Stripping away convention, honing in on narrative, and keeping complex melodies afloat with her ethereal vocals, Sarah Jarosz is a superlative presence in the roots music landscape. The daughter of two schoolteachers hailing from Wimberley, Texas, she began learning to play the mandolin at age 9. By the time she turned 12, Sarah was already gracing stages alongside the likes of musical giants David Grisman and Ricky Skaggs.
Her multi-instrumentalist capabilities and songwriting proficiency only grew from there; at the age of 16, Jarosz signed a deal with Sugar Hill Records and released her first album, Song Up in Her Head, in 2009. This critically acclaimed record would be the first of what now surmounts to seven full-length, tremendously lauded projects. Polaroid Lovers, Jarosz’s latest and the muse of her current tour, is set to be released on January 26, 2024.
Over the span of nearly two decades spent recording and touring, Sarah Jarosz has established herself as a foundational thread in the tapestry of modern roots music. From impeccable collaborations (with Punch Brothers, David Grisman, Sierra Ferrell), to forming a supergroup alongside Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Watkins (I’m With Her), to a whopping 5 hours and 45 minutes of music published under her name, Jarosz stands firmly in her power. As she forges ahead, she only continues to outdo herself.
While her entire catalog is sure to edify any listener, this compilation showcases some of Jarosz’s most essential tracks. Tracing the arc of her musicianship from adolescence to adulthood, the following 17 songs demonstrate the particular sonic maturity, lyrical astuteness, and emotional evocation that span all she creates.
From Jarosz’s first album, Song Up in Her Head, this indelible instrumental boldly answers the question, “Can a mandolin be a lead instrument?” with a resounding, “Of course!” The first of many Grammy nominations acquired throughout her career, this tune was considered for Best Country Instrumental in 2009. Impossibly advanced beyond her years, Jarosz’s nimble and articulate melody is akin to a sonic coast through star-studded galaxies.
“Come On Up To The House”
In a clear demonstration of the range of her musical influences, the most-streamed song from Sarah’s inaugural album is a cover of Tom Waits’s “Come On Up To The House.” Her cool, slippery voice lends a new angle to the iconic tune. Paired with astute backing vocals from Tim O’Brien and a slick fiddle solo by Alex Hargreaves, this song grooves right along – an ingenious, albeit unlikely, bluegrass cover.
Jarosz’s sophomore album, Follow Me Down, is latent with a mystical quality that reaches towards the ethers, shepherded into expansiveness by a creative spectrum of influences. The third track, “Annabelle Lee,” features lyrics adapted from the illustrious Edgar Allen Poe poem of the same name. Jarosz sets the eerie tale against a conglomerate of haunting textures – the heightened pace and drums evoke a sense of urgency while Jerry Douglas makes his lap steel wail, a somber cello moans, and Dan Tyminski’s backing vocals lend fullness to the ravenous depths of this dark tune. It is also worth noting that Jarosz performed and recorded this tune, very fittingly filmed in an old hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, for the Transatlantic Sessions in 2011. (Watch above.)
Sarah sure knows how to pick a cover. From Prince to the Decemberists to Joanna Newsom, she can masterfully braid her grace and artistry into anything. “The Tourist” offers Jarosz’s take on Radiohead, an influence cited among many of Jarosz’s contemporaries, including Madison Cunningham and Chris Thile. In fact, Punch Brothers provide the musical backdrop on this track, their syncopated rhythms and blustery fills meeting Jarosz and Thile’s airtight harmonies to create a sense of whirling, palpable, delicate angst.
“Build Me Up From Bones”
Off of her Grammy-nominated third album, this titular track received an additional nom for Best American Roots Song of 2014. This song is SJ’s most popular of all time, having racked up a total of 70.7M streams on Spotify. Here, Jarosz’s songwriting forges into new territory; her lyrics are both poetic and measured, imbued with textures of velvety longing. The form matches the content, from Aoife O’Donovan’s dewy harmonies to the pizzicato string section to the gorgeous cello solo. Effectively, listeners are bathed in a most intimate listening experience that beckons infinite re-listens.
In another track off of Build Me Up From Bones, here SJ shares songwriting credits with the legendary Darrell Scott. The result? Pure synastry. Underscored by pulsating Celtic rhythms, this uptempo earworm says 1,000 things despite its brevity.
“House of Mercy”
This tune, along with the album carrying it – Undercurrent – won Sarah her first two Grammys in one night. “House of Mercy” was crowned Best American Roots Performance of 2017, and it was indubitably worthy. Jarosz shares songwriting credits with Australian singer-songwriter Jedd Hughes, and together they achieve a dark story arc as the encumbered narrator addresses an unwanted visitor. Jarosz opens up her sound into cutting, fierce Americana twang – effectively offering audiences a new layer to her multitudes of sound.
The closing track of Undercurrent is stark, honest, and bewildering. The song is named after the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in New York City where Jarosz, who once lived nearby, would often do her pondering. Accompanied solely by an electric guitar, Jarosz’s voice is agile and glimmering as liquid silver. She muses over the reflective surface and projected companion while disclosing her own state of unease, immersing listeners in an intimate, unyielding pensiveness.
“Your Water” (with Parker Millsap)
The first of a two-single release titled the Luck Mansion Sessions (2017), SJ here collaborates with fellow singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Parker Millsap. The track, written and originally released by Millsap, is delivered as a duet. The groove opens up into a soul-type feel, allowing for Sarah to showcase a more raw, bluesy, unmeasured latitude of her voice.
“See You Around”
“See You Around” is the title track off of supergroup I’m With Her’s first and – to every listener’s chagrin – only full-length album. In 2018, Jarosz linked up with two of the most astounding women in roots music, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins, to form a trio of unadulterated excellence (it should be noted that that group won Americana Music Association’s Music Duo/Group of the Year). The album waffles between the three songwriters’ contributions, with each vocalist singing lead on an approximately even number of tracks. “See You Around” is driven by Jarosz’s signature poetic lyrics and fluttery melody, elevated to new horizons by the pristine, angelic blend of harmonies from Watkins and O’Donovan. The musical chemistry these women share evokes the divine; every single song on this album delivers listeners into the sublime.
For her also Grammy-winning fifth studio album, World on the Ground (2020), Sarah Jarosz invites listeners to experience an array of vignettes; her songs on this album, more than ever, become vehicles for potent storytelling.“Johnny” is the second of three tracks on the album named, presumably, for a character the song aims to illustrate. Jarosz has said that during this album, she “[Tried] to take a step back and look out at the world in my songwriting, rather than looking inward,” and spent much time constructing the album as a patchwork of memories from her hometown in Texas, both faithful and fictionalized.
“Johnny” conveys the psychological landscape of a slightly drunk, slightly disillusioned man who is “just waitin’ on the stars/ that will never align.” It’s all slightly devastating, yet the melody latches onto an unforgettable earworm of a hook uplifted by its folk-pop flavor. Jarosz incorporates a strings section alongside drums, electric guitar, and mandolin, seamlessly using the nuances of sound to bolster the complex mundanities of Johnny’s life.
“Pay It No Mind”
Jarosz shares the songwriting credits on “Pay It No Mind” (also off of World on the Ground) with the renowned John Leventhal, who also produced the album and plays a slew of instruments sprinkled throughout. The song begins with just Sarah and a pensive guitar riff, musing upon a bird and her ponderings. The song then builds in dynamics, layering percussion and eventually a full orchestration of instruments and vocals. It’s slick, it’s sly, and it looks at the world with a cool sense of distance.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” / “my future”
In the midst of quarantine, Sarah Jarosz committed to staying connected with fans by using Garageband and her home microphone to record one cover each week from July to October of 2020. In January 2021, she released two of the covers, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and Billie Eilish’s “my future,” on streaming services. These barebones covers are a time capsule of a moment drenched in emotion, isolation, and fear. Catharsis swells through the minimalistic recordings – Jarosz cradles her whole soul into these songs, and the results are absolutely astounding.
For her sixth full-length studio album, Blue Heron Suite (2021), Sarah Jarosz released a song cycle that she first premiered at Freshgrass in 2017, whereupon she was awarded with the Freshgrass Composition Commission. At the time, Sarah was reckoning with her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflecting upon childhood trips to the town of Port Aransas, Texas, which at that time had recently been severely affected by Hurricane Harvey. Named for the Great Blue Herons she and her mother used to observe along the town’s shore, this album is imbued with love and hope in its deepest forms. “Mama,” the opening track, is an utterly gorgeous, pared-down arrangement of voice and guitar – a most gentle and tender ode to Jarosz’s mother, who is thankfully now in remission.
“For Free” (with David Crosby)
An astonishing songwriter and pioneer of three-part harmony in American roots/folk music as we know it, David Crosby was a long time supporter of Sarah Jarosz’s work up until his passing last January. Sarah graced the title track of Crosby’s final full-length solo album, For Free (2021). The two sing the entirety of this Joni Mitchell cover in tight harmony, their voices mirroring one another perfectly. The pared back solo piano accompaniment highlights the duo’s vocal finesse; every riff is intertwined with precision and elegance.
“Jealous Moon” was the first of four singles SJ released from her upcoming album, Polaroid Lovers (out this Friday). Co-written alongside Daniel Tashian, the record’s producer, Sarah remarks of the song, “I’m always seeking to push myself into new sonic territory, and this song gave me permission to not hold back.” In this track, she boldly steps away from her traditional acoustic tethers and moves towards a more pop-rock-twang fusion. Jarosz successfully elicits a sense of novelty while still embodying the sense of fullness and depth she puts into all she creates – reminding us that we still have yet to see the full bloom of her artistry.
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez