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Sarah Jarosz finds the song up in her head

By Jessica Phillips, June 2009

In some ways, the summer will bring with it all the activities that an 18-year-old high school graduate and musician like Sarah Jarosz might expect. She received her diploma, graduated with honors, accepted a scholarship to attend the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in the fall, and she will be playing at music festivals all summer. Oh yes...and she just released her first album on Sugar Hill Records, featuring performances by Nickel Creek virtuoso Chris Thile, bluegrass legend Del McCoury and Stuart Duncan.

Jarosz was raised in Wimberley, Texas, just outside the live music hub of Austin. Her mother played rhythm guitar and wrote songs, and her parents exposed her to all kinds of music - from rock and blues to country and bluegrass. The young Jarosz showed an interest and talent for music almost immediately; she began playing banjo and singing at 2 years old, picked up piano at 10 and slowly added clawhammer banjo, mandolin and guitar to her musical arsenal.

"The best thing about bluegrass is that it is so accessible. Performers understand that bluegrass music is a tradition that needs to be carried on, and they encourage young musicians," she says. She credits her parents for supporting her interest in playing. "They never forced me to perform, but they made it possible for me to go to different festivals and academies to learn to play music."

Sarah Jarosz performs Song Up In My Head at KXAN Austin, June 10, 2009

Undoubtedly, the impromptu jam sessions, performance workshops and legions of young bluegrass enthusiasts that turn out to numerous bluegrass festivals every year made it easy for the precocious Jarosz to hone her skills. She began playing a weekly bluegrass jam in Wimberly, gaining a following in the area and eventually traveling to attend other festivals across the country. For seven years, she attended a week-long academy that precedes the RockyGrass festival in Colorado and spent time jamming with other young talents at gatherings like the Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz, Cal. and the Old Settler's Music Festival.

Along the way, she found time to perform at Telluride and Wintergrass bluegrass fests and received an invitation to perform as part of the "Young American Bluegrass Idols Show" during IBMA's annual convention in Nashville. She also shared the stage with McCoury during a New Year's Eve show in Nashville.

It was during a performance at Telluride that Sugar Hill Record's vice president of A&R heard Jarosz's earthy, soulful voice and invited her to make an album with the label.

Jarosz's vocals are full and confident; they are more reminiscent of a soulful Colbie Caillat than Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent. "I grew up listening to all kinds of music," says Jarosz. "I never took a car ride without listening to music, you know? I think of Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers as influences, and I think of Chris Thile and Tim O'Brien as influences. I try to be as original as possible."

Though she's already preformed and recorded with some of those artists, she still has a wish list. "I would love to play with Gillian Welch. Her voice is amazing. I met her in an autograph line, but I have yet to perform with her."

Jarosz recorded a stunning rendition of The Decemberists' Shankill Butchers, which fits naturally among her own self-written compositions. She told of receiving a call from multi-instrumentalist and Decemberist bandmate Chris Funk, who said he liked her fresh take on the song.

Aside from two cover songs, the rest of "Song Up in Her Head" is filled with tunes like the lilting title track, the haunting I Can't Love You Now and the standout gospel feel of Little Song. In each, Jarosz displays not only a musicianship well beyond her years, but a distinct and original viewpoint as well.

"I love writing songs. It helps that I play so many instruments. Each one inspires different feelings and emotions. I get into phases when I write. I write a lot on guitar, but lately I have written a lot on mandolin. If I feel like I have writer's block, I can switch to another instrument and be inspired again. I will begin with a lyric or maybe a poem. I write poetry, too, and many times I think of a melody for it. I tend to write melodies and lyrics separately, and then see what fits."

This National Honors Society member brings the same idea of balance to her future college plans. "I feel like I've learned how to balance music and school when I was in high school. I know how to manage my time well. I always tried to get my schoolwork done ahead of time so that it didn't interfere with music. I just take one step at a time."

Jarosz is as excited as any graduate to be attending one of her first-choice colleges. "I have friends who live in Boston, and it has a great music scene. I look forward to learning more about music and to being in a creative environment.

That way, she can give us more of those songs up in her head.