Just off winning her first two Grammy Awards – for Best Folk Album (for “Undercurrent”) and Best American Roots Performance (for “House of Mercy”) – Sarah Jarosz will make her Ithaca debut at the Hangar Theatre Friday night in a show that sold out weeks ago.
The 25-year-old Texas native has been steadily making her way in the acoustic world, working with acclaimed producer Gary Paczosa to release four albums since 2009. Along the way, she picked up a degree at the New England Conservatory of Music and expanded her musical horizons far beyond the bluegrass and folk world in which she began her career.
In a recent phone interview, Jarosz talked about the Grammys, the new album, big-city life, and why she decided to go to college before hitting the road as a full-time musician.
Q: Will this be your first visit to Ithaca?
Sarah Jarosz: I’ve never been there, for some crazy reason. I’ve been hearing about it for a long time, and I’m so excited to finally be playing a show there.
Q: Congratulations on winning two Grammys last month. What was that night like?
SJ: It was such a thrill. This was my third time to go, my fifth nominations. SO I’ve been through the whole experience before but not won. It was extra special this time to be there with Gary Paczosa and celebrate, because I’ve been working with him for a decade. To win four records later is extra special.
Q: What are you going to do with your Grammy trophies?
SJ: I’m not sure yet. I don’t think I’ll get them for another few months. I have a mantel at home, so maybe they’ll go up there. But we’ll see when they finally arrive.
Q: Your latest album “Undercurrent” is consistent and coherent but diverse, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Was it a step forward for you musically and as a songwriter?
SJ: It was the first chance to just be able to focus on the writing and recording process, and not have the other workload of being in school. It was great for me to be able to buckle down and focus on writing and go into the studio basically in one big chunk.
Before, I would fly into Nashville for a weekend or over spring break, trying to fit it in whenever I could. This time having consistent time right in a row really helped with the consistent sound of the record itself.
Q: There are a few cuts with just you singing and playing guitar or mandolin, which is a pretty bare-bones approach.
SJ: That was very purposeful, especially because my last three records Gary and I went in with no boundaries, really. We would start that way, with just my voice and whatever instrument I happened to be playing and just build it up from there. But this time, with the meaning behind the songs and the way I wrote a lot of them, I really wanted to capture the solitude and have something a little more stripped down.
Q: The two co-writes with Joey Ryan of Milk Carton Kids sound a bit like his band, melodically.
SJ: I think that happens on all the co-writes, in a way. The two I wrote with Joey, the song I wrote with Aoife (O’Donovan) has a very Aoife-sounding harmonic vibe; similarly with Parker Millsap, it’s very bluesy and Parker-esque.
It’s fun to get other collaborations in there with artists I really respect. It was nice to have that balance on this record, because on the other half that I didn’t co-write it’s all pretty sparse and simple, so it was nice to interject some different energy in there as well.
Q: How has it been to bring these songs on the road?
SJ: It’s been so fun. It’s the first record where I can reproduce the songs live exactly how they sound on the record. In the past, there was a lot of other elements going on, so when I played those songs live it would feel much more stripped down.
I’ve been touring most recently with Jeff Picker on upright bass and Anthony da Costa on electric and acoustic guitar and singing, and that’s who will be with me in Ithaca. They’re just so incredible and it’s so much fun to play this music with them.
Q: How do you like living in New York City?
SJ: I love it. I’ve been there about three and half years now. It’s such a fun place to live. Going back to the touring life, at least for right now being young, it’s helpful for me to come back to a city that’s vibrant and quickly movement. It can almost be too polarizing after a crazy tour to come home to a really quiet place. It would take a little longer to settle in, though that could be nicer, too. And at some point, I’ll want that to be able to slow down a bit. But for right now, being a young person, it’s fun to go home and be thrown back into the thick of it in New York. And a lot of my friends are there, too.
Q: What was it like to grow up in Wimberley, Texas?
SJ: I think it’s cool town. It’s very small and rural, so it has this raw Texas thing going for it, but it has a proximity to Austin. My parents would take me to Austin every weekend to see live music, so it’s not hard to have a vibrant cultural experience while also having the barebones small Texas town experience as well.
Q: What spurred you to go to the New England Conservatory of Music rather than just diving into becoming a professional musician?
SJ: There were a lot of reasons. The main two were I wanted the opportunity to be challenged more musically, and get to be introduced to a lot of different styles that I hadn’t really focused on growing up. For the most part I was going to bluegrass and folk festivals and doing the whole acoustic music thing, and NEC gave me that opportunity to really bust out of that and work on tons of different styles, free improvisation and jazz, and all sorts of stuff. Both of my parents are teachers, so it was important to them and to me to have the chance to go to college.
Aside from that, the Boston music scene is so thriving and exciting, and a lot of my friends I had made in the music scene growing up were flocking there, so I knew that’s where I wanted to be anyways, so NEC felt like the right fit. But also, the idea of going straight on the road right out of high school was daunting to me. I know that works for a lot of people, but I wanted a bit of a buffer zone to have a little more structured time, at least for those four years. And I feel like I’m a lot more into this touring lifestyle now because I wasn’t just thrown into at 18. But that’s just me, and it worked for me.