Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz grew up in the arms of the bluegrass and folk community. She released her first album at age 18 with contributions from a long list of renowned musicians, including Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Chris Thile. In recent years, she’s won a Grammy for her 2016 album, Undercurrent, and released an album and toured the world with Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins as the band I’m With Her. She regularly joins Live from Here as a duet partner, wielding her impressive voice, a talent for multiple instruments, and an arsenal of wisely-written songs.
You got into music at a pretty young age; how did you get started?
Music has been in my life for as long as I can really remember being alive. It's just always been around. My parents are big, big music lovers. My mom has always sung and played guitar as a hobby, so I think that maybe my earliest memory of music was her playing and writing songs and singing. And then my dad is voracious music listener, so he would always be buying records and playing records throughout the house or in the car, all over the place. So it's always been around and I started singing at a very young age, around like two or three. It was something that always came naturally and I just really loved to do as a kid.
I didn't start playing the mandolin until I was nine, almost ten years old. My parents bought me a mandolin for Christmas when I was nine because we had started getting really into Nickel Creek and Hot Rize and some more acoustic bluegrass bands. I was showing interest and a friend let me borrow a mandolin for a while and I really loved it and that was it. They bought the mandolin for me that Christmas and then shortly thereafter I started going to a weekly bluegrass jam in my hometown of Wimberley, Texas, which is just south of Austin. That was where I started improvising and learning songs from all these amazing people that went there and it grew from there expanding out into the Austin music scene and then eventually festivals and shows outside of Texas.
What kind of music were your parents listening to? Was it a lot of bluegrass or was it other stuff?
I would say that initially bluegrass was a very, very small percentage of what we would listen to. Some of my earliest memories are a lot of Texas singer/songwriters. People like Nancy Griffith and Guy Clark and Shawn Colvin. Shawn Colvin has been maybe one of my biggest influences, even to this day. So I think that was a lot of the music, but then everything from Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon. And then in high school I got really into bands like The Decemberists and Wilco and Radiohead. It was a little bit all over the place.
Even now music is a major unifying factor in my relationship with my parents. It's so special that we get to all share music together. It brings us close even to this day.
That part of Texas is such a music-rich place, which must have been very fostering for you. Do you remember what your first live music experience was?
I have vague memories of falling asleep to Bill Staines concerts as a kid — I mean, falling asleep because I was little!
I hardly ever remember having a baby sitter growing up. My parents just took me with them to see live music all of the time. As I said earlier being around music and being around people who are a lot older than me felt like a natural thing from a pretty young age.
When did you first meet Chris Thile?
I met Chris very shortly after I got my first mandolin, so I was nine. It was at this festival just outside of Austin called the Old Settler's Music Festival and Nickel Creek was playing that year as well as John Hartford. Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott were also there that year.
I was pretty obsessed with Nickel Creek at that point. I remember they did a workshop earlier in the day before their set and I went up to all of them afterward, but especially Chris because of the mandolin connection, and he knelt down and signed my festival program and he said, “Let's jam sometime.” And honestly, however cheesy it sounds, that was a big moment for me because I went home and I was like, “I've got to get good enough to jam with Chris Thile.”
How has that relationship grown? Has he felt like a mentor to you?
I would say that Chris has been the most consistently encouraging and present musical force in my life since that first meeting. I went home and proceeded to work really hard at the mandolin and music. Through my preteen and high school years I would continue to go see Nickel Creek whenever they would come through. At that time, if I was eleven or twelve, they were probably about twenty-one or twenty-two. They were coming out after shows, playing tunes outside of their bus and I started bringing my mandolin and Chris would play some tunes with me after the show outside of the bus. Eventually, they'd have me sit in.
Especially now being a professional musician, I absolutely do not take it for granted because I know how crazy touring is and I know how little alone time and free time you have. The fact that Chris was just so giving and generous with his time to help me try to become a better musician, it's something I'm so thankful for.
One of your main roles on the show is singing duets with Chris and you guys sound very natural together, maybe just by virtue of having played together for so long. Does it feel as natural as it sounds?
It's been maybe one of the most uniquely musically challenging and fulfilling situations, simultaneously. I think the challenging part being the Song of the Week, just the last-minute nature of learning that level of music. It's never lost on me how incredible all the musicians that he has on the show are, and the band, and the fact that people can work up music that quickly. It's so fun to be amongst musicians of that level.
It's been such a fun challenge in that sense, really keeping me on my toes musically. The other aspects of it do feel natural, like singing with Chris and even going out for the warmups before the show. We have such a shared love of repertoire just because we both grew up in the bluegrass world, and we can pull a Hot Rize song out of our back pocket or do “Deep River Blues,” a Doc Watson song. It's fun to share that part of the music, too, the old songs that we both love. And in that's sense it's always felt really natural to be singing alongside him.
How much are you involved in choosing those pieces for the show when you're on? Does Chris text you and say, “We've got a few places for songs, what do you want to do?”
The duet partner always gets a feature, but sometimes he'll say, “I'd love for you to prepare two things just in case we have time.” Or, more recently, he's been asking for my input on another song, so I've been suggesting things. Like at the Wolf Trap show we did this Vampire Weekend song called “Unbelievers,” and another suggestion of mine was this Gillian Welch song, “Revelator,” which we did at Town Hall. It's awesome when he asks for input. And sometimes on birthdays he'll say, “It's this person's birthday, what's your favorite tune of theirs?” Stuff like that.
Do you have a favorite moment from the show so far?
The entire Telluride show, it just felt so full circle. There was a moment when Chris commented that all of our parents – me, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and his parents – were sitting together in the second row, and for him to acknowledge that on the show was very wonderful, but also just having all of the parents be there from far and wide, that's really where it's at. To be on that stage where I got to perform when I was sixteen and then to be standing there alongside Chris doing Live From Here, it was just mind boggling and extremely special.
This season you shared parts of your Blue Heron Suite on the show. Talk a little about your approach to writing that composition and why you wanted to play it on the show.
The Freshgrass Festival commissioned me to do that in 2017. I've never been asked to do anything like that before. Basically the only rule that I was given was that the piece had to be anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes in length, and it could be whatever format I wanted it to be, but it should be something cohesive. I wound up basically turning it into a song cycle. It's inspired by my family. My parents were teachers and had the summers off, so we would often travel down to the Texas coast near Corpus Christi, this town called Port Aransas, and for as long as I can remember we've always seen blue herons down there on the beach.
My mom was dealing with some health issues last year and the blue heron has kind of become a symbol for our family of hope and strength through hard times. So, dealing with all of that, I decided I wanted the piece to be about that and what the blue heron meant to me and my mom, especially.
In terms of choosing to play a few of the parts on the show, I think it was just when Chris emails and asks, “What do you want your song to be this week?” It's always fun to do something original, and I think I had played almost everything from Undercurrent at that point.
I had written the Blue Heron Suite songs for a trio, but it was so fun to rework them with the house band and have them become these bigger pieces.
How much work does it take to translate something for the house band in a week?
You know, surprisingly little communication. The musicians get a recording of the song a few days ahead of time and then they also get a chart that Richie [Dworsky] writes up for them. So with the combination of those two things, most times it’s pretty close on first play.
I mean, there's always tweaks and notes. Especially for me, the thing that's taken the most time is that I have never played with a drummer on any of my solo shows, so learning how to communicate with a drummer has been a fun part of being on the show. Every drummer that Chris has is just so dynamic and tasteful and knows how to play with acoustic musicians, so that doesn't hurt. It's really fun to get to work up my songs with the house band.
You've also been featured on the show with Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins as the band I’m With Her. You have been busy this year releasing a record and touring — how's that going?
It's been so amazing. I feel like this band is another great example of things feeling full circle. In addition to Chris, I looked up to Sara, obviously, in Nickel Creek, Aoife in Crooked Still, and now we're just getting to make music together. It does feel really special this year to finally have that album out and [be on] tour, considering that we'd already been performing together for a year. It feels like the beginning in many ways and I think that we’re all in it for the same reasons — just wanting to create great music together. And also we really love hanging out together so that doesn't hurt. It's just fun being on the road with two of my best friends.
What is writing with them like?
It's felt really natural from the beginning of us trying to write together. Over the first year we were just working up other people’s songs and arranging them for the band. Arranging is a unique skill and to do that with two other people you get a sense for what they are gravitating towards, what they are hearing, different textures, even song choices.
I think it was really important to us to have a year to do that. The pressure was off a little because the song was already there, and you can kind of be musical without having to create the song. So when it came time to actually create songs, we had that experience and time under our belts and I think that made it a little easier.
What’s coming up next for you?
I'm With Her is going to continue to tour through next summer, which is really awesome. But in the meantime, I’m just hoping to do a lot more Live From Here whenever I can squeeze it in when I’m off the road!