While most of us twiddled away 2020 adjusting Zoom filters and washing our hands, Sarah Jarosz released a new record. World on the Ground, her second on the Rounder label, hit the ground almost exactly one year ago — not the best timing to launch a new album. “All my touring plans had to be canceled,” said the singer-songwriter lauded for her dreamlike, sure vocals and instrumental prowess. When Jarosz takes the Cistern stage on May 30 for the first of two nights at Spoleto Festival USA, it will be the first time she’s performed in person since the pandemic grounded her touring schedule and halted her work life. “It will be emotional for sure,” she says, “but more than anything it will be joyful.”
A Texas native and musical prodigy who signed her first recording contract in high school, Jarosz has basically grown up on stage and on the road. Music fans may know her as a regular on Chris Thile’s Live From Here.
“I’ve been in constant motion, touring since my teens, and don’t think I’ve been in one place so long in my life as this past year,” said the New England Conservatory graduate who turns 30 a week before she comes to Charleston. She found it challenging to learn a new daily structure — a new rhythm to anchor a more stationary life — but, it certainly didn’t impact the tightly layered rhythms evident in her music, particularly in World on the Ground.
Jarosz, who plays guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and clawhammer banjo, has also used the last year to delve more deeply into meditation, which perhaps comes as no surprise to fans who appreciate the lyrical depth of her songs, resonant with a wisdom that exceeds her years. “Don’t let ‘em keep you down, girl/ don’t let ‘em keep you down,” she sings in “Eve,” the opening track on World.
Indeed, nothing is keeping Jarosz down, not even a helluva pandemic. In fact, she’s soaring, having recently won her fourth Grammy, this one with World on the Ground as the 2021 Best Americana Album. It was just another part of this surreal year, she noted.
“I accepted the award virtually, sitting right here in my living room. It was weird but very special, an affirmation that despite this really tough year, the music didn’t get lost in the craziness of everything and that it resonated with people.”
Part of that joy she anticipates with her Spoleto return to live performance comes from the fact that John Leventhal, her producer and co-writer of four of World on the Ground’s tracks, will be playing with Jarosz’s band on the Cistern stage. Working with Leventhal, the genius producer, recording engineer and multi-instrumentalist behind such talent as Rosanne Cash (his wife), Shawn Colvin (one of Jarosz’s early and major influences), the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Michelle Branch and others was significant for Jarosz, who credits him for pushing her songwriting into richer, more narrative terrain. “We had such a fantastic time, and really clicked musically and creatively,” she said. “I’m thrilled that John will be with us as we play this music live in front of an audience for the first time.”
The set list, she suggests, may include some other tunes, perhaps even ones from Blue Heron Suite, a brand new record Jarosz released earlier this month (her second release during COVID), but she’s most excited to finally perform songs from this year’s Grammy winner. “It’s a chance to play catch up for the tour that never was,” she said. And, she’s equally delighted that her first post-COVID show will be at the Cistern, where she electrified audiences during the 2019 Spoleto season performing with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan of the Grammy-winning all-female bluegrass/Americana trio, I’m with Her.
“I can picture it in my brain, those trees, that magical space,” she said of the Cistern. “It’ll be so fun to have my first gig back be at a place I love. It’s been a long time coming, to say the least.”