No one was more surprised than Sarah Jarosz when she received her first Grammy nomination in 2010.
The 25-year-old Americana singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was then a freshman at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she was studying contemporary improvisation.
"My roommate and I were both sitting at our desks and I got a text from my publicist saying, 'Congratulations Grammy,'" Jarosz says. "I had no idea that something like that could happen. We had a small party on our floor, but then we all had to get back to our homework."
Jarosz's matter-of-fact modesty contrasts with her talent, which can only be described as precocious. A prodigy on guitar, banjo and mandolin, the Wimberly, Texas native played her first bluegrass festival when she was 11 years old. She became a bluegrass and folk festival circuit stalwart while still in grade school, sharing stages with David Grisman and Ricky Skaggs. At age 16, she signed with Sugar Hill Records and started working on her 2009 debut album. In addition to highlighting her instrumental chops, that collection, Song Up in Her Head, showcased Jarosz's mature and sophisticated songwriting on country-flavored folk tunes that seem both timeless and contemporary.
Songwriting was on Jarosz's radar from the very start, she maintains. "My favorite music was by people who were writing their own songs, artists like Nickel Creek and Gillian Welch. I wanted to try it too."
To develop her songwriting skills Jarosz eschewed pursuing her career full time after high school, and enrolled in college instead.
"College broadened my palate beyond bluegrass and folk," she says. "It stretched my ear, exposing me to different styles of music that I hadn't dug in to before." Within her first year, Jarosz was playing Klezmer, studying free improvisation and learning jazz standards. She began to implement these newfound tools into her own songwriting, crafting her second album, Follow Me Down, during her sophomore year. Jarosz finished her 2013 collection Build Me Up from Bones — which netted her a second Grammy nomination — in her senior year. All the while, she balanced schoolwork with her career. In 2014, she took a break from her own projects to tour with I'm With Her, a female folk super group she formed with fellow singer/songwriters Aoife O'Donovan and Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins. That summer, she also played a month's worth of dates with Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion.
These side projects have fueled a fresh approach to her own work, Jarosz maintains. She says her latest album Undercurrent has benefitted from her renewed excitement for the project.
Undercurrent represents a series of firsts for Jarosz. It's her first album since graduating from college. It's her first since disbanding her long time touring group of fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith (who also played on Build Me Up From Bones). And it's her first collection of songs penned from her new home in New York City.
"I had always wanted to live in New York since I visited the city when I was 15," Jarosz says. "After I graduated, it seemed like the perfect time to make the move."
The relocation was also influenced by remarks Jackson Brown made at the Americana Music Awards in 2014. Jarosz recalls Brown saying that a songwriter must find an isolated space where no one can hear them, in order to create.
"That struck a chord with me in terms of how it relates to my writing and my life. You have to be able to try anything, to allow yourself to say something stupid to get to the marrow — the good stuff.
"For the first time in my life I've been able to truly focus on songwriting as a craft, to sit down every day, even when the inspiration isn't there, and chip away at these ideas. A lot of that time was spent alone here in my New York apartment," she maintains. "If you can create the right place for yourself, it can be a spiritual environment."
As a result, Jarosz feels Undercurrent is her first record that is a complete thought — a story with a beginning, middle and an end.
"I feel a sense of ownership over the record. These songs all fit together, and each has a similar feel and meaning, not only within the songs, but also in the way they were recorded. I wanted to record it in a sparse manner to capture that feeling behind the songs."
After the lush experimental arrangements of Build Me Up From Bones, the new collection stresses simplicity and intimacy. Four songs rely on the unvarnished power of Jarosz's warm soprano, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. On other tunes, she collaborates with artists ranging from Americana firebrand Parker Millsap to her I'm With Her bandmate Aoife O'Donovan, but the sound is still spare and the viewpoint unsparing. True to its title, Undercurrent is a deep dive to what is essential. If at times the album seems like a dream of life, it's a lucid dream. If it's a meditation, that contemplation is grounded in raw, almost tactile emotions.
The sensuous and sinister "House of Mercy" is as mysterious as it is unyielding. Is it a putdown of a former lover, rejection of a way of life, or both? Either way, the tune seems to stress that opening one door means that another must be closed. "Jacqueline" paints a picture of Jarosz in solitary rumination at the Central Park reservoir named for Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
"It's a melancholy song about when it's good to be alone and when you long to not be," Jarosz says.
Jarosz adds that the album represents the first time in her life that she's had the opportunity to reflect deeply on solitude, creativity and the necessity to peel away layers. "There is a more assured sound within these songs, because I fill those spaces better than I ever had before."