Folk-Pop Newcomer Sarah Jarosz Mixes the Traditional With the Postmodern

It's hard to admire Sarah Jarosz without remarking on her age. Just 21, the Americana singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has released two accomplished records and earned praise from critics and fellow musicians alike.

The native Texan released her first album, Song Up in Her Head, in 2009, when she was still a senior in high school. The track "Mansinneedof" from that album earned her a Grammy nomination. It's tempting to ask, when did she have time to be a kid? But there was a time when Jarosz's tastes, musically at least, were inclined toward so-called kid stuff.

"When I was 10, I loved 'N Sync," she confesses. "Whether by choice or exposure, I loved it."

Growing up, Jarosz says, there was always music playing around the house. Her parents had diverse tastes. Two particular musicians—Tim O'Brien and Gillian Welch—caught her ear and led her away from pop music.

"I heard Tim O'Brien and I knew this is what I wanted to do," she says.

The power of traditional music was immediately evident to Jarosz, and it still has a strong hold on her.

"I feel like it's got to be because it's one of the rawest forms of music that exists," she says. "It's really honest, in terms of the music and words. All the people originally playing that music weren't trying to prove anything; it was just an escape. It still serves that purpose. Today, people are still longing for that."

Soon after her exposure to Welch and O'Brien, Jarosz began taking mandolin lessons. It wasn't long before she was being dubbed a musical prodigy and began playing music festivals around the country. At 16, while playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, she wound up signing a deal with Sugar Hill Records.

"It really just happened naturally," she says of her catapult to fame. "One thing led to another."

Her own music is a seamless blend of the traditional and modern. While she works within bluegrass and folk templates, she's branched off into postmodern territory, covering the likes of Tom Waits ("Come on Up to the House"), Radiohead ("The Tourist") and Bob Dylan ("Ring Them Bells").

"For me, I've been so influenced by so many styles, it's only natural that they blend together," Jarosz says. "It was a natural progression, getting obsessed with bluegrass music at an early age, but also loving bands like Radiohead, Wilco, and the Decemberists, and singer/songwriters like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. I love to have the balance of it all."

Some of those unique influences come from her studies. Jarosz is now in college at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she's been exposed to classical music and other folks forms, like klezmer and Yiddish folk music, jazz, and world music. Jarosz says her studies are separate from her professional career, but that she's definitely benefiting from the training.

"I decided to do the program mainly to push me out of my comfort zone," she says. "There's a bunch of ensembles that I sing with, and private lessons I'm able to take. I had great music teachers growing up, but I never had formal vocal lessons. I feel like my voice has come a long way from where it was."

The results are evident on her sophomore effort, Follow Me Down, released last year, which finds her singing more confidently. And her instrumental playing is as strong as ever. Her repertoire of instruments on stage includes the banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Is there anything she can't play?

"I haven't gotten very far with the fiddle," she jokes. "It doesn't mean I don't try, when others aren't around listening."

She performed for the second time at Bonnaroo this year. She grew up playing the festival circuit, so large crowds aren't a new thing for Jarosz. What does she think of her old musical heroes, 'N Sync, now that she's got a taste of fame?

"I'm not promoting it in any way, but there's a lot to be said for something that can get that many people singing along," she says. "As musicians, we listen to music with a critical ear, to the point of not enjoying it, but 99 percent of people listen to music because it makes them feel some way." And that remains the biggest goal she has for her own music.

"I hope they feel there is something there that people can connect to," she says. "It means so much if someone says, that song made me cry, or it gave me chills."