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Bonnaroo 2014 interview: Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz will play Bonnaroo 2014 on June 15 as part of the Bluegrass Situation stage.
Photo by Rick Diamond

Sarah Jarosz has been a professional musician since she was a teenager. Her debut album, “Song Up In Her Head”, was recorded in 2009 while she was still in high school. Now 23 and touring in support of her third album, 2013's “Build Me Up From Bones”, Jarosz is preparing to make her third appearance at Bonnaroo, playing as part of the Bluegrass Situation Stage and Superjam on Sunday, June 15. We caught up with Jarosz by phone today to talk about her Bonnaroo appearance, new album, and her touring plans for the rest of the year.

Before we start talking about your show at Bonnaroo, congrats for your Americana Music Award nomination for Album of the Year!

Thanks. I was super stoked about that. Quite a group of people to be nominated with.

Jason Isbell, Robert Ellis, and Rosanne Cash. That's quite a crowd to run with.

Yeah. Definitely!

Coming up on Sunday, you're playing Bonnaroo.

I'm really excited to get back there. This is my third year to play the festival. I'm excited because we're going to be able to get in a little early, we're arriving on Friday, and hang the whole weekend. That will make it even more fun. And then obviously, to be a part of the Bluegrass Situation Stage and play on a stage with some of our favorite musicians.

Have you had a chance to work with Ed Helms or the Bluegrass Situation before?

Yeah. I've had a chance to meet Ed off and on over the years at different shows. Probably the most memorable was Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He's been going to that for a few years so that's where I met him and Amy Reitnour, who is kind of his right hand gal with the Bluegrass Situation stuff. I think they're doing some great stuff and it's neat they're throwing together these Superjams and changing things up a little bit. And I'm so honored they've asked us to be part of it.

So you will be participating at the Superjam?

Definitely. The way it's going to work is they host the stage all day Sunday, so everyone will play their own sets and then it will culminate with a big Superjam including all the people who played on the stage.

You mentioned this is the third time you've played Bonnaroo. What makes Bonnaroo such a good fit for your style of music?

I've had really great fun sets both times I played. My first set was me doing solo stuff and then my second was with my trio of Nat Smith and Alex Hargreaves. I'm always amazed at how the lineup is so varied and there's so much, but everyone really seems to be so into the music. There's so much else going on besides the music, it kind of amazes me that Bonnaroo audiences are so keen to hear something new or discovering something they haven't heard before. That's pretty special and it's why I enjoy getting to keep coming back.

You said you're coming in on Friday this year. Is there anyone you're excited to check out?

Yeah. Definitely Elton John. I think that's what I'm most excited for. He starts just as the Superjam finishes so I'll have to head over there. The lineup is so overwhelming, there's so much stuff. I think I've looked at it about 10 times -laugh- There's too much going on!

Speaking of variety, you've certainly had some variety in the covers you choose for your albums, everything from Bob Dylan to Radiohead to Joanna Newsom on the new one, which was just an amazing cover.

Thanks! It's very different picking songs to cover live than on an album. I'm constantly trying to figure out new songs to play in a live setting. But when you're deciding what to put on an album, there's a lot of different things that go into it. It starts with having an artist I love and admire and want to do one of their songs, but I also think, like with “The Book of Right On”, it brought something to the album that wasn't already there. It's fun to do songs that don't sound anything like something I write. It's fun to pick songs that are different than what I already do. So we take a song like “Book of Right On” and try to bring something new to it, with that song taking just vocal and harp and trying to break it up into three different instruments. Or with our other cover there, Bob Dylan's “Simple Twist of Fate”, it's so sparse. The reason it's just cello and vocal on my rendition of that was because it was exciting to include something so stripped down because it's not something I've done on an album before.

When you're playing a festival where people might not know your music, how do you change your setlist selections vs. a show where people have specifically come to see you?

We do tailor it differently for a festival crowd. I might play more upbeat songs than I would in a performing arts center where I'd feel the freedom to take my time more to play slower, softer music. There's a certain level of energy a festival requires because the nature of a festival is high energy. So we'll do something like The Beatles' “Drive My Car”, more upbeat songs that are fun for us to play too.

People hear Sarah Jarosz and think solo artist but your trio has been together as a solid unit for a while now.

Yeah, it's been a little over 4 years now. They bring so much. We've been playing together for so long that the musicianship is locked into a special place where we can play without a lot of communication because we have just come to know each other so well as musicians. With this last album, I wanted to incorporate them more in the album's sound. We've really tried to evolve the music into a trio setting. A trio is special because it does allow for so much space within the songs but we can also build it up really big. The rhythmic aspect of Nat and Alex's playing is really great and something we try to really bring to fruition.

You guys are all really great and really young musicians. Is there a little competitiveness on the road or in the studio?

-laugh- I don't know if I'd call it competitive. We're always trying to show each other new stuff and push each other musically, but I don't think that has to be competitive. It's a special thing because, even though we've played together 4 years now, we've known each other for a much longer time. We all met when we were young teenagers at different music camps and festivals around the country. That's why Bonnaroo is so fun for us, it brings us back to our roots of Telluride and Rockygrass. Festivals are how we discovered our love of music. I think because our musical friendship started just for fun, it comes through our musicality as a trio.

Once you finish up with Bonnaroo, what do you have going the rest of the Summer and Fall?

We're going to be really busy. I'm getting to go to Telluride just for fun this year, I'll be doing a few workshops there. We'll be opening a handful of dates for Nickel Creek, which I'm really excited for because I don't know if I'd be doing this if not for those guys. Then in July we'll head over to the UK for a three week tour, then Ireland and Scotland. And we'll do the Cambridge Folk Festival.

Sarah Jarosz will play Bonnaroo on Sunday, June 15 at 2:30 in That Tent. Bonnaroo 2014 will be held June 12-15 in Manchester, Tn. Acts include Elton John, Jack White, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

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