Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Sarah at 17

April 16, 2009 by Michael Corcoran

The two producers had been hunkered down in a Nashville studio all weekend, tweaking an album that mixes bluegrass virtuosity with airy country pop vocals. “Let’s call it a day,” producer Gary Paczosa said one Sunday evening. “We’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

But producing partner Sarah Jarosz, whose debut album they were recording, reminded him that she had to fly back to Austin that night. “I’ve got classes tomorrow,” she said.

Paczosa, whose credits include seven albums with Alison Krauss, laughed when he thought about the year he spent on Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head” LP, which comes out June 16 on Sugar Hill Records. “That’s the first time I’ve made a record working around my co-producer’s school schedule,” he said. But Jarosz, a 17-year-old senior at Wimberley High School, has long juggled academics and a music career, with success in both fields. The mandolin picker with the angelic voice, who wrote 11 of the 13 songs on her album, is also a member of the National Honor Society.

“My parents are both schoolteachers, and they instilled a love of education in me at an early age,” said Jarosz, whose father, Gary, is her government teacher at Wimberley High. Teachers get summers off, which has given her parents time to take their only child to bluegrass camps and festivals across the country during the past few years.

“One of the most impressive things about Sarah and her parents is the effort they’ve made to keep the balance in her life, with her schoolwork such a priority,” Wimberley High principal Greg Bonewald said.

Jarosz is a finalist in the “Miss WHS” pageant, with the winner to be announced at Saturday’s senior prom, but she has to miss it. Her trio has a gig at the Old Settler’s Music Festival on Saturday afternoon, with a lot of visiting and jamming after that. Jarosz has played the bluegrass-flavored fest, which runs today through Sunday at the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood, the past eight years. It’s where she got her taste for bluegrass and fell under the wings of masters such as David Grisman, Abigail Washburn and Tim O’Brien.

But first she was a fan. As a fourth-grader making her first visit to Old Settler’s in 2001, Jarosz told Chris Thile, then of Nickel Creek, that she hoped to one day be good enough to play with him. “Let’s jam sometime,” Thile wrote in her program.

“And now Chris is all over my first album!” said Jarosz, who also plays banjo, guitar and piano. “How unbelievable is that?”

Jarosz was signed to a record deal by Paczosa, a vice president at Sugar Hill Records, after her performance at Colorado’s prestigious Telluride Festival in 2007. Recording sessions for the debut began during spring break 2008. Paczosa decided to give Jarosz a co-producer credit, rare for a 17-year-old singer, when it became clear she wanted to be involved in every aspect of the project. As multi-instrumentalist O’Brien wrote in the liner notes to the upcoming album by his protégé, “Sarah is that rare, self-possessed teenager … She knows what she’s about and is ready to get out there and make her mark.”

Jarosz said it was a goal to record her first album before graduating high school, to sum up this early chapter of her life. Some tracks on “Song Up In Her Head” – the meditative “Edge of a Dream” and a cover of the Decemberists’ “Shankill Butchers” – give a glimpse of the new singer-songwriter direction in which she is heading. But bluegrass is deep in her heart.

Mary Jarosz, who teaches pre-kindergarten at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Wimberley, said all the good things that have come to her daughter have come naturally, without any parental pushing. Even the career-changing set at Telluride smacked of kismet, as the promoter had one last slot to fill and remembered Sarah Jarosz belting out “Blue Moon of Kentucky” at a bluegrass camp a couple years earlier. “When she was 2 years old, she was singing ‘Grand Ole Flag’ (at her preschool) and drew the attention of a truly marvelous music teacher named Diana Riepe,” Mary Jarosz said. When Sarah Jarosz was a baby, Riepe raised her on the Kodaly Method, which stresses that instrumental training shouldn’t begin until a musical ear has been developed through singing.

Sarah Jarosz picked up the mandolin at age 10, when a fellow parishioner at St. Mary’s Catholic Church lent her one. “We ended up buying it and giving it to Sarah at Christmas,” Gary Jarosz said. But that meant the mandolin had to be returned, so it could be wrapped and put under the tree as a surprise. “It was so hard to do that,” Mary Jarosz said. “Sarah had really become attached to that mandolin.”

Paczosa credits Jarosz’s parents, who moved to Wimberley from Austin 15 years ago, with keeping their daughter grounded. “They’re not stage parents at all,” Paczosa said. “They’re there to support Sarah in whatever interests she has, and it just so happens that she’s really into music.”

The parents were faced with “probably the toughest decision we’ve ever had to make” when they allowed their daughter to travel to New York City by herself at age 15 to attend a Thile concert at Carnegie Hall. “It was my first trip anywhere by myself, and I could really feel a sense of independence, inspiration and growth,” said Sarah Jarosz, who instantly fell in love with the Big Apple.

“That trip to New York changed our lives, too,” Mary Jarosz said, “because we realized ‘she can do this on her own.’”

In September, she’ll move to Boston to attend either the Berklee College of Music or the New England Conservatory; she’s been accepted to both but has not picked one.

Jarosz said she’ll miss her parents as much as they’ll miss her. “Whenever I write a new song, they’re the first ones I play it for,” she said. “They’re always honest with me.”

One day she emerged from her bedroom with a tune-in-progress she wasn’t so sure of. She sat at the piano and sang “I have just begun/ A long journey that will run/ The length and width of summertime/ And the cool fall air will blow me home,” and her parents applauded. “The Long Journey” is a highlight of “Song Up In Her Head.”

The long journey just begun gets really interesting in the next few weeks as Jarosz graduates from high school, turns 18 and releases her first album. She might even trade her learner’s permit for a driver’s license.
(Cover photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

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