Here is my conversation with Rounder Records recording artist SARAH JAROSZ.
A multiple Grammy Award winner over her young but already illustrious career, Sarah is a musical quintuple threat: singer, multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and banjo), songwriter, bandleader, and co-producer. She was a regular member of the house band on Live From Here and Prairie Home Companion, and has also appeared on Austin City Limits, the BBC’s Transatlantic Sessions, eTown, Acoustic Café, Mountain Stage, Conan, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, among others. She has many successful musical collaborations, including as a member of the trio I’m With Her along with Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins.
What’s your earliest memory of performing, when you were conscious of performing for other people? What did that feel like for you?
Well, for me it goes back a long way, and it kind of was just something that I always did. I think one of the earliest documented performances of me, that I don’t personally remember, was when I was two years old, and it was a school production and I was singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, and I was actually wearing a little flag dress, if you can believe it. [laughs] I grew up in Texas, after all! So it was always something I did. It just was always sort of second nature – the singing part of it.
It started out in school performances, and then I did a bunch of national choirs. My first music teacher – her name was Diana Riepe – she was very formative for me. She taught using the Kodály method of music, which is based around solfège – you know, the hand signals representing the notes. She was the one that encouraged me to try out for these national choirs which were run by the Kodály people.
So I did that about five years, and it was always in a different place. So that was actually my first experience traveling for my music. This all started maybe in the second or third grade time frame. And I got to go to Chicago and San Francisco and Massachusetts, and it was just really special to get to travel and see the country because of my music. And luckily my parents were really supportive of that. I just was always doing something where I was performing, and so it always felt comfortable being onstage in front of people.
Do you remember how you felt being onstage, how you experienced the audience and how you experienced your body, when you were that age?
I’m trying to remember. It just felt normal – I don’t know that it felt any different. It did feel good. I remember really enjoying it, that’s for sure, and almost getting giddy off of it, getting up onstage, and being really excited afterwards. And for a lot of my peers, I remember they would be, like, “Oh, I’m so nervous!” And I just never felt that. It felt really physically natural to do.
And then when you started playing instruments, did you feel that the instruments were an extension of yourself?
Yes. Yeah, definitely. And it’s actually to the point now where I almost feel weird onstage if I don’t have an instrument in my hands. Because when I started playing the mandolin, and later on the guitar and the banjo, I was always playing and singing simultaneously. Only recently in my shows did I start just doing one song where I was only singing. Yeah, and so it did become an extension of that, and actually something that I came to really rely on.
When you’re onstage, do you feel like yourself, or a version of yourself, or do you feel like it’s somebody different who’s up there?
It’s a little bit of both. I think maybe the best way to put it would be “an extended version of myself”. There is a certain amount of taking on another persona, because people want to be entertained. I’m afraid to use the word “acting”, because it is me, and it is not being someone that I’m not, but it is sort of larger, to a certain degree, than I might be if I’m just having a conversation with someone or sitting around in a circle playing music. But I think what I constantly work on is, I’m trying to find that balance of being able to entertain folks and put on a show, while still being really relaxed and just playing. I think it’s finding a balance of that that’s key, and that’s what I constantly try to work on.
I’m sure a lot of people have said this to you, but you have so much poise on the stage…
And you seem so relaxed, and you seem like you’re able to just plug into the groove so readily. I remember the first time I saw you was when you did a tweener [a song between sets] at RockyGrass. You must have been 12 or 13 – do you remember that?
Yeah, I think I was 12.
I think you did “Blue Night” or something?
“Blue Moon of Kentucky”.
Yeah. And everybody was, like, “What was that?” I know I was. Because you just seemed so completely comfortable, and that’s unusual for someone that age. And you’ve definitely matured into that, but it’s something I feel like you’ve always had, and I’m sure you’re always hearing that. What do you think that comes from? What do you think accounts for that?
I think it comes, largely, from what I was saying about how’s it’s just always what I’ve done – I’ve been up on a stage since I was two years old. And I think another part of it is having parents that, from a very early age, made me believe that it could be a reality, that it could be my career and my life. I think I might have approached the stage differently had I been the kind of person that heard, “Oh, well, this is a great hobby, but you should really think about doing something else…”
“Have a safety plan!”
Yeah, exactly. And that was never the case. I’m very fortunate that they were so supportive of that. So they made me feel comfortable, in that regard. They made me feel like I could do it. And especially starting out this young, that played a big role. And then, on top of that, just seeing live music for as long as I can remember, witnessing other people do it, and recognizing things that I liked about certain performances and things that I didn’t like about others, and that being normal, too. I think a lot of my peers, at my age, their parents weren’t taking them out almost every night to see live shows in Austin. [laughs] So that was a reality to me, too, just getting to witness so many amazing performances at a very early age.
What kinds of things did you notice that made you think, well, that works for me, or that makes sense for me – not necessarily that you’re going to steal or incorporate, but that would influence your own persona onstage? Not necessarily even performers, but aspects of performance that you took note of?
Well, I guess early on, if we’re going way back, a lot of the things I would see were the Texas singer-songwriter folks – someone like Shawn Colvin, or Guy Clark, or Bill Staines – those are some of my earliest memories of concerts. And so that’s its own thing. It’s more of the storyteller persona of being onstage, which I love.
But then, I think what really gave me this jolt of excitement, of wanting to do it, was seeing Nickel Creek play. Because that was really happening at the time that I had just picked up the mandolin – I was about 10 or 11 – and seeing Chris [Thile] play, and seeing the way that he is just a rock star onstage, but still with all these acoustic instruments. And all of them were just so great onstage. And seeing people that were closer to my age doing this and having such a great stage presence and making it just larger than life, you know, is how it felt to watch those shows at that age. And that’s when I thought, “Ok…I want to do this!” [laughs]
And then, of course, you eventually started hanging out with these guys, at music camps and all that. When did you feel like you were one of their peers, performance-wise?
Well, it’s kind of a blurry line, because a lot of them just made me feel so welcome from the very beginning. But I will say, I feel like it’s really only since I moved away from home, and went to college [New England Conservatory], and starting life on my own now, that it really feels that way. But truly, from the get-go, one of my favorite stories is when I first met Nickel Creek. I think I was 10, and they were playing at a festival outside of Austin called the Old Settler’s Music Festival. And they were doing a little workshop – you know how those things go at festivals. And I had just seen their music video on TV, and I had just gotten my first mandolin. And I walked up to them after, and Chris kneeled down and wrote, “Let’s jam sometime!” on my program. [laughs] And that was kind of the moment when I was, like, “All right! I want to get good enough to jam with him someday…” [laughs]
But just for him to write that – I’m just any little girl – there was always that air of kindness. And the same goes for so many people in the scene, like you’re saying, and I just felt really welcome. And that had a lot to do with my being inspired and being encouraged to want to get really good. Because all of those people were, like, “Well, if you work hard enough, you can do this.”
Yeah, there is a real sense of generosity in the community, and also a sense of wanting to bring people up, you know?
Yes. And actually Mike Marshall, I feel like, is one of the best at that. He certainly was that for me, right from the get-go. A real turning point truly was my first RockyGrass Academy when I was 11. That’s where I got to meet Mike for the first time and learn from him. I mean, how cool is it? I’m guessing maybe at that point he was in his 40s, and someone like that doesn’t have to give an 11 year old the time of day, you know? [laughs] I had just been playing for a year. But he was just so generous and so encouraging. And he treated me like an adult, and I think that was also the thing about all those people. They never treated me like a little kid, and they approached their teaching in that way as well. They weren’t dumbing it down – they were always really challenging me.
It’s also interesting to me that your writing is as sophisticated as anything else that you’re going to find out there. And that must come from a sensibility of being so saturated in the sophisticated theory that happens in that music that you’re around.
And you were writing before you went to music school. When you write, are you thinking in terms of how it’s going to feel to perform those songs?
Yes and no. I think initially no, because I was just trying to see if I could do it in the first place. I feel like the more that I’ve done it, I might be thinking about that aspect more – how it’s going to feel to play on a stage. But initially, I guess I first started trying to write when I was 12 or 13. And my mom had always written songs as a hobby, and that in itself made me feel like, “Ok, this is possible, this is something that people do…” [laughs] And from the very early stages, a lot of it was just kind of messing around with little ideas, and I would often show her the ideas, and she would say, “Ok, well, that’s cool – what if you tried this?” Just having that influence in the house was kind of crucial.
And then, on top of that, all the great songwriters that I was exposed to from such an early age, and trying to, initially, kind of model the songs after those people – like Gillian Welch, or Tim O’Brien, or Darrell Scott. I think, going back to my first record [Song Up In Her Head, Sugar Hill Records, 2009], a song like “Tell Me True” was very influenced by Gillian or Tim – kind of that old-timey sound. And a song like “Broussard’s Lament” is very influenced by someone like Darrell Scott – the “percussion-y” style of guitar.
I definitely see what you’re saying about the influences. However, you’ve got your own “voice” on those. I mean, that’s definitely something that develops over time, but they’ve got your sensibility on them, don’t you think? They’re original in that sense.
Yeah, I feel – as any musician feels, I’m sure – that you’re influenced by everything that you take in, and it goes in, and you kind of process it in your own original way, and then hopefully what comes out has its own stamp with your sound. And that’s always what I was trying to do, and that’s what I still do, and that’s what’s so great about music and art – it’s just endless. You can always be discovering something new that you haven’t heard before, and that’s going to set off some other little trigger inside of you that you might not have known was in there before. That’s going to release something new in your interpretation, and the way that you process that is going to be different from the next guy, and so automatically that’s going to make it have its own original stamp.
And you do such interesting things with covers. I think you pick covers that are challenging, but also may be freeing, in that they don’t have a real lyrical standard to them – like a Tom Waits or a Bob Dylan cover that, you know, you’re definitely not going to sing it like they do it.
What inspires you to bring a cover to your act and to bring your own twist to it? What is there in a cover that is intriguing to you?
I think a lot of it is picking songs that I feel I could do something unique and original to. Like you’re saying, I seem to pick songs by writers that I admire greatly, but sound very different from me, even vocally, like Joanna Newsom or Tom Waits or Bob Dylan. Those are all such distinct voices.
I guess there are differences in the choice that goes into picking a cover for a live show versus picking a cover for a recording. I think for a recording, it has to bring something to the table that makes sense on a record, and not just, like, “Ok, this is just a collection of songs.” It has to make sense with the other songs. It has to bring something that fills out the feel and the story.
Like with [Dylan’s] “Simple Twist of Fate”, for instance, on [Build Me Up From Bones, Sugar Hill Records, 2013], that appealed to me because it was such a sparse arrangement of that song, and I had never really recorded something that open and bare before, and that seemed like a good texture to bring in to fill out the rest of the record. But mostly it’s just picking songs that I love to sing and feel like I can do something a little new to.
When did you feel like you could bring something to the table as a bandleader?
I guess that always kind of came naturally. I think that sort of spawned out of writing my own songs. I think it might have been different had I not been writing my own material. That in itself just gives way to hearing different arrangements and saying, “How do I want this song to take life on a stage or in a studio?” and from there thinking, “Ok, well, this person would be ideal, or this person would make it really great.”
And luckily, around that same time, I started going to a lot of these music camps. Mike [Marshall] and Dawg’s [David Grisman’s] Mandolin Symposium, for instance, was a place where I started meeting musicians my own age who were into a lot of the same music. And I think a lot of wanting to play my own shows came out of that – you know, playing with guys like Alex [Hargreaves] and Nat [Nathaniel Smith] and seeing, “Ok, these people are doing it, too.” But then it goes beyond that, and you meet musicians you feel really get your music and can really bring your songs to life.
You have a really calm energy around bandleading. When I’ve seen your trio with Alex and Nat, I have been struck by how you create a bubble around the three of you that’s like a safety zone or something…
…and sort of, like, what’s possible within that bubble? You’re definitely including the audience, but I feel like Alex and Nat can just sort of lay back and do what they do. And that’s not always the case. Sometimes you see with a bandleader that there’s a kind of jangly energy to it that seems counter-productive, you know what I mean?
So are you conscious of creating that?
Yeah, for sure. Actually, the thing with Alex and Nat, we played together for almost five years, and I was definitely excited to try out some other things. So I’ve done shows in another trio setting with Mark Schatz on the bass and Jedd Hughes on guitar and singing. But I feel like this question pertains to any sort of configuration like that, and I’ve always tried to surround myself with musicians that do create that bubble and that sense of a wholeness.
Also, having played so many solo shows, it’s interesting to see the songs take form with musicians backing it up. But I think the goal is to find those musicians that make it feel just as relaxed as if it were in a solo setting, and just as smooth and seamless. And I feel like Nat and Alex really brought a lot to the table in terms of how that happened, and I’m excited to see other configurations and how my songs can take shape with different musicians.
I know that something a lot of artists have trouble with is when people are really effusive with the compliments and are really excited about what they’re seeing and want to share that with you. What does that feel like to you?
When people give a bunch of compliments?
Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of other artists where sometimes it doesn’t feel like it lines up, or it’s out of proportion, like that show wasn’t so great or didn’t feel that great to them.
Yeah, that’s an interesting question, because I think I and any musician peer of mine that you talk to will struggle with that, where you get off the stage and you think, “Oh gosh, that was not my best night.” [laughs] And then you’re greeted by people saying that was one of the best shows they’ve ever seen. I’ve kind of learned in those situations, even if I felt like it wasn’t my best playing, to just say thank you. Because it almost is more of an ego trip to be, like, “Oh, no, that sucked, that was awful!” [laughs]
Yeah, “You’re wrong!”
Because hopefully they’re being truthful, and they really experienced something that they thought was great, and I think it’s unfair to shoot that down. So I think it’s good to sort of take it in and be aware that someone’s experience was great – but also to walk away in those settings and learn from your mistakes. One thing that I’ve tried to get better at doing, which is very hard for me to do, is listening back to shows of mine. It’s a dreaded thing, [laughs] as most musicians, I think, would say. But if I allow myself to do that, I wind up learning so much, and noticing things.
And this kind of goes back to the question about how it feels to be onstage. I think this certain part of your brain does kind of go away, because you’re entertaining and you’re up on a stage in front of people. So some things, I feel like, you can’t rationally notice the way that a person in the audience would notice them, for better or for worse, and by going back and listening I can be, like, “Oh, ok, I didn’t even notice this happening when I was up onstage.”
And a lot of times, for me, that’s maybe singing on the harder side, and when I go back and listen I can say, “Oh, I can actually back away a little bit. In the moment, with the adrenaline, it feels like I need to sing that really hard, but maybe I don’t actually have to sing it that hard.” So it’s just taking those compliments, and then also noticing what I would want to be better, and finding a good balance of that.
Do you watch a lot of video?
Every now and then. I really kind of don’t like to do that, [laughs] but when I do let myself, like I’m saying, I learn a lot, and I think actually it can be a very constructive thing to do.
Can you give an example of something that you’ve noticed you do physically that you’ve tried to adjust, or even that you appreciate and say, “Yeah, I’m doing the right thing there”?
Yeah, I think mostly what I notice is the vocal thing that I was saying. Like, where in the heightened energy of being onstage, for me anyway, there’s this feeling of needing to make everything bigger. And oftentimes, when I go back to watch a video, I’ll say, “Ok, well, that could still be big, and I wouldn’t have to push it quite as hard.” And that just goes back to the whole trying to stay relaxed thing, and noticing moments where I could be even more relaxed and settling into a groove.
That’s kind of the ultimate goal, and I think that’s the hardest thing to do onstage – to really settle and relax into a place where you can just listen, where you can just be a reactive musician and really play based on what’s happening in the moment. Ultimately, onstage, you settle into a lot of your habits and things that you know work night after night, but I think the best shows and the best nights are the ones where the audience is feeding off you, and you’re feeding off that, and you can be relaxed and just play music and not just kind of go through the motions.
Do you find that there are certain things that make it easier for you to get into the zone?
A lot of it has to do with sound. I find that on nights that the sound is really great, it’s easier for me to just hear. It’s hard when you’re battling sound issues, and there’s feedback – it’s hard to reach that point of relaxation. Because the best times are just sitting around in a circle with folks, really playing music, and if you can try to recreate that on a stage, then that’s ultimately going to affect the music. I try to have a really low monitor sound, because I feel like it’s just truer if I’m playing more off the room than off of a speaker that’s in front of me. That makes my experience truer, and ultimately more enjoyable.
And, of course, having that ambient sound is going to change depending on whether you’re in a cozy room or on an outdoor festival stage. Do you find that it’s harder to manufacture that sense of playing off of the atmosphere as opposed to the monitor?
Yeah, definitely. And I think in that sense I go for a different vibe – it’s almost like two different shows, and two different types of energy that I would try to create, based on those two settings. Especially in a festival setting on an outdoor stage, it does have this feeling of wanting to be bigger than life. In a theatre, you have this limited amount of space that you’re trying to fill, and in a festival setting it’s open-air – it could just go on and on and on [laughs] into the ether, so to speak. And that’s a daunting task to try to fill that and make it feel intimate in such a large setting. I think it’s just trying to find that balance, in a festival.
Those are especially the times for me when I need to try to stay the most relaxed. Because it does feel like it takes so much more adrenaline and so much more energy to put on a big show on an outdoor stage, whereas you can really kind of hone in and be really soft and quiet in a nice performing arts center. I have grown up doing both, and they’re two things that I really enjoy doing. I just feel like it’s a totally different show in those two settings.
How do you experience the energy coming off the audience?
I think I’m pretty sensitive to it. I think a lot of musicians, at least a lot of my peers, would say the same thing. It’s funny – I’m sensitive to it, but I’ve learned, if it starts really getting to me, to kind of try to shut it off. Because there have been nights when an audience will not necessarily be super-responsive during the show, and people will talk to me afterwards and say, “Oh my god, that was just so amazing!” and you think, “Oh, well, it didn’t feel like you were being responsive to it during the show…” [laughs]
And so it’s easy to kind of let that stuff get to you in the moment, because all of the energies are sort of uber-heightened, and you become so aware of every little thing, that sometimes it might not be truthful to how it’s actually happening. I think it can sort of have negative effects, but it can also have really positive effects. If you’re feeding off of a great crowd, that can really add to the energy of the show. But then, also, in times when it might be negatively affecting me onstage, I just kind of have to say, “Ok, well, just settle in and relax into the song and focus on that tonight.”
Do it more for yourself.
More for myself, yeah. And it’s never going to be the same – it’s different from crowd to crowd and night to night – and you just kind of have to learn to adapt.
Do you have a pre-show ritual that you do to get yourself ready to take the stage?
Not necessarily. I feel like lately what I try to do is I actually just try to be as relaxed as possible. I really like to actually sit down, [laughs] because when you’re onstage you’re standing and you’re putting out a lot of energy, for usually an hour and a half. I just try to really conserve my energy. A lot of people try to get really amped up before a show, and I’ve found that the more relaxed I am, the better I am on the stage. The more energy I try to preserve, the more energy I have to put out on a stage. But that isn’t really anything in particular. I think it’s definitely not having conversations before [laughs] – I really try to just relax my voice, and save that energy for the stage.
And how does your state of mind before a show compare to your state of mind when you come off the stage?
That’s a really good question. I guess the state of mind leading up to a show is, hopefully, relaxed. But I think inevitably, certain little anxieties – and maybe anxiety’s not the right word, but you’re about to get on a stage in front of a bunch of people. So you try to be as relaxed as possible, but ultimately you’re thinking about the show and how it’s going to go.
And then after the show, I do feel like it is this huge energy, because you’ve just been on this adrenaline trip, basically, and you’re just at the height of that when you get off the stage. I feel like it normally lasts for about 45 minutes to an hour – a kind of buzzing, almost, buzzing from that heightened energy – and then it slowly fades away, as you load up the van and drive away. [laughs] So it’s trying to be really relaxed and calm leading up to a show, and then it’s really high-energy buzzing afterwards.
Do you like to rehearse a show as a show, going through a whole set to get a sense of the arc of the set?
I’ve never really done that, rehearsed all the way through – well, that’s not true. Definitely running through the songs, but I think there’s something to be said for mostly working on the songs that really feel like they need more time and more work. But I feel like I have a pretty good sense in my head about the energy and the feel of different songs and, when I’m writing a set list, keeping that stuff in mind and thinking, how is this going to create an arc for a show to bring people up and down on this wave of feelings. I really appreciate that when I go to see a show, and someone takes me on this up and down journey and it’s not totally horizontal. I really appreciate that, and so I feel like that’s what I try to do when I create the set.
But it’s cool to leave some stuff for the moment, and for mystery, and not have every little detail planned out. That allows you to – what I was saying earlier – to listen and react in the moment. If it’s all planned out to a T, it’s easier to just kind of not be present and rest on your laurels and that kind of thing. And so I try to leave a little bit of space for being present in the moment.
Do you feel that music school, and in particular your Contemporary Improvisation major, changed you as a performer?
Yeah, I do. Maybe not as a performer, so much, because that wasn’t really the focus of my time there. It wasn’t really on performing, it was more on the nitty-gritty of the arrangements and the music. But I think, ultimately, having my ear expanded, which was really the thing that happened most during my time at NEC [New England Conservatory], that’s actually going to affect how I carry myself onstage. It’s mostly going to affect the music, and the music is going to affect the performance.
I think being exposed to so many different styles of music that I hadn’t really listened to before – a lot of free improvisation, a lot more jazz, listening to Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln and a lot of great female vocalists that I hadn’t been exposed to before my time at NEC – that definitely influenced me and how I approach the stage. But mostly I feel like, since I was performing for all my life, basically, that part is still me and was there before I went to NEC, and I think it was more the music that was affected by my time there, more than the performance aspect of it.
Do you get a visual sense of what you’re singing about when you’re singing? Do you picture what you’re singing about?
Yeah, actually. I have this conversation with people that ask me, “How do you remember lyrics?” [laughs] And I think a lot of it actually is mental pictures of what’s happening in the songs. And it can be sort of abstract, like a whole verse could have a certain image with it. Like with my song “Build Me Up From Bones”, for instance, that whole song started based on the image of a fingernail moon. And so, really, whenever I sing that song I think about that in my mind.
And even with a song like [Bob Dylan’s] “Ring Them Bells”, each one of those verses carries an image for me, like St. Peter and St. Martha and all of those. It’s almost like when you’re reading a book, at least for me – you have this image in your mind of what’s happening – and I do feel like that’s how it is when I’m singing songs.
So you mentioned “Build Me Up From Bones” – you were thinking visually as you were writing it?
Definitely. I think the line that was the spark for that song – this is when I was living in Boston, actually I remember it very clearly. I was walking down the street, I think it was actually Hemenway Street, which was where I lived during my time in Boston, and it was at night, and it was a fingernail moon. And I think I just wrote on my phone in my Notes app: fingernail moon scratching on the back of the night. And I had that line for probably a month before I was, like, that’s pretty cool.
It’s very cool, by the way.
And I eventually took that and made it into the song. So that image was the initial image that stuck with me for a while with that one.
I imagine that helps you in the studio. It’s so hard to make a three-dimensional performance with just the aural component, so I imagine that would help you with fleshing out the performance when you’re not in the live setting.
Oh, definitely. I think some of my favorite writers and performers create a whole world within their music, and they kind of transport you there, whether you’re listening to their record or you are at a live performance. Ultimately, I feel like that’s why a lot of people go to see live music – it’s because they want to be transported for an hour and a half away from their realities. And if you can create a space, an image, or a world that allows people to do that, that’s pretty powerful.
And obviously, when we’re seeing a live show, we’ve got the visual information as well – what’s the performer’s face doing, what’s their body language.
So you have to put that across in the studio, and all the things that you do with your face and body do show up in the sound, but it has to be within pretty controlled physical parameters. How do you feel that you do create that visual sense for the listener when you’re recording?
Yeah, that’s a good question. This is something that I’m thinking about all the time and trying to get better at. I was having a conversation with Sara Watkins, actually, and Aoife O’Donovan, because we were all recording on Aoife’s record recently. And we were talking about how, if you allow yourself to be physical in the studio and move the way you normally would on a stage, then that actually comes across in the recording. If someone’s smiling while they’re singing a lyric, I feel like I can see that – I can hear it and then see it, you know?
Or if someone is being big with their body when they’re singing a lyric, I feel like that comes across. But a lot of times what winds up happening, and I feel like I’ve definitely been guilty of this, is that you get into the recording studio and you get into the vocal booth, and you kind of stand still [laughs] and sing the lyric really straight, and not at all how you would normally sing it if you’re playing with people or being on a stage.
And so I think if you allow yourself to be true to your physical self in the studio – we were all saying this – that definitely comes across on recordings. I think it’s just that some people change their whole vibe when they sit in front of a microphone in a studio, and I think if you can allow yourself to just be relaxed and play how you would normally play, then at that point it’s up to the engineer to know how to capture that physicality within the recordings.
And that gets harder when you’re actually recording it live in the studio and you’re stuck behind your instrument.
Right. Yeah, it’s tricky, and that’s what sets a great recording apart from a not-so-great recording. And I think that’s why sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, well, I’m not crazy about the record, but I love seeing that person live…” I think maybe that’s just a product of that, where it is hard to capture that spirit in the studio. And I think some people are masters of that. Some people are truly fantastic in a live setting, and might not have figured out how to capture that in a studio, and vice versa. Some records are products, truly, of the magic of the recording studio and all the different devices and sounds that you can put to use in a studio, and then maybe they aren’t able to recreate that in a live setting.
So it works both ways. And that’s why I feel like it’s fun to have each be their own thing, and try to bring in elements of both to each. For me, anyway, a lot of my recordings have a lot of stuff going on that I don’t do in my live shows, and that’s fun. I think it’s cool to see the different forms that a song can take on in different settings, and be this one thing on a record, but be this maybe more stripped-down thing in a live setting.
How has being in the studio, and doing producing duties in the studios, affected you as a performer – having the producer hat on?
I think it definitely goes back to the whole bandleader thing. You have to be able to get outside of yourself a little bit, to be able to listen to it as a whole, and to be able to make comments and critiques based on the thing as a whole. And I think that is actually kind of harder to do in a live setting, because you’re battling all of those other energies, like I was talking about, and so it’s easy to kind of fall into your routine and the way that you proceed through a live show. Sometimes it can be hard to step outside all of that and see, “Oh, ok, this is the bigger picture, this is what’s going on.”
But having worked with [producer] Gary Paczosa so much, and shared those duties, he’s taught me a lot about noticing things and really taking everything into consideration. The challenge then becomes, when you consider all the possibilities, how do you narrow it down to the ones that are really crucial to giving the song its life. One great thing about Gary is that, from a very early age, he encouraged me to dream big and really consider all my options. And now we’re at this point where we’re, like, “Ok, well, how do we see all the options and then become really picky about what’s really crucial and what the song really needs, and kind of strip it down to that?” And that mindset in the studio definitely carries over to sculpting a live show as well.
You play in so many different settings with so many different combinations of people, and you’ve been to other countries. I would imagine that all of that information kind of gets in there and expands your horizons, like you talked about your experience going to music school. Are you conscious of that expansion as it’s happening – playing with this combination at that show, or going into that thing with those people? Do you feel like you carry a core of yourself as you navigate through all that?
Oh, yeah, for sure. Yeah, I definitely feel like I carry a part of myself through it all. This is great, because what you’re saying is, for me, anyway, I’ve realized that that’s kind of the ultimate goal – to constantly be in a situation where you’re collaborating with different kinds of musicians in different settings. A lot of my favorite musicians are finding scenarios in which they can do that, in which they’re putting themselves in these situations that are forcing them to do something different.
I think of Mike Marshall, I think of Chris Thile, I think of Béla Fleck, all of those people. Chris has Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and he’s playing with Brad Mehldau and Edgar Meyer, and he’s doing a solo Bach thing. He’s carrying his spirit with him through all of those different things, but each of those things has its own unique life and its own unique spirit. And that’s awesome.
For me, I’ve decided that that’s what I hope to do with my life, to constantly be surrounding myself with musicians that I respect and musicians that challenge me. For instance, with the Milk Carton Kids, doing that collaborative tour and singing three-part harmony every night. Normally, I’m onstage by myself singing alone the whole time, and that forced me to use my voice in this different way, to be blending with two other voices for an entire hour and a half.
And you’re working with two people who have been blending with each other for a long time, so you’re working your way into that.
Right. So jumping in and suddenly being a third – they were having to change up their thing, too, to blend with a third voice. Exactly. And now [I’m With Her] with Sara [Watkins] and Aoife [O’Donovan], and navigating those waters of the different combinations of our voices and instruments. I truly think that that’s what makes a great musician – putting yourself in those different settings and learning how to bring your voice to it, while also supporting what is going on.
So when you talk about how you carry that core of yourself into all those different situations, how would you describe who that is, who that core is, that defines who you are as an artist?
That’s a tricky one. [laughs] Well, I think it’s easier, maybe, to describe it in terms of the voice, because every person’s voice is unique. When you’re having a conversation talking to someone on the phone, it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s that person, because that’s their unique voice.”
I think it gets harder to describe when you’re talking about an instrumentalist. In my mind, the truly great instrumental players of our time, you can recognize their playing by just hearing them play, even if you’re not looking at them or if you’re just hearing a recording of them. And that becomes their voice.
You hear Béla, or you hear Jerry [Douglas], or you hear Mike Marshall – you know it’s them. That’s the thing growing up that was cool – going to the Mandolin Symposium and hearing Mike Compton and David Grisman and Mike Marshall and Chris Thile, and they’re all playing the mandolin, they’re all playing the same instrument, and it could just sound exactly the same, but it doesn’t. And you close your eyes, and I could tell you which one was which, because they’ve all instilled their soul into their playing. It’s hard to describe exactly what that is, but I think that’s ultimately the goal – allowing that sound and that part of you, creating that part of you, to come through. I don’t know if I totally answered the question! [laughs]
Well, it’s a weird question! So, for instance, Mike Marshall – I always think of him as a joyful player, you know?
And he has that joyful sensibility, and when you talk to him, that comes through. And other people seem to have a darker current to them.
Or other people, a sort of, I don’t know, interplanetary current?
So, I don’t even know if you have a sense of this or could even describe it, but how would you describe your sensibility as an artist?
Well, going back to what you were saying, yeah, you listen to someone like Billie Holiday, and you can just hear all of the trials and sorrow, and awful things that she had to go through, in her voice – that really comes through. And so for me, I feel very fortunate that I’ve had a pretty good life and haven’t had to face a lot of that adversity.
But what I would hope is that just from listening to music like that and taking little things away from it, and those things going through my individual self and my soul, that even though I haven’t necessarily faced any of that in my own life, I could hear that sorrow within someone else’s music, or hear that joy within someone else’s music, and allow it to come out of me in a way that is truly unique to me, and it’s my own original take and my own original feeling coming through.
That’s just the nature of being human beings. Three different people could go through life experiencing exactly the same things, and they’re all going to have their own take on it. That’s what’s so great about music. Three musicians could go through learning exactly the same songs, exactly the same music, and it’s ultimately going to sound a little bit different. For me, it just is a product of learning and trying to saturate myself with the music of my heroes and really studying that, and then ultimately trying to create my own music based on what I take in.
I imagine you’ve heard yourself described as an old soul…
…because of the precocity with which you started appearing on the scene, but also the sophistication of how you construct your artistic life. I mean, there is a sense of, how is that possible in somebody so young, you know?
But in a way, that could feel kind of reductive. It sort of discounts all the hard work, and all the things you’ve exposed yourself to – the working at it.
So how does it strike you when people say, “Oh, she’s an old soul…”
Right. Well, I appreciate you saying that, because I think it is kind of hard for people to really grasp that I really started working hard on this stuff when I was 11 and 12. I think it’s easy for people to say, “Oh, well, she’s an old soul.” And this goes for a lot of my peers in the music scene. I think they face some of this stuff, too. I just started at such a young age and really worked hard, and started even playing my own live shows around 12 and 13 years old.
I think a lot of that, in terms of the way that I might carry myself, comes from, you know, I’m an only child, and for as long as I can remember, my parents would opt out of the babysitter and just take me with them everywhere they went. For as long as I can remember, I was always surrounded by older people, and that was just a natural thing. And so automatically I had to learn how to carry myself and interact with people that were a lot older than me. And it’s the same for when I started going to a weekly Friday night bluegrass jam in Wimberley [Texas] – all those people were way older than me.
But I think the gift and the magic of it is that I was lucky to be around people, like I was saying earlier, that didn’t belittle me, and they treated me like an adult from the get-go. And so I think that really shaped my character and made me just feel like one of them, and made me want to work really hard to get to play with those people that I respected.
Yeah, I wonder if you had been treated more like a novelty act, if that would have changed a lot of how you felt about things.
Yeah. People were really straightforward with me and treated me as a real musician, not just a kid musician, and I think that inspired me to want to just work really hard at it and be on their level. It mostly says the world about a lot of the people that I’ve mentioned in this interview, for having the wherewithal to not treat me like a little kid and to really challenge me. I’m very thankful for that.
Your career has really exploded over the last several years. Do you find it hard to keep your focus when you’re being pulled in so many different directions, and you’ve got your business team behind you and your label and everything. Is it hard for you to keep it together and do what you need to do take care of yourself so that you can continue your artistic pursuit?
That’s a great question. I did definitely start feeling that way. And it’s kind of because, you know, for as long as I’ve been doing this whole music thing, I was also in school. [laughs] I was in middle school, and then high school, and then college, and it was a lot. It was a whole lot to balance. And there were definitely times mid-way through college when I thought, “Man, I don’t know if I can do all this! [laughs] This is a lot for one person to balance.” But I just decided to stick with it, and I’m really glad I did.
And then from the moment that I graduated college, it was just straight out onto the road for about a year and a half. It was really at the end of that touring behind Build Me Up From Bones [Sugar Hill Records, 2013] that I was, like, “Ok, I need to not be on the road as much and kind of get back to my roots a little bit, and really just focus on my music and my writing.” Because I just hadn’t had a chance to just stop and catch my breath, really, from the time that I was 12. [laughs] Even when I was in school, any breaks that I had in school – spring break or Christmas or over the summer – I was always touring or recording, and working on my music. I do feel like it can be a lot to balance sometimes, but you just have to know when to say, “Ok, I need to get back to my roots a little bit, and remember what that feels like.”
I just can’t imagine juggling all you juggled for all those years. It must have felt liberating to not have to go to school!
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was a wonderful four years, but it was a lot, for sure. In a way, I feel like I’m coming to know my music now in an even deeper way – to finally, for the first time, just be able to focus on it, solely, and not have the school stuff on top of it all. It’s very liberating.
Are you conscious of the role that you play in influencing girls coming up – being a strong presence and a “quintuple threat” or whatever people want to call you, being a bandleader, being a front person? Is that something you’re aware of when you think of the little ones coming up?
Yeah, especially within the last couple of years. It’s so special when people – and not just girls, but any young musician – coming up to say they’ve been inspired by what I do. It sort of feels like a full circle kind of moment. And it’s good, it’s healthy for me to see that. This business is crazy, and it’s a lot of hours logged traveling in the van, getting from show to show, and I think those are the moments that really make it feel like it’s worth it. I see a lot of myself in them, and I try to give to them what my heroes gave to me when I was that age.