This time last year, Sarah Jaffe decided to get away from it all. She had released two albums and toured around the world, and she knew that in order to be inspired she needed to get out of her comfort zone. Staying at home wouldn't do. So she rented a house in the small town of Marfa in southwest Texas for two weeks to be by herself and write.
"It was just kind of a glazed-over time," Jaffe recalls. She sits, arms folded and legs crossed, leaning back in a chair on the patio at Dream Cafe in Uptown. Dressed in ripped-up blue jeans and an old Robert Plant T-shirt, her face is obscured by a pair of black sunglasses. "I had to separate myself and try to gain some focus."
Back in 2012, Jaffe had released The Body Wins. The follow-up to her debut Suburban Nature, its emphasis on electronic beats marked a major step forward from her roots as an acoustic singer-songwriter. She worked on that album with noted producer John Congleton, but it had been a difficult experience as Jaffe struggled to get through writer's block and dealt with severe anxiety. "After Suburban Nature, I was basically cleaning my plate," she says. "I had been singing a lot of songs I'd been singing since high school."
A door seemed to open later that year when Jaffe was contacted by Waco-based hip-hop producer S1. Eager to have a chance to broaden her horizons, she composed a hook for a beat that S1 had sent her, called "Bad Guy." "I had been moving," she says, "and when he sent me that track the chorus just came out." The next thing she knew, "Bad Guy" had been picked up by Eminem and become the opening track on his The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
Being a part of such an unfamiliar process was a revelation for someone accustomed to more traditional pop songwriting. "We found out last minute that we had landed the track, because that's how the hip-hop world works. It was insane," Jaffe marvels. "You can be a massive part of a song and not know about it until you see the track listing," she adds. "But it's also kind of a thrill."
Meanwhile, the following spring, Jaffe had the opportunity to collaborate with an old friend, McKenzie Smith, the drummer for Midlake and owner of Denton's Redwood Recording Studio. Smith had admired Jaffe's work since he first saw her perform a solo acoustic set at Dan's Silverleaf several years prior. "After about a half song, the whole place was dead silent," he remembers, still in awe of the experience. "You could hear a pin drop."
Jaffe had toured as an opener with Midlake on multiple occasions, but she and Smith only first worked together on a recording for 35 Denton in March 2013. Having thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the two hit the studio a short time later to record two new songs of Jaffe's, "Satire" and "Defense," which were eventually released as singles later that summer. That is when she decided to head to Marfa.
The thing is, when Jaffe finally settled into her new temporary surroundings, isolated from distractions and left to her own creative devices, she quickly encountered a problem.
"I sat down and I couldn't make it to the second verse," she says. Looking back from a distance, Jaffe makes a disarmingly frank assessment of herself. "I think it's because I can only go so far musically," she concedes. "I know I can only play the guitar so well. I know my limitations."
Jaffe looks across the empty patio and takes off her sunglasses. Her eyes are pale green, almost gray, and fixed with an intent, thoughtful gaze. "I kind of realized that my most difficult points are me being by myself," she continues. "I realized it takes other people's creative energy to move past my own mental limitations."
Having hit an unexpected dead end, Jaffe reached out once more to her friend Smith. Picking up where they'd left off with "Satire" and "Defense," the pair reconvened at Smith's studio last January to record what eventually became Don't Disconnect -- Jaffe's third album, released August 19 on Dallas' Kirtland Records.
"We tracked like eight songs in three days. It was stupid," Jaffe says, almost embarrassed by how quickly the songs flowed once she and Smith started fleshing them out. "This pingpong energy we had together really created something that allowed me to release all of [my hang-ups.] It allowed me to not think so much or get trapped in my songwriting patterns -- not get trapped in my own head."
No doubt creating a relaxed atmosphere played an important role in the recording sessions. Both Jaffe and Smith make a point of mentioning their shared sense of humor. "Somebody I know who had never met Sarah before had it in her head that she would be this very serious and introverted person," Smith says. "But if you know Sarah well you know that she can be a complete goofball, just a very funny person."
All the same, Smith continues, there were some happy accidents along the way that helped ease the process. "A lot of her vocal takes were done sitting on a couch in the control room because we set up a microphone in there," he recalls. "We would get a few parts laid down and she would say, 'I really like this part. Let's just take it from here. I'll just lay down this vocal here so we can hear the melody.'" Many of those takes, done without the typical pressure of recording, would eventually make their way onto the finished album.
Granted, even if Jaffe has come to recognize some of her own shortcomings, singing continues to be where she can most naturally place her confidence. "I know that I can do more with my voice than any of the instruments that I can play," she insists. In many ways, the songs on Don't Disconnect are simple -- rhythmic, repetitive, direct -- with much of the nuance and subtlety of expression coming from Jaffe's voice.
Yet Jaffe, in sharp contrast to the difficulties she endured on The Body Wins, also found working in the studio to be a liberating experience. "[Writing] is my favorite -- to make something, to create something," she says. "You can have as many tries as you want to try something and play it back again. ... It's just the instant gratification, but also the comfort of knowing that no one is judging you."
While writing The Body Wins, Jaffe first started experimenting with using loop tracks. For Don't Disconnect, she brought those skeletal loops to Smith, who would lay down an idea for the drum track. As a result, the new record is full of slinky, sinuous jams. The bassline for "Satire," in particular, feels like it's straight out of Serge Gainsbourg's playbook.
All the same, Jaffe sees the same thread running through this record as those that came before. "I don't think my lyrics have really changed," she says. "Lyrics are always going to be a centerfold for me. Always. I don't think I could put out a song that didn't have some sort of importance to me."
Don't Disconnect touches on the sort of technological alienation and social media overload that its title suggests; the spiritual cul-de-sac of opener "Ride It Out" even references status updates. Along the way, Jaffe ruminates on political turmoil and, through songs like "Fatalist" and "Some People Will Tell You," wrestles with questions of morality, religion and conventional wisdom. Yet these issues are explored without the "militantness" that informed The Body Wins; here, Jaffe is informed by an acknowledgment of life's inescapable gray areas.
As a result, the idea of "connecting" runs deeper than buzzwords and hot-button issues. Ultimately, Don't Disconnect is a continuation of The Body Wins. Where that record took ownership of the self and identity, this one recognizes that doing so means keeping perspective on the relationships with those you love. That's why finale "Leave the Planet," with its hand-claps and reverb-drenched guitar line, feels like such a release: It revels in the simplicity of being and sharing it with others.
"It's amazing how [you] get really spoiled really quickly when you're getting to do what you love," Jaffe says, thoughtfully. "I find myself complaining about doing shit that I would've died to do when I was 16 or 17." That's why, even when she's on the road, sleep deprived and stuck in a van for weeks on end, she knows better than to want to get away. "Everyone's got their own personal shit going on. Everyone's got lives. It's hard. But it's not that hard, you know?"
SARAH JAFFE performs with John Pearson, 7 p.m. Saturday, August 23, at Majestic Theater, 1925 Elm St., majestic-theater.com.