At the age of 18, Sarah Jarosz was on the fast track to fame. With a bestselling debut album and a Grammy nomination under her belt, she was already being called a bluegrass wunderkind thanks to her sweet singing voice, mature songwriting, and mastery of the mandolin, guitar, and banjo. She had been asked to play on Austin City Limits and A Prairie Home Companion, and she made appearances at Bonnaroo, the Newport Arts Festival, and Telluride Bluegrass Festival. But instead of coasting on her early successes, Jarosz opted to put the touring on hold and go to college. Tell that to your nephew who wants to drop out to become a rock star.
Now, 19-year-old Jarosz is halfway through earning a degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. And while she’s stayed busy being a typical college kid — going to class, cramming for exams, and, you know, having a social life — music hasn’t exactly taken a back seat. In her spare time, she’s been working hard on her second album with Sugar Hill Records, Follow Me Down, which was released May 17. And she recently kicked off her biggest tour yet, which conveniently fits right into her three-month-long summer break. Her last final of the semester was May 10, and she hit the road May 13 on a jam-packed tour that will take her from her native Austin to Denmark. And on June 2, she’ll make her Spoleto debut.
“It’s a balancing act, for sure,” Jarosz says of her current lifestyle, “but coming out of high school there were definitely pros and cons to going to college or going out on the road. I just wanted to preserve this time in my life, to be a college student and not just go straight out on the road. Now that I’m halfway through, I’m really glad I got to do this.” Having performed since the age of 10, Jarosz grew up playing the acoustic/roots festival circuit, so she had plenty of mentors — including Chris Thile, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, and Gillian Welch — to weigh in on important life decisions.
“Because I was able to be exposed to all of that [touring] at such an early age, it was what made me really want to continue growing and not just go straight out onto the road,” Jarosz says. “So many of my heroes were advocates of me going to school and having this time in my life before continuing to grow.”
Jarosz is working toward a degree in contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory, which includes lessons in developing her personal style, ear training, music theory, ensembles, and private lessons. There’s also a good dose of liberal arts classes sprinkled in.
“School has really pushed me out of my comfort zone musically and got me thinking about things musically in a way I wasn’t before I came here,” Jarosz says. “Songwriting-wise, too, things have changed not only because of school but the personal life experiences, like moving away from home and starting this next chapter of my life. It’s been great. I’ve just barely started getting into ideas of arranging and seeing how that could become a part of what I do. It’s definitely been a challenge, but it’s been cool to watch it grow over the last few years.”
Jarosz’s first album, 2009’s Song Up in Her Head, was written when she was just 17 and released when she was 18. Overall, it had a pretty traditional bluegrass feel. Follow Me Down sticks close to Jarosz’s roots while blossoming in new directions — you’ll even hear drums on a few tracks. There’s a soft, introspective vibe to some of the songs, like “My Muse.”
“‘My Muse’ is one of the most honest songs I’ve ever written,” Jarosz says. “That’s a really good representation of my life right now musically and lyrically.
“It’s definitely a love song, but I think the cool thing about the idea of a muse is it can be anything that inspires you, it doesn’t have to be a person,” she adds. “For me it’s constantly changing, the things that are my muses, that inspire me.”
Jarosz is known for her creative covers, and this album doesn’t disappoint — she includes interpretations of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” She also has some big names to back her up. The Punch Brothers, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Viktor Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Shawn Colvin, and Vince Gill all make appearances on Follow Me Down. And then there are her equally skilled young tour-mates: violinist Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith. They back her up on most of the album’s songs and on tour.
“I feel like I’m branching out and this CD is a good representation of branching out. That’s definitely where I come from … The roots aspect of the music is so close to my heart and important to what I do, but with that being said, I want to try new things, so I’m trying to figure out a way to incorporate both.”