Sarah Jarosz was 10 years old and learning the mandolin when she started playing Friday night bluegrass jams on the back porch of a catfish restaurant in her hometown of Wimberley, Texas. Before she was a senior in high school, she had a record deal.
A graduate of the New England Conservatory, Jarosz, who was nominated for a Grammy when she was 19, plays in a style dubbed “chamber-grass,” drawing on both folk-driven bluegrass and classical music. Though that genre may not do Jarosz justice, judging by the covers she’s recorded, including songs by Tom Waits, Radiohead and Joanna Newsom.
On Nov. 17, Jarosz is returning to WorkPlay with her newest record, Build Me Up from Bones — a collection that’s both beautifully haunting and hopeful.
Weld: How was it that you came to the mandolin?
Sarah Jarosz: Music was part of my life for as long as I can remember. I went to this little private school, and there were these great music teachers. That really helped me get an early start with loving music, mainly singing back then. When I was 10, I picked up the mandolin for the first time. My parents are huge music lovers so there would always be music playing around the house. I found out about the weekly bluegrass jam. I fell in love with the scene and the people there.
Weld: What was the scene like?
SJ: I was really little at the time, but Mike Bond, who ran the jam, made me feel like a part of that community. He invited me to take solos. Everyone was like that in the jam. Eventually the guy who wound up building the banjo that I play now, Bernard Mollberg, I met him at the jam.
Weld: How did you decide to go to the New England Conservatory for the contemporary improvisation program?
SJ: I knew that I wanted to live in Boston. Throughout high school I started going to music camps and festivals throughout the country in Colorado or California and made friends every summer. A lot of those people were making the move to Boston. The music scene was becoming exciting up there. … It just seemed to be offering up what I was looking for in terms of a musical education. I knew I wanted to go to college because I didn’t want to go straight out on the road after high school.
Weld: And you got into art and poetry writing while you were there?
SJ: That was an unexpected venture of school. Having the chance to write poetry…to have the freedom to write creatively outside of a song structure was good for me. It’s easy as a songwriter to get locked into this kind of same pattern and flow of verse, chorus, verse, chorus. … I think it really helped me break out of that and try to experiment more with imagery.
Weld: Did that change the way you approached composing, too?
SJ: A big part of that was that the teacher, Ruth Lepson, focused on the sound of the words and how that shapes the poem itself. We focused a lot on not just thinking about the meaning of the words, but the sounds they create, too. I feel so new to it, but it’s something I want to keep exploring.
Weld: When you sit down to write a song, does it start with melody, a mood, a lyric?
SJ: It definitely changes from song to song. I guess I’m out of a songwriting habit right now. Whenever I first come out with a new CD, I’m focusing on the performance aspect. When I am in writing mode, I try to take down little snippets of ideas as they come. The notes app on my phone is handy for that. For the song “Build Me Up From Bones,” I remember that started with just writing down the line, “the moon’s a fingernail scratching on the back of the night.” I wrote that down one day and didn’t think about it for a couple months. Simultaneously to that, I’m recording little melodic ideas. My process is going back through those little ideas and trying to build a bigger thing. Very rarely does it happen where it all kind of seems to happen at once and come together. That’s a pretty special, rare thing.
Weld: Do you feel as if you’re better suited for the performance aspect or writing? Does one inform the other?
SJ: Those things feed into one another really well, especially for my personality. I feel very introverted at times, and I’m happy to be able to express that through the intimate act of songwriting. Then again, for as long as I can remember, I loved expressing myself through performance. It wouldn’t be enough to just have one of those in my life. There’s balance.
Weld: The record is full of sorrow or feeling lost and is both haunting and beautiful. There seems to be a thematic thread. Was that intentional?
SJ: Not really, to be honest. I think things come song by song, which is how I seem to be perceiving the world around me in that moment. In retrospect, after the CD was completed, I noticed there were four or five songs that mentioned the moon, and I totally didn’t plan that, but maybe it had some kind of force over me for the writing on this record, because it does hold a prominent place in these songs. I try to not limit myself by saying, “You have to write about this.” It’s good to ask: “What does this song want to say?”
Weld: The opening track, “Over the Edge,” is dark, lyrics of apathy, while on the last song of the record, “Rearrange the Art,” there’s that sweet banjo sound and the heart-wrenching lyrics, but it sounds hopeful. Was there an emotional movement you wanted listeners to experience? How did you decide on the order of the record?
SJ: For me, I think big factor in choosing order is keeping things rising and falling in terms of energy levels. Maybe naturally that connects to what the words are saying, too. In that sense, it does portray starting off apathetic and ending hopeful, but I think maybe more of my thought behind the order has to do with the energy behind the songs and not wanting it to get too dull for too long.
Weld: Do you think any of your songs are dull?
SJ: Not dull. But I’ve seen a lot of live music in my life, and I think there’s something to be said for the art of a great set-list, similarly for the sequence on a record. An artist can be fantastic, but if they play their slowest songs in row, they may not hit you with the same feel as if they were interspersed. It’s a natural way humans feel things, the rising and falling, the pacing of our lives — like the energy of the music.