“Undercurrent” is Sarah Jarosz’s fourth release on the Sugar Hill label. But even though she’s an old hand at the rigors of songwriting and recording, this time around the process was in a way brand new for the artist who only three years ago graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music.
Jarosz was a 16-year-old mandolin prodigy and singer when she signed with Sugar Hill. A first album, “Song Up in Her Head,” was recorded while she was in high school; the next three were born while she was in college. Jarosz says “Undercurrent” really is an album full off firsts that marks a new chapter in her life.
Sarah Jarosz With: The Brother Brothers When: 5 and 8 pm, July 10 Where: Old Town School of Folk Music/Square Roots Festival, 4544 N. Lincoln Tickets: $27 (festival tickets are an additional $10) (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
“It’s the first album made while not simultaneously in school, so I could devote more time to the writing and recording process,” Jarosz explains. “And it’s the first album of all original material and feels a lot more personal.”
The songs on “Undercurrent” may have their roots in Appalachian folk but Jarosz adds in her own modern sense of place and heartache that speaks to a new sophistication and subtle richness in her songwriting.
“Before I only wrote when inspiration hit,” Jarosz, 25, recalls. “This time I really tried to approach it as more of a craft, to sit down every single day, even when inspiration wasn’t there, and chip away at it. I feel there is more of a throughline within the songs because of that.”
Highlights of this year’s Square Roots festival
Jarosz, who now lives in New York City, grew up in Texas hill country. Both her parents loved music (they gave her a mandolin at 9) and she grew up listening to Guy Clark, Shawn Colvin, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. Later bluegrass would take over and she found mentors in Chris Thile, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott and Mike Marshall.
“I was fortunate to grow up in the acoustic music world,” Jarosz says. “So many of my musical heroes were so encouraging even though I was just a kid with a mandolin.”
Jarosz, who also is a member of the trio “I’m With Her” along with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, remembers singing from the age of two, but it was learning the mandolin that really sealed the deal, she says.
“That was when I really became obsessed with music,” Jarosz says, adding, “I realized I wanted to work really hard to get really good. There was no other route for me.”
Jarosz, whose parents are both teachers, says she always planned on attending college (‘I wanted to be pushed musically.”) She majored in contemporary voice improvisation, which allowed her to explore a range of vocal styles while also working on her own music. Yet she still managed to record and tour; organization was key.
“I had a lot of to do lists and a very one-day-at-a-time philosophy,” Jarosz says laughing. “It’s funny after making this album and really knowing how challenging the process is, it’s hard for me to believe I managed to somehow do all this when I had so much going on at school. Now my goal is to continue finding musical situations that challenge me and keep me excited about playing.”
NOTE: The Sarah Jarosz concerts are part of the Square Roots Festival but require an additional ticket ($27). Admission to the festival is $10.
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.