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Tracking Sarah Jaffe

Denton musician makes tour stop in Austin, then hits road again

Peter Mongillo
Sarah Jaffe is a do-it-yourself kind of woman. She wrote her own songs, recorded demos, created press kits and shopped around her record.

It's Friday afternoon before her June show at La Zona Rosa, and Sarah Jaffe is exhausted. The Denton singer-songwriter had arrived from San Antonio an hour earlier, worn out from a two-week, 13-show tour with alt-country stalwarts the Old 97's that took her through the Rockies and out to the West Coast before heading back through the Southwest to Texas.

The following day she would be back on the road for several hours to Lubbock, the last stop before a 10-day break, after which she would hit the road again with fellow Denton musicians Centro-matic.

The tour is part of a whirlwind trajectory that Jaffe's career has taken during the last few years, accelerated as of late with last year's release of her debut full length, "Suburban Nature." Though Jaffe, 25, is fairly young, the momentum has been a long time coming.

Jaffe, who grew up outside Dallas, always has been drawn to music, or at least as long as she can remember. She thinks she might have picked it up from her mother's side of the family, where get-togethers inevitably wind up in sing-alongs (she's not the only one in the family who picked up the bug. Her cousins' Los Angeles indie rock band the Daylights has opened for Katy Perry).

"It's kind of silly and kind of cheesy, but it's nice, because that side of the family just adores music," Jaffe says.

At 10, after some begging, Jaffe got her parents to finally buy a guitar for her, and she started writing songs. By the time she was a teenager, she had committed to a life as a musician. Her approach was DIY to the core, recording her own demos, putting together her own press kits and having her parents drive her around to Dallas-area coffee shops and clubs so that she could ask if she could play. Surprisingly, she heard back from a lot of them. Before long she was performing consistently, sometimes as an opener for bigger acts.

She laughs as she talks about those early shows, when she was finding her footing as a writer and performer.

"I cringe at the thought of it now," she says. "They're treasured cringes, but cringes nonetheless."

She kept going. At 18 Jaffe graduated from high school and packed her things for Los Angeles, thinking it would be a cool place to check out while she tried to launch her music career. Things didn't work out as she planned, but there was a silver lining.

"L.A. annihilated me; I was just too young to live there and didn't really know what I was doing," she says, then pauses. "But I wrote a few songs."

After a year, it was back to Dallas for a bit before moving on to Denton and its bigger music scene, which she now calls home. She lights up when she talks about her life there. "It's my heart; I love it."

Once there she got to work on recording "Suburban Nature," which showcases Jaffe's mature, often sad songwriting. Leading the pack is the addictive midtempo rocker "Clementine," where Jaffe offers snapshots of a relationship gone wrong, wishing for a new name. It's hard to believe it was written in a few minutes before a show when the band she was in at the time didn't have enough material to fill a 45-minute set.

"I went to my friend's dorm and wrote 'Clementine' in about 10 minutes," she says. "People reacted to it in a way that I didn't necessarily get."

Because the song shares its name with Kate Winslet's character from the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," people often assume it was Jaffe's inspiration, though it was written before the movie was released. Jaffe admits that she did start to think about the song differently after seeing the movie, which she loved.

Despite a strong set of songs and a growing fanbase in Denton and beyond, Jaffe had to shop "Suburban Nature" around for some time before getting picked up by Dallas-based Kirtland Records.

"It sucked real hard when the record was just sitting for a year," she says. "There are always moments of really sincere doubt, but it always works out."

Living in Denton also helped her make musical connections with Denton groups including Centro-matic (she has recorded with frontman Will Johnson) and Midlake, which she has joined on tour. She also met Norah Jones, who asked Jaffe to open for her in Europe via text message, a gig which exposed Jaffe to even more fans.

Despite her recent streak of success, Jaffe is conservative when she talks about the future. She says that her ultimate goal is to be able to have a career that she is able to sustain, not unlike Centro-matic, which can keep recording and performing with loyal fan support.

"Writing and performing, it's just a spiritual thing for me," she says. "I don't know what's going to change in the next year or two years, but to me, going on tour, getting a slew of dates, it's work, but it's a joy."

pmongillo@statesman.com

Centro-Matic and Sarah Jaffe