When I saw Sarah Jaffe last year at South by Southwest, she was wading through the flood of publicity and critical adoration that accompanied her 2010 debut, Suburban Nature. As she sang her folk songs to a packed house at Momo's, the whole first row mirrored every word right back. I couldn't help but notice she looked a little nervous in the spotlight.
"I always grew up on the outskirts of these very strange suburbs, and it was sort of an isolating feeling," she told me a few weeks before that year's festival. "So it's like going back to that place, those houses, those people, looking at all these lives. I wanted to apply that physical setting, give the album a relational aspect to where I was coming from."
We spoke again a few months later, in the fall of 2011. She'd just released The Way Sound Leaves a Room, an interstitial album of demos and covers. This time the isolation was coming from somewhere different: writer's block.
Sarah Jaffe performs on Saturday, May 5, at the Granada Theater.
"After touring with Midlake last summer, I was inspired but stuck, and I started to resent it," she said. "But I've never had a strategy. I think momentum and physical movement play a huge role in curing writer's block. Being on tour definitely got the wheels turning, not being able to sit down and write on an instrument. Having to write in my head, and fidget with lyrics. Driving and movement. Hindsight and perspective."
With all this context, seeing her last month, on stage at Austin's Club de Ville for another turn at SXSW, was a bit jarring. She had a new look to go with new songs from her follow-up, The Body Wins, her fourth for Dallas' Kirtland Records. They were no longer about where she came from, but rather a struggle between body and mind; between image, identity and sexuality. Gone was her acoustic guitar, replaced with a bass and more sense of rhythm and soul, putting those concepts of momentum and movement into practice.
That The Body Wins is Jaffe's sophomore album historically adds to the pressure — pressure that's on her mind as we sit on the patio of Dream Cafe, eating salads and drinking iced tea on a recent afternoon. She wears a Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg shirt, black jeans and boots. Her hair's dyed platinum blonde, buzzed short on the sides. With her sunglasses on, she looks a bit like Robyn, an artist she admires and has covered.
"I came to realize, after Suburban Nature, that things are going to be forever different for me," she says. "Before I even recorded anything, I had this slew of songs, but I'm not writing for myself anymore. I'm writing to please, which I hate. I want to write for me. I used to sit and just map those out, write the lyrics. That doesn't happen anymore."
You know that feeling when you reach for your wallet and realize it's gone? That's sort of how I interpret writer's block: that unique surge of panic and dread. It's something I struggled with recently as well, a certain kind of mental paralysis, a fugue state where creativity and flow are suspended just out of reach, like balloons before they drop on a surprise party or 100th customer. There's a line in "The Way Sound Leaves a Room," which was reworked for The Body Wins, that sort of points to that feeling: "For years it would stand there, till you called it out by name in fear."
With the weight of writer's block, there usually comes a crack in the foundation, a fissure that lets a little light in. I ask about her relationship with Dallas' ubiquitous John Congleton, who produced The Body Wins.
"I had a full-on anxiety meltdown in the studio," she says. "I was done. I couldn't do it. And John, after that, he made me send him every scrap of demo I had. And I fought him about it, but he was not kidding. He said, 'Send them to me. Everything you've been working on for the last year. Every scrap of lyric or melody. I don't care how embarrassed you are.' And I did. And about three or four songs came out of it."
Having Congleton there to pick up those scraps of lyric and melody and forge them into almost half an album points to why he's so sought after. His fingerprints are all over it, right down to that signature drum sound, and Jaffe talks about him more as a partner than a producer.
It's easy to draw comparisons between Jaffe and Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, whom Congleton also produced. But not because they're females working in the same medium. Both The Body Wins and last year's Strange Mercy are departures from the artists' previous sound and image, and Congleton has a unique intuition with rhythm and vocal. The album is one that benefits from headphones, so you can hear all those textured layers and intricate bridges. He, too, realized the need to diverge from Suburban Nature.
"When we did Suburban Nature, it was obvious how it should sound, just as it was obvious that this one should sound different," Congleton says. "Suburban Nature is like a literal photograph, whereas this record is more of an oblique, mysterious painting. It was just obvious we should go broader, not only sonically but harmonically; the structures and vocals are just more atypical. I think it's more interesting when artists arc their output like that anyways. I mean, Scorsese didn't do Hugo first, he did Mean Streets. He did what he knew and then branched out. That is more interesting to me than someone trying to make Sgt. Pepper's in their dorm room the first time out of the gate."
In addition to the music being more nuanced, the album cover is highly stylized; Jaffe is framed from the side, her hair flicked skyward. The colors are muted, earthy. Compare that with the cover of Suburban Nature: Jaffe, quadruple-exposed, sitting in what looks like a living room. Possibly it's summer, and the album is filled with songs she wrote in high school, possibly within those walls.
Jaffe grew up in Red Oak, just north of Waxahachie. She attended and sang in a Baptist church. Like many brought up in a church environment, Jaffe doesn't go to church anymore, though she chooses to believe in something higher.
"I hope there's something else there, but sometimes it's just total chaos," she says. "I still have an intense bitterness towards Christianity. I just found it all to be about loopholes. People saying, 'You can't be homosexual, but I'm going to sleep with this person before I'm married.' Why can't you just love people? And I know people I grew up with, who are good Christian people, who do believe in something."
Suburban Nature and The Body Wins are essentially two different seasons, divided by The Way Sound Leaves a Room, which features Jaffe on the cover in another room/season/guise. It's easy to forget she's only 26, and that in our early 20s, women are often eager to adopt and shed personae quickly. Every artist wants and needs to evolve, and she seemed to realize that almost immediately after Suburban Nature came out. Those were songs she'd written in another lifetime, and though she says she's still proud of them, there's naturally a bit of hesitancy in revisiting them.
Beyond shrugging off that old image, the instrument that was her guide as a teenager became part of the problem too.
"First of all, I couldn't hear the acoustic guitar anymore," she says. "I would try to write with it, and it was just white noise. It was just too familiar." She took up the bass and drums, both instruments she had to learn, as a way to circumvent that noise.
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She seems more comfortable with her voice, too, no longer whispering plaintively over ballads, but getting up into a soulful R&B register (the piano-driven "Mannequin Woman," loping slow-jam closer "When You Rest"). Not all of it works, like the archly dramatic "Hooray For Love" or lukewarm club toe-dipper "Talk." Elsewhere, she returns to the subtle lyrics/guitar equation, as on "Foggy Field": "Some memories you will make up, to fill the gaps fate fucked up." For an album called The Body Wins, Jaffe seems to be more in control of her vision.
"My sister always has these off-the-cuff sayings," she explains of her older sister, Jessica. "And we were talking about a year and a half ago about love and how, in a relationship, sometimes it's not enough. And she said, 'The body always wins,' and immediately it was a song title. It applied to so many different things. The body is symbolic, and then the inevitable happens; you romanticize it and battle with it."
Out on tour, where Jaffe wrote many of the songs, she says it's a different sort of muscle memory and disorientation. "Your body gets used to the action of going somewhere, but forgets what its actual purpose is," she adds.
When I randomly run into her later that night at the Slip Inn, we're both dancing to Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing." I take a picture with her friends and sister. We drink and sing along to early '90s hip-hop and let our bodies do what they want, without worrying about purpose. I see a woman on the verge of something big, but right now she is enjoying being 26, in that way we all deserve to at that age.