After one misdial, two press representatives, and three disconnected calls, Sarah Jaffe, the 26-year-old singer/songwriter, and I finally connect. Her soft voice travels through the phone, kind but confident, responding to my questions with a sweet innocence that doesn’t necessarily match her music. She begins with cookie-cutter monologues, repackaged and presented to me as new, discussing her inauguration into the world of music and moving to a more edgy sound. But as we talk she begins to shed her layers, giving me a glimpse into her process and inspiration.
A Texan who much prefers bars to babies, Sarah Jaffe began her professional career in 2010 as a veritable folk crooner. Blazing onto the scene in her hometown of Denton, she belted out twang-heavy ballads and garnered notoriety from the likes of Rolling Stone. She spent the year with guitar in hand, nimbly plucking sweet melodies as she toured throughout Europe and the U.S. But when 2011 found her in a creative rut, she turned to new instruments and a new producer, emerging a multidimensional sophomore sensation.
After months in the studio and on the cusp of a much anticipated tour, April saw the debut of Jaffe’s newest LP, The Body Wins. Not devoid of traces of Jaffe’s past, “Paul”, the opener, is a slow number that showcases her strong vocals and classic skill, though her acoustic guitar has been swapped for an electric. It is on the more beat-driven songs, however, like “Glorified High”, where Jaffe really shines. Her lyrics take on new meaning with the electro-pop backing of her band, where pianos, organs, drums, and bass create a layer we’ve never seen.
How did you get started in music and songwriting?
I grew up in a family that had a deep admiration for music in general. I grew up singing in church choir and my dad was an avid Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell fan. I became interested in musical instruments when I was three or four and my parents bought me every instrument that I asked for and gave me lessons. So I always knew that I wanted to play for as far back as I can remember. I started playing shows when I was 17.
How old were you when you started to write your own songs?
It was around the time that I started playing guitar, I was like nine or 10.
What were some of your first songs about?
Oh god, I don’t remember. I’m sure they were sort of a spinoff of the sort of artists I was listening to. I’d only been on the planet for nine or 10 years, you know, not a lot of tortured situations, so probably just about what little I knew of life, and what other people knew of love, and me trying to act like I knew it too.
You got a ton of praise and notoriety very early on, getting a mention in Rolling Stone among other things. How was that for you?
It was really cool! I was incredibly fortunate to work with people that were very industrious and brought a lot of good opportunities to me, and so through those opportunities a lot of great things came from them. It was great, it was kind of this affirmation and also fuel to keep going and keep doing what I love.
Definitely. And now you’re about to tour with Norha Jones and Blitzen Trapper.
Yeah yeah I’m really excited! The Norah thing came through a few days ago, we’ve been working out the details for that, and then Blitzen Trapper just came through a couple days ago as well.
How does the songwriting process change on tour?
Well, fortunately, [on tour] has been the way that I write lately. For so long my job was to write songs and be [in Texas] when I wasn’t on tour, and then my job changed to where I had to be gone all the time, so you just kind of adapt naturally to that. And for now, when I’m on the road my brain goes into work mode, writing and performing. But when I’m home I want to do the laundry and I want to go to the movies and I just want to shut off for a little bit. So it’s harder for me to write at home.
How do you respond to pressure to write a song within a certain time frame?
Strangely enough, I found out that I seem to work well under pressure. I feel like I need that kind of kick. If I have this leisurely amount of time, then I become laidback in every sense of the way. I’ve had a couple of freak out moments recording this last record because I’d only written four or five songs going into making it. I wrote the rest of them while in the studio, and that was a first. And it’s just because the definition of working for me has kind of changed. Music and performing is now my primary job.
What side jobs did you previously have?
I had a ton of side jobs. When I first moved to Denton, TX when I was 22, I worked as a delivery driver for a little bit at Jimmy Johns, delivering sandwiches. That job was a nightmare, and then I lived off credit cards and then I worked in a daycare for literally a hot minute. I walked in and walked out. And then I started bartending at Dan Silverleaf, and that was by far my favorite job. There’s been a slew of office to day care, and then finally I got a job [bartending] that I really liked. Occasionally I’ll go into Dan’s and work a shift.
How exactly did you get your first album out?
Basically, in 2008 I was working with a guy, his name was Chris Gillman, and Chris knew a guy that ran a one-man label. This guy was cool enough to put out X amount of money so I could put out this record and he put it under his label.
Your second album is so different than your first album, much more electronic and multi-dimensional. How did you decide to go in this new direction?
There really wasn’t any, ‘I’m going to make this record to be different’. The Body Wins was obviously a huge step in a different direction for me, personally, but this is the record that I always wanted to make but just never knew how. There was a lot of traveling and a lot of time to think and experiment with different sounds and also just coming to the realization that I want to learn everything I possibly can. I play with a really great band full of really talented people, and I met with this other girl, her name’s Fiona Brice, she wrote all the string rings and the horn rings. Somewhere in the middle of thinking about this record, before we went into recording it, I knew that I wanted to make it bigger.
With all the new facets, the new instruments and sounds, how has the songwriting process changed?
About four or five of the songs were written about a year and a half ago on the road or right after a tour, so I still had that momentum. But while I was in the studio I had a handful of songs that were either halfway finished, or just ideas. I sat down with John Congleton and he basically said, sing me everything you have and I don’t care if you’re embarrassed about it. Of course I was embarrassed about all of it, but a number of songs came from that.
Did they get restructured as he worked with them?
A lot of them were recycled lyrics. Songs that I had thrown out years ago. When I bought a base and a drum set a couple years back, just to see if I could play drums and sing at the same time, I started to sing this thing, which was the chorus to Glorified High. It was really just me splurring out words. John mapped out this electronic beat, and once he did that I was able to format the song: verse, chorus and it all went from there.
Did you learn to play the bass and drums specifically for this album?
No, I use the term “learn” very lightly. It was a couple years ago. I bought them at the same time from a pawnshop. I was in a creative rut and I was so sick of playing the acoustic guitar. I just wanted to get something different to open up the creative gates. I’m still a terrible drummer and a very mediocre bass player, but it did the trick.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to your acoustic roots?
I still play my guitar all the time, there’s no mindset of ‘I’m leaving this one behind’. I still feel very comfortable behind the guitar; I’m very uncomfortable behind a bass or keys. I don’t classify myself as anything, I just want to write music that I’m really proud of and learn everything I can.
What is your favorite part of the process, from songwriting to performing to working with different musicians?
I love recording. I love how a song transforms. It becomes bigger just in the fact that you have other people’s creativity coming into play as well and a producer that has ideas on top of that. I love the feeling of my creative energy and other people’s as well.
Where do you find most of your inspiration?
I think it’s life. I think in retrospect, when you’re sitting down to think about it all, there are such powerful things to think about: human nature and relationships and love. It’s been done a million times, and that’s because it’s a powerful thing. I’ll get inspired when I see a movie that I love, or hear a song that I love, or I take a roadtrip with my friends, just life.
I know that some people have a certain love interest or a certain place that they continue to go back to in a lot of their songs. Do you have that?
Yeah, there’s one relationship in particular that I tend to derive a lot of references from because I think that it transformed me. I learned a lot through that. Not just about love or anything, but just about what a mind is capable of, and how strong we are as people, and how much someone can go through and then come out of and be even better. You know there are lots of different relationships that I derive a lot of that from but also I like to watch a lot of people that I’m close to and hear what they tell me about their life lessons.
Do you have any other artistic outlets?
You know, I do love fashion a lot. I admire it wholeheartedly. But I also tend to only wear specific things, like I’m very picky about what I wear. They’re not fancy by any means, I just love T-shirts and jeans. I’ll just buy a lot of the same things. Also film, I just love going to the movies by myself, like I get inspired by good films and just simple things that I think everyone can find meaning in.
So what’s next for Sarah Jaffe?
I’m definitely just focusing on touring and playing with the band that I’m playing with now. I have a couple new members, and I’m just trying to do the best job I can translating the actual record to a live setting. And just traveling and getting geared up for being away from home for a while.
Sarah Jaffe’s latest album, The Body Wins, is now available.
Written by: Rachel Ellison