, Suburban Nature reveals Jaffe as something of a nervous wreck, a struggle she still faces despite the experience she's gained in recent months touring in opening slots for fellow area luminaries Midlake and Norah Jones, who, fittingly, sit at opposite poles of Jaffe's sonic spectrum. It's a give-and-take relationship she has with her music—a relationship not unlike the one she sings of on Suburban Nature's "Vulnerable," which finds her stuck in a bond with someone who both preys on her weaknesses and praises those same flaws. When opening for Jones at the Fair Park Music Hall earlier this month, her main flaw came into light: Jaffe's still not completely comfortable on stage—perhaps too aware of her surroundings despite her often eyes-closed performance pose—and it showed in her few mumbled addresses to the audience. Granted, it was among the biggest stages upon which she's ever performed. But with her music's promise, it's a hurdle she'll be continually forced to face.

"There's a lot of it that's terrifying," she says of being on stage. "I mean, what if I fail? What if I fucking fail? You can't think like that."

She does think about it, though. Sings of it, too. On Suburban Nature's opus, "Pretender, Pt. 1" and its immediate follow-up "Pretender," Jaffe squarely faces her flaws, angrily lashing out at the way she finds herself pretending to be around others—or, really, the way everyone pretends to be around others.

"A lot of what I write is just about the way humans are," she says. "I think it's really fascinating the roles people take on with other people. I try to be a person that is constantly observing and learning."

In turn, she's becoming more comfortable with her own role. With some help from her friends in Midlake, who have been quick to support the young singer during times of frustration, Jaffe's started learning how to cope and how to feel like the performer she (and everyone else) knows she can become.

Now, she says, when she finds herself struggling with her vulnerability on stage, she has a process to go through: "I remind myself how blessed I am to be playing music and to have been given all these opportunities," she says. "Then it comes full circle."

Which is a good thing, no doubt. Because, though it's what makes her music so relatable, her head games are the last things holding her back.

"Once you get too locked up in your head, it's a slippery slope," she says, knowingly.

And once you've learned how to cope with it, you can work it to your advantage. Which is exactly what Jaffe hopes to do.

"I have to shake all that off now," she says before letting out a small laugh. "I mean, I've been doing this for long enough at this point."

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman