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SARAH JAROSZ, welcoming the future

Norman Warwick hears of

SARAH JAROSZ, welcoming the future

When she speaks to Paste online writer Mariel Fechik

Sarah Jarosz was playing live in a small black box theatre in North Adams, Massachusetts. She’d been commissioned to write a 30-minute composition for the FreshGrass Festival, and the resulting piece—a song cycle about her mom’s cancer and home state of Texas—had the audience weeping in the dark. There’s something in the way she uses her voice that is profoundly captivating—there’s a directness that conveys the nuance and clarity of her stories to the listener as though you are the only two people in the room. It hits whether you’re hearing her live or hearing her for the first time through car speakers, her voice and the breeze from the open windows almost harmonizing with each other.

The singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is a spinner of stories. Newly Nashville-based (by way of New York), Jarosz has built a career writing the kind of big-hearted, big-sky songs that live in your chest from the second you hear them. Whether she’s delivering her eerie, melancholy folk song cycle, twanging over a dark bluegrass melody (“House of Mercy” on 2016’s Undercurrent) or soaring through a banjo-forward Radiohead cover (“The Tourist” on Follow Me Down), Jarosz’s sophisticated musicianship has drawn in listeners and collaborators with equal enthusiasm for over a decade.

Her newest record, Polaroid Lovers, arrives after 2021’s gentle Blue Heron Suite and 2020’s insular World On The Ground, and it feels almost raucous in comparison. The latter two records were hushed and subtle, with vast but quiet internal worlds. But Polaroid Lovers opens with windows-down, highway-driving electric guitar and drums. Lead single “Jealous Moon” is pop-Americana at its most vital, with a wide open chorus and a driving pulse. “Of all the tracks, that one scared me a little because it felt so different than anything I’ve done before,” Jarosz shares. “When we recorded that one, I went back and forth about it being the first track. But, ultimately, there was no other way to open this record. There was some real freedom in embracing it.”

Sarah Jarosz is more than a decade into her career (despite only being in her early 30s), but her sense of discovery and desire to evolve is stronger than ever. “I think the ability to push forward comes from time, and having a more solidified and confident sense of myself and my musical journey,” she explains. “I don’t think I would have been able to make this record 10 years ago or even five years ago; but I had this feeling that I know myself and my musical voice well enough at this point that I can take these risks and not be too concerned about losing myself in the process.” Jarosz’s confidence is palpable across Polaroid Lovers, from the loping country shuffle of “Days Can Turn Around” to the contented mood of “Mezcal And Lime” or even the broad-shouldered chord progressions of “Runaway Train” and “Take the High Road.”

This sense of ease was also a top priority during the project’s development: “With this record, I was like, I’m not even going to make plans to record until I have more than enough songs. You always hear about songwriters saying, ‘Oh, I had 40 songs and I whittled it down to 10,’” Jarosz says. “I’ve never been in that position before, and so I thought, ‘There’s not a rush—what if I actually do that?’ I think living in Nashville for the first time had a big part in that.” Though not a stranger to recording in Nashville, it was the first time Jarosz was living there after leaving her longtime home of New York City. “Living somewhere is different [than just visiting],” she continues, “and I was more open to co-writes this time around. There was a lot of freedom in that creative exploration of writing with Daniel, John Randall, Sarah Buxton, Natalie Hemby, Kristen Kelly and Gordie Sampson. It was so cool”.

“Collecting” feels like the right word to describe the record. Contrary to her past two albums, which were intimately personal and character driven, Polaroid Lovers (right) feels a little like stumbling upon a stranger’s photo album. The songs on the album are snapshots and vignettes, simultaneously detailed and ambiguous. “I think that by not being hyper-specific about the who or the when or the what, it leaves space for listeners to determine what that means for them,” Jarosz says.

The title itself is suggestive of the past, of nostalgia and viewing life through the haze of memory. “It evokes a kind of youthful newness. You can imagine a couple in a photo booth, or somebody’s taking a Polaroid of them,” Jarosz says. “But then on another level, the Polaroid idea was cool to me because each song is like a snapshot of a different place or time in a relationship or different people or different couples or different versions of yourself, even; it could be all of the above.” It’s a generous way to write songs, which can be intensely personal to their authors—but Jarosz strikes the perfect balance between open-endedness and the specificity that is required to move people.

Even in her intentional vagueness, there is a strong sense of place on Polaroid Lovers, which has long been a hallmark of Sarah Jarosz’s writing. Take, for example, some of the lyrics to “Columbus & 89th,” a song about Jarosz’s move from NYC to Nashville: “Once in a while / The stars will align / At the corner of Columbus and 89th,” she sings, and, “I recall / Staying out with you / Til sunrise hit the Hudson.” In those small, glittering details of street intersections and sunrise-watching spots, the song is tied firmly to a specific place and to Jarosz’s grief in leaving it. Despite that, the intersection could be in any city, the river could be any body of water. For me, it immediately became Chicago—Belmont & Sacramento, or Kimball & Wrightwood. Watching the sunrise over Lake Michigan at Montrose Harbor. I left my Chicago home for Detroit in 2022 with no small amount of anxiety, and I tell Jarosz how long it took me to realize that it was a trauma in many ways.

“I’m really proud of that song,” she says. “For a long time after recording that song, I couldn’t listen back to it without crying. It was almost like I processed the emotion in the song before I processed it myself. I think it’s a good example of what I try to do with my songs, being fluid and honest with the emotion and being detailed, but not so much that other people can’t find their own story within it.”

She continues, “It doesn’t matter where it is—the feeling of having to leave a place when you don’t want to or when it’s forced is a really intense human experience and emotion. I mean, in my instance, I’m extremely lucky. I had another place to go, and it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things, but still that’s when it becomes related to what you’re saying about a sense of place and home and what home means.

I don’t think I really started to explore that concept until A World On The Ground with Texas. It was like I had to have time before time away from living there to write about it. And it’s similar with this—it was a whole year after leaving New York that I was even processing these emotions in songs. When I was younger, I didn’t think about sense of place so much, but now it’s something that keeps coming up a lot in my songs.”

That physical sense of place is so often directly linked to the metaphysical foundations of our senses of self—places are tied to people, and so in turn, to the sound of someone’s voice or the feeling of someone’s arm around your shoulders. The way dusk settles over a certain backyard while laughter floats across the breeze. “My favorite records enhance my days or my outlook, whether it’s that they kind of confirm something that I was already feeling, or whether it’s that it opens another window of like, ‘Oh, there’s some light here.’ There’s comfort in that, and I think that’s all I could really hope for someone to experience with my record,” she says.

There’s something almost sacred about discovering an artist when you’re a teenager, when the aimless nighttime drives with the windows down feel akin to ritual—it becomes even more so when you follow that artist through the next decade and the sound of their voice through your car speakers is a familiar comfort even when you’re hearing their newest record for the first time. Polaroid Lovers offers that comfort, even as if it offers forward motion. When I listen to this version of Sarah Jarosz, I am both the teenager in the polaroid snapshot and the adult driving home from work, existing all at once and so fleetingly.

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