Sarah Jarosz grew up in the small, artistic town of Wimberley, Texas, about 30 miles from Austin. As a kid, she began impressing the community with her prodigious mandolin playing, and from there, she branched out to the wide, wonderful world of music festivals — old-time, bluegrass and beyond.
As a teenager she signed with Sugar Hill Records, then enrolled at New England Conservatory on scholarship to nurture her innovative approach to bluegrass music. When she tours, she brings along her mandolin, clawhammer banjo, acoustic guitar and octave mandolin, as well as a few original songs. (She cites Shawn Colvin and Gillian Welch as two of her major influences.)
Last month, her travels carried her back to Nashville — the same town where she recorded her second album, Follow Me Down. After a well-received acoustic performance at CMT, the 20-year-old cheerfully chatted about meeting her heroes, finding inspiration in unexpected places and finally getting her driver’s license.
CMT: How has the festival circuit affected the way you approach music?
Jarosz: Festivals are one of my favorite things about this whole music scene. Growing up as a young musician and a young girl just getting into the bluegrass scene, festivals were always great because so many of my heroes and the people that I grew up listening to were just hanging out. They were super accessible and almost always jamming, so it was really easy to learn from them. They’re also willing to pass on the tradition to the younger generation. At festivals, that’s where it really comes through.
What was it about the mandolin that grabbed your attention right off?
My parents are big music lovers. There was always music playing on the radio and on the stereo. I remember hearing [bluegrass band] Hot Rize when I was little and hearing the sound of the mandolin and really loving it. When I was almost 10, a friend of mine let me borrow a mandolin. I found out about this weekly bluegrass jam in my hometown of Wimberley, Texas, and just started going to that every week. I fell in love with it immediately. I was lucky to go to a jam where there were really supportive, encouraging people. Every week I’d go, and they’d show me something new. I think that sense of encouragement really drew me into it.
You’ve drawn a lot of comparisons to Gillian Welch. Have you worked with her before?
I opened a show for her and Dave [Rawlings] once down in Austin. I mean, to have that comparison is pretty cool. She really has been one of my top heroes of all time. I’ve always respected people who are amazing singers and songwriters and instrumentalists. I’d definitely put her up there. That comparison means a lot!
What is it about her music that really draws you in?
It’s the rawness of it. She writes these amazing songs, and there’s not much embellishment. They can stand on their own. I think that’s what I love.
On your album, “Annabelle Lee” is based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It has that Old World sound. Does that dark and macabre style inspire you a lot?
Yeah, it does. Going back to Gillian, too, that’s another thing that I’ve loved — the dark nature of the songs. I’ve always been drawn to things like that. With a tune like “Annabelle Lee,” it’s not quite the exact poem. I changed around some of the words, but just reading an old poem like that, which kind of evokes an even older feeling beyond when it was written, kind of inspires an old-timey nature of that tune. Yeah, I definitely draw a lot of inspiration from trying to put myself in old shoes.
I understand you’re studying contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory. What does that entail?
The majority of students at NEC are classical musicians, but there is an amazing jazz program. Off of that is contemporary improvisation, which kind of evolved out of this third-stream methodology which initially was kind of a blending of jazz and classical. Now it’s turned into just the development of your personal style. So many original things go on, and I’m constantly inspired on a daily basis by my classmates who approach music with a “no boundaries” attitude. It’s really cool. There are a lot of different things that go into that program. I was studying tonal harmony and more of the classical counterpoint theory of it all. But also, there are liberal arts and music history requirements. And private lessons where the cool stuff usually happens, listening to records or learning new tunes. It’s a great program. I’m definitely happy.
You just got your driver’s license recently, right?
Yeah, last summer. I’ve only had it about a year. Actually, while working on writing the tunes for the new CD and starting to record, Gary [Paczosa, her producer] taught me how to drive. (laughs) I had done a little bit with my parents at home in Texas, but it was during my downtime here in Nashville that I really got some good driving hours in.
What do you like to listen to in the car when you’re driving?
All different stuff. I love bands like the Decemberists. They’re great car music. Wilco is another favorite band. Sometimes it’s just awesome to drive to bluegrass and country. Put on some Ralph Stanley. (laughs)
With everything you’ve got going on, do you ever just have time to be 20 years old?
It’s rare, but I’m getting to travel with two of my best friends, [fiddler] Alex Hargreaves and [cellist] Nathaniel Smith. They’re younger than me, and we have a blast traveling together. … That was one of the main reasons I decided to go to college — not only to further my music education, but to have just my college years. Still, a lot of my weekends are taken up with gigs and things, but there’s a great community of friends there and I have a lot of fun.
You have such chemistry with your band. What do you do when you have a day off?
Well, for instance, yesterday was one of our days off and we went into Gary’s studio and just jammed — but not on our normal instruments. Alex was on drums, and Nat was on Wurlitzer [electric piano] and I was on electric guitar. (laughs) And it was a blast because so much of our time on the road is spent playing new songs and doing radio and shows, so it was nice to have some downtime to just jam.