A Soon-To-Be-Former Child Prodigy
Singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, now in her 30s, is finally getting to cast aside her identity as a child prodigy.
Sarah Jarosz is a Grammy-winning folk musician known for her virtuosic mandolin, banjo, and guitar playing and the rich storytelling of her songwriting.
Born in Austin in 1991, Jarosz began playing mandolin at age 10 and was soon joining bluegrass jams in her hometown of Wimberly, Texas. She signed a record deal and released her first album, Song Up in Her Head (2009), while still in high school. Despite receiving a Grammy nomination and gaining a reputation as a musical prodigy, Jarosz eschewed life on the road to enroll in the New England Conservatory of Music. She recorded two more albums before graduating with an honors degree in contemporary improvisation.
Her fourth album, Undercurrent (2017), topped the Billboard bluegrass charts and won a Grammy for Best Folk Album. Jarosz won her fourth Grammy (from nine nominations) in 2021 for the album World on the Ground (2020). She released her sixth album, Blue Heron Suite, in 2021.
Jarosz is also a founding member of the all-female folk trio I’m With Her.
Very early in life, Sarah Jarosz was dubbed a musical prodigy. These gifts might have gone to her head, but instead she’s remained grounded and focused.
Sarah Jarosz: I am so lucky to just be surrounded by people who would slap me upside the head, and just put me back down to earth. That kind of ‘don’t get above your raisin’ mentality.
A decade and a half into her career, Jarosz is still sometimes referred to as a prodigy. Now in her thirties, she’s a young woman, to be sure, but she says, not that young.
Jarosz: I get carded all the time. People do not believe it’s my real driver’s license. Yeah, I mean at the end of the day, I just don’t spend too much time thinking, I think there was a phase where I was, maybe around 27, where I was like they’re still using prodigy? Because I didn’t identify with that anymore. And then I just, I don’t know, in the last year, it’s like people are gonna say what they wanna say. I’m just gonna be myself.
And she has managed to be herself, and to remain humble. But even with her prodigious gifts, she has always worked hard to hone her skills as an instrumentalist and singer.
Jarosz: I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, where people will say oh, “I’m bad at math.” You’re just not interested in math. And you need to be obsessively interested in something to, even if you have natural ability, you’re not going to succeed if you don’t put in the hours. So that was my whole childhood was just that obsessive phase, where it was, I think I kind of realized that some of it was coming pretty quickly to me, but then I was very lucky to just be surrounded by adults who never treated me as a kid, even though I was often the youngest person in the room, they just threw me a solo like I was one of them. And so there wasn’t any talking down to me, or playing down to me.
Born in 1991, Jarosz was raised in the small Texas town of Wimberley. Her parents, both schoolteachers, listened to all kinds of music at home, and would take her to concerts in nearby Austin. Young Sarah drank it all in, and soon began on her own creative path.
Jarosz: When I sort of took charge of the music that I was making, it was kind of around nine, age nine, 10, and made me realize, oh young people are playing this acoustic folk music, but it’s cool, and they look cool, and maybe I could do this. When I came to the mandolin at around age 10, that’s when I started becoming obsessed with music, and just in my room, working on learning how to play the mandolin, and taking it into my own hands, as opposed to just something that I was doing as an activity with my family.
Jarosz: The through line of everything was this Texas singer-songwriter tradition, and that’s honestly my earliest memories of hearing records around the house were Guy Clarke and Nancy Griffith, who, I’m wearing Nancy on my shirt.
In 2008, Jarosz signed a record deal with the iconic bluegrass and Americana label, Sugar Hill Records. She cut her debut album, Song Up In Her Head, while she was still a senior in high school. But rather than succumb to the allure of a music biz lifestyle, she enrolled in a degree program at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Jarosz: I wanted to have this four year barrier between being an 18-year-old and life. Almost if for nothing else, just to have those four years of being around other kids my age, having such a rich music community in Boston, it’s just hard for me to think back, if I had gone out on the road at 18 with that first record, that it would have been a very healthy mental health situation for me in the long run.
AJC: But you say other 18, 19-year-olds, not other 18, 19-year-olds with a major record deal and Grammy nominations, and a clear pathway to how things might work out well. How did they respond to you?
Jarosz: I was so fortunate to have just great friends, and supportive friends throughout that time, because really when I look back on it, it was a little insane. To be doing all of that stuff. So it was intense. I definitely put in a lot of hours. But it was just, like I said, even though the workload was very intense, psychologically, just to know that I was in Boston doing the college thing.
AJC: You were a college student.
Jarosz: I was at college, I was with my friends. I think that really was important for me to have that time.
Those college years were indeed a whirlwind of deep immersion in her studies, combined with a lot of traveling to record and perform. But it wasn’t all work and no play.
Jarosz: There was an apartment on 65 Hemingway, and it so just became known as 65. And that was the central place, and honestly that was where so many musicians, anyone who was coming in on tour would stop by and jam. I feel like I got so much musical stimulation from that experience.
Jarosz: But also your normal college partying experience, which was also fun.
These and her earlier experiences of creating music in a community she says is what has sustained her, and still pushes her to be the best she can be.
Jarosz: I think that was a lot of what has allowed me to keep doing it beyond just being a kid is that there was this element of oh no, this is fun. I just want to do it. And I never went really far down the competition fiddle contests, or mandolin contests route. Personally, that was never for me. And I think it was a much healthier situation to just have it be about meeting with your community, and your people, and your friends, and sharing music. I feel like I trace it back to that, you being thrown a solo, and you have your moment, and there is a lot of improvisation in that moment, and so you are expected to rise to your moment.
So far, Jarosz says, her life in music has met her expectations. The aspirations of that teenager practicing and singing in her room. And she says she’s in it for the long haul.
Jarosz: I just feel really fortunate that even at that time, I had my sights set on the long game. I think it’s really easy when young artists are getting started to just want the hit, or want the recognition, or want the attention right away.
Jarosz: I think I have, I always try to be honest in my songs, and in a way, I feel like if I’m not putting myself in that vulnerable state, then it’s not gonna connect with the listener. It almost takes letting yourself go there for somebody to get it, for somebody to feel it. I mean, at the end of the day, my barometer, my guiding force, is if I’m focusing on making music, I can’t really go wrong. If I’m focusing on making the best music that I can make.
Jarosz: As opposed to worrying too much about–
Jarosz: All the social media, likes, and all that stuff, and I’m just like anyone, I get caught up in that too.
In 2020, Jarosz won her fourth Grammy for World on the Ground. It might well be her finest work to date, and for her, it was a turning point in her musical growth, ever stronger evidence of her seemingly effortless command of her gifts, and her crafts: songwriting, instrumental virtuosity, and that unique singing voice.
Jarosz: World on the Ground is really the first record that I felt like I tried to turn away from just always being the ‘I’, and kind of coming at it from more of an–
AJC: An observation?
Jarosz: An observation, a storytelling perspective, almost creating characters. I think because I was writing my first four records when I was in high school and then college and then immediately after college, it was important for me to have that outlet of, because when you’re at that age, a lot of what’s happening is your inner monologue, and your feelings, and your hormones, and everything.
And that continuous personal growth has been fostered by the people she loves, and who love her. Especially recently when she, like many of us, was forced into a period of honest self-examination.
Jarosz: I have great friends, and they keep me honest. I think, I also think the pandemic really, if there was a silver lining of it, it was that it was this long pause, and this potentially at a point when I would have gotten a little swept up in things, I was forced to just sit with my mental health, and start seeing a therapist for the first time, and these things that I just never took the time to do, because I was so busy. I’m thankful for all of that, and I’m thankful for people who remind me that all of that is important.
Jarosz: Starting to come out of the pandemic, just being out on the road, trying to plan better and smarter, at the end of the day, is gonna make a better show. And that’s what I want to give people, a great show, because I want to connect. That’s kind of what it’s all about. The listener knows. The listener knows what’s good.
Starting young, Sarah Jarosz has come a long way, and is already demonstrating the kind of wisdom she saw in those she grew up watching, not tied to any one style, but dedicated to an honest, open, and candid outlook on life that’s reflected in her music.