Sarah Jarosz finds her ’World on the Ground’ with songs about growing up in Wimberley
“A long, long time ago, in a little Texas town …”
Those are the first words that arise from “World on the Ground,” the fifth album from Central Texas native Sarah Jarosz. A child-prodigy musician who grew up in Wimberley and became a regular presence in Austin clubs as a teenager, Jarosz moved northeast after high school to follow her dreams.
Now 29, Jarosz is a bright star, with a diploma from the New England Conservatory of Music and Grammy Awards on her shelf. As the old saw goes, though, you can take Jarosz out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of Jarosz. A lot of “World on the Ground” is about her childhood years in that little Texas town, and her journey toward a destiny far beyond it.
Character study vignettes titled “Eve” and “Johnny” and “Maggie” tell small-town tales of young adults who might be fellow travelers, with Jarosz’s own perspectives mixed in. The track “Hometown,” and its accompanying video, are perhaps more direct autobiography: Scenes from Wimberley’s Market Days pavilion and its high school football stadium weave around footage of a young woman wandering through pastoral scenes along Cypress Creek and the Blanco River. But it’s not actually Jarosz in the shot, a detail that’s in keeping with her goal for the song to be more widely relatable.
“It does feel autobiographical in a way, but it also feels like it's bigger than me,” she says of the song. “It could be telling many people's stories about their feelings around where they come from — whether that's positive or negative, whether they want to stay or leave. It felt more powerful to leave it a little open-ended; I love that it could be any number of those things.”
Jarosz was speaking by phone from her new home in Nashville, where she moved earlier this year. She left New York City in mid-March, just as the coronavirus pandemic was disrupting daily life everywhere, but especially in Manhattan. She’d finished “World on the Ground” before she left, working for the first time with renowned producer John Leventhal on a set of songs that felt very personal and reflective.
“Part of why I chose to write about Wimberley and the Hill Country and Central Texas at this time is because I really do think it took leaving to have a deep appreciation,” Jarosz explained. “That being said, I am very fortunate in so many ways. I loved my childhood when I was there; it wasn't that I couldn't wait to get out. It was positive as it was going on. My wanting to escape and wanting to go to New York was kind of just normal adolescent feelings. I was feeling, as a 17-year-old, ‘OK, this is very small; I would like to leave now.’ It takes distance and time sometimes to be able to truly appreciate things.
“Because I have been fortunate to travel around the world with my music, I've realized how unique Wimberley and Austin and Central Texas are. So much of it for me is the landscape: the rolling hills, the creeks, the rivers. I had such a fondness for that river culture as a kid — the feeling of jumping off a rope swing into Blue Hole. Not every kid gets to grow up with that, and I do not take it for granted. If anything, I'm more thankful for it now than than ever before.”
MUCH OF WHAT made Wimberley such a special place to grow up for Jarosz was that it was less than an hour’s drive to the Live Music Capital of the World. “I think it would have been a very different experience if I had just been in a small town without that proximity to Austin,” she acknowledges. Gigs at venues such as Cactus Cafe, along with appearances at Old Settler’s Music Festival and other area gatherings, offered Jarosz an early start on her promising career.
But it wasn’t just performing that broadened Jarosz’s musical horizons. While bluegrass picking sessions in Wimberley helped to develop her instrumental prowess on acoustic guitar and octave mandolin, the bands she and her parents heard in Austin pushed her toward more modern sounds.
“When I was 15 or 16 and starting to write my own music, I was growing outside of the bluegrass world and going to see bands like the Decemberists and Wilco,” she recalls. “We were seeing live music all the time, and I am grateful to my parents for that, because they loved it, and I loved it. We would just go see shows constantly. And when I wasn't seeing a show, I was playing a show.”
» READ MORE:Sarah Jarosz reflects on Old Settler’s memories
The release of her debut album in 2009 on prominent indie label Sugar Hill Records led to a 2010 appearance on “Austin City Limits,” beginning a relationship with the storied television program. Jarosz had been scheduled to tape a new episode of the show in Austin on Nov. 24, but the appearance was canceled earlier this week, with plans to reschedule the taping for sometime next year.
“After careful consideration of our limited resources during this holiday week, and an abundance of caution in light of concerns about (COVID-19), we have made this decision in the best interests of the artist, crew, staff and guests,” the program announced in a statement Wednesday. A representative for the program confirmed that the “limited resources” were related to two crew members having tested positive for COVID-19.
Jarosz played the last season of the show’s 36-year run at its Studio 6A home on the University of Texas campus, then returned in 2013 for an episode filmed in its current home of ACL Live. “I just remember there being such an electric energy in that room,” she says of that first appearance. “It felt like a real beginning of my career in many ways. It was very special, and I cherish it to this day.”
Perhaps even more special was a return to ACL Live last year for the annual “Austin City Limits” Hall of Fame ceremony, which inducted Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett and Buddy Guy in October 2019. Jarosz was there as a guest performer with Colvin, a singer-songwriter whose work greatly influenced Jarosz’s own music.
“Oh my gosh, that was one of the most special nights ever,” she says, still beaming as if it had happened yesterday. “It felt like such a full-circle experience — not only to be back on the ACL stage, but Shawn Colvin is one of my biggest heroes. Playing ‘Sunny Came Home’ and ‘Diamond in the Rough’ with her was an absolute pinch-me moment; I couldn't quite believe that it was happening. But ‘ACL’ kind of has that way of creating magical moments. It was a very, very special night.”
MUCH OF COLVIN’S MUSIC has been created in collaboration with Leventhal, a renowned musician and producer whose credits include albums with Rodney Crowell, Austinite Kelly Willis and wife Rosanne Cash. Jarosz sought him out after she’d spent a couple of years recording and touring as a member of I’m With Her, an indie-folk supergroup that also features Aoife O’Donovan and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins.
Though she’d loved making her first four albums with Nashville studio engineer Gary Paczosa, whom she refers to as “like family now,” the collaborative process of I’m With Her got Jarosz interested in a new approach for “World on the Ground.”
“I really wanted to take some of that into my own music and work with a producer who was a musician, and who I could actually create with on a musical level, not just on a production and engineering level,” she says.
The decision quickly paid off. “As John likes to say, it was a very simpatico creative relationship right off the bat, and I loved every minute of it,” she says. “I especially loved getting to write with John. We wound up writing four of the songs on the record together. I learned so much from from working with him.”
Part of what Jarosz gained from the experience was an increased focus on her songs’ lyrical content, in part because Leventhal consistently provided her with a musical canvas. “Especially with ‘Orange and Blue’ and ‘Pay It No Mind,’ which are two of the songs we wrote together, as soon as he played me the melodic ideas that he had, the lyrics just kind of poured out of me,” she says. For the former song, “he had already recorded a little demo with piano, bass and drums, with no vocal melody. I remember getting on the subway and just playing it over and over again on my way home, and it was instantaneous — this image of the cypress trees along Cypress Creek in Wimberley, with that melody. As soon as I got home, the rest of the words just kind of flowed from there.”
When Jarosz included such images of the Wimberley countryside in sketching out the video plan for “Hometown,” she’d initially expected to appear in the footage herself. That became impossible when the pandemic limited almost all of her travel plans for 2020. She’d been scheduled to fly to a private gig in Montana on March 13; when that flight got canceled, she decided instead to fly to Nashville, where her boyfriend lives. But leaving New York was hard.
“I drove up there in July and packed up my stuff,” she says. “I was in that apartment on the Upper West Side for seven years, and it was a very, very special place to me. So it was a super-emotional way to have to leave — never the way that I imagined leaving the city. But with all my work canceled, I just couldn't make it work to be there anymore, at least for the time being.
“Thankfully, I had another place to go. I have such a rich community of musicians here in Nashville, and I've spent a lot of time here making my records. It feels like home in a lot of ways, but I definitely was not planning on leaving New York this year. And I miss it a lot.”
FOR JAROSZ, persevering in the pandemic has largely been a matter of immersing herself in ordinary daily experiences that often eluded her as a touring musician. She’s talked a bit in recent interviews about keeping a sourdough starter and making her own bread, for example.
“Or just simple things like doing a big grocery shop, and having the right amount of food for meal planning and making dinner for yourself every night — these were not things I was in the practice of doing,” she says. “So it's been kind of a nice reorienting, to actually have the time to dig into things like making a sourdough starter and cooking. Those types of things are comforting.”
The pandemic has affected her approach to making music, as well. Shortly after “World on the Ground” was released in June, she did a livestream from Paczosa’s Nashville studio that focused on the new album’s songs. But mostly, she says, the pandemic “has been a great opportunity for me to practice music. I've not always been the most disciplined about practicing when I'm on the road, or even when I'm off the road. … After the initial shock and grief of the reality of this year set in, I was able to say, ‘OK, I need to start finding the good in this and how I can turn this around.’”
That led to a “Cover of the Week” series of videos she posted to YouTube and Instagram, reimagining personal favorite songs with solo acoustic performances. She cast the net wide, roaming from classic acts U2 and Crowded House to comparative newcomers Billie Eilish and Kacey Musgraves to some of her longtime roots music heroes such as Peter Rowan and Martha Scanlan.
“It was kind of on a whim,” she admits. “I didn't know how long I was going to do it. I wound up doing it for 10 weeks in a row, and it sort of carried me from the end of July through October. It really helped me a lot. Musicians are really struggling right now, and venues are struggling. It gave me this thing to focus on, this goal to work toward every week — to pick a song that I love, learn it, and then make a video and post it.
“It sounds very simple, but it really turned things around for me in a lot of ways, to shift my focus and just dig into music in a way that reminded me why I even do this in the first place. There's been a lot of ups and downs, and there have been days when I don't feel like playing at all or picking up the guitar. But it's been really nice in the last couple months to use this time to to remember why I do what I do.”
A standout in the cover series is “Silver Thunderbird,” from singer-songwriter Marc Cohn’s 1991 self-titled debut album. Jarosz came across it when she was preparing to work with Leventhal, who’d played on that album. “That Marc Cohn record was my obsession all of last year when John and I were making my record,” she recalls, noting that the song “is like a little mini novel. You can just see his dad coming around the corner in the silver Thunderbird. The imagery is just so beautiful. Ultimately I picked these songs because I'm obsessed with them, and that was one of those songs.”
ON TUESDAY MORNING, this year’s Grammy nominations will be announced. Given Jarosz’s past track record — she’s been nominated seven times, winning three — chances are good that she’ll get some pleasant news.
Indeed, “World on the Ground” might well be the best record she’s ever made — largely because Jarosz wanted it to be different from anything she’d done before, even as it stayed true to who she is.
“That was part of why I asked John to produce, because I wanted to work with someone who could allow me to grow,” she says. “Ultimately, that's what I'm always trying to do as an artist — to grow, but not lose myself within the growth.”