Sarah Jarosz expands as a songwriter with 'World On The Ground'

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Sarah Jarosz press photo
Sarah Jarosz will release her album, 'World On The Ground,' on June 5, 2020, on Rounder Records. (Josh Wool)

Wimberley, Texas, is a town of 2,626, situated about 45 minutes south of Austin. It's the place singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz grew up, and a place she couldn't wait to leave.

Now, years of travel and touring have changed Jarosz's tune.

"It's a pretty magical little place," Jarosz says of Wimberley. "It's very small, but it's kind of perfect in that it's its own thing; it's not a suburb. It's far enough from Austin but near enough for me to see all the live music that was happening there. It was nice to have that balance of having access to a great live-music scene like Austin but with the small-town vibe of Wimberley."

Although Jarosz is unlikely to live there again any time soon, the landscape and the people of Wimberley strongly informed the songs on Jarosz's forthcoming album, World On The Ground, releasing June 5 on Rounder Records. It's Jarosz's first solo full-length release since 2016's Undercurrent, and her subsequent work with Sara Watkins and Aoife O'Donovan in the band I'm With Her. Critically for Jarosz as an artist, World On The Ground represents a new direction in her songwriting: rather than being more autobiographical as she had previously done, Jarosz approached the songs more as a storyteller.

Related:
  • Sarah Jarosz performs songs from Undercurrent at Radio Heartland, 2016
  • Watch I'm With Her perform a MicroShow in St. Paul, 2018

World On The Ground was produced by John Leventhal, and Jarosz credits Leventhal with helping inspire her new songwriting direction. After the two met in late 2018, Jarosz played Leventhal ideas she had for some of the songs that would eventually inhabit the album. "That was a turning point," Jarosz recalls. "I remember John saying, 'You should try to think about looking outside of yourself and be more of a storyteller, and study great storytelling from a songwriter point of view.'

"I think it was that initial meeting at the end of 2018 that made me look at my own songwriting and just realize all the songwriters I love the most — Shawn Colvin, James McMurtry — so many of the Texas songwriters I grew up listening to, they're the best storytellers in the world. It made me think: Oh, I've never actually written about where I'm from. I'd only written about wanting to leave. That opened the floodgates."

For his part, Leventhal was thrilled to work with Jarosz. "I knew she was special and talented, and I was excited when she approached me about working together. … Sarah and I thankfully really connected. It was super exciting. The goal is just to want to make a special record. It's really about — dare I say without sounding obnoxious — making a deep, compelling work of art."

John Leventhal
John Leventhal speaking onstage at the Americana Honors & Awards 2016 at Ryman Auditorium on September 21, 2016, in Nashville. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

Strong, palpable narratives run through the songs on World On The Ground, and notable in the track list is a handful of songs that have first names as titles: "Maggie," "Eve" and "Johnny." These "name songs" evidence a critical step in Jarosz's new exploration as a songwriter. "Before this record, I had only written about myself and my feelings," she says. "Picking names opened that door to make up stories and to make them real by putting a name to it."

For example, the song "Maggie" came to be shortly after Jarosz attended her high school reunion in Wimberley. "It's is the only one that's actually based on a real friend I've lost touch with, but I saw at our 10-year reunion," Jarosz explains. "I was probably complaining about never being in one place, but she said, 'That's all I want.' So the song is about her, but it's also about the greater thing: it's about having compassion for someone who doesn't have the means to get out of their circumstances but still has the dreams."

The lyrics in "Maggie" reflect that tension as Jarosz sings: "Drive across the desert in a blue Ford Escape / Hopefully this car will live up to its name."

In a slightly similar vein, the song "Hometown" tells the story of a woman who did get away from her small town of origin but is back in her hometown despite never expecting to return there.

Countering the push-and-pull of small-town life versus big-city dreams are songs that Jarosz says conjure the landscape of Wimberley for her; "Orange and Blue," for instance, reminds Jarosz of Cypress Creek, which winds through the town, and Jarosz adds, "When I sing 'Eve,' I very vividly picture my backyard in Wimberley."

Something that helped Jarosz and Leventhal click is the fact neither one was afraid to chase the creative impulses behind the songs. "Primarily, it's about the artist being the focus and the center of the music," Leventhal says. "We're not just creating tracks because we know how to create tracks, but we're trying to create something that lives and breathes. It's like we're responding to what it is we're trying to accomplish."

Both Jarosz and Leventhal fully understand the strangeness of releasing a new album in the midst of a pandemic. In fact, they originally were going to host a listening event in New York to preview and talk about the forthcoming record. That event was replaced by a Zoom chat with members of the media, with Leventhal logging in from his home studio in Manhattan, and Jarosz signing in from where she's been quarantining in Nashville. "Trying to wrap my head around the timing of this release is not easy," Jarosz admits, "but I'm insanely proud of this work."

Listen to "Johnny," a lead single from World On The Ground:

External Link

Sarah Jarosz - official site

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4 Photos

  • Sarah Jarosz press photo
    Sarah Jarosz will release her album, 'World On The Ground,' on June 5, 2020, on Rounder Records. (Josh Wool)
  • Sarah Jarosz, 'World On The Ground'
    Sarah Jarosz, 'World On The Ground' (Rounder Records)
  • I'm With Her
    I'm With Her - Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan - perform at the Virginia Street Church in Saint Paul, Minn., in March 2018. (MPR Photo | Nate Ryan)
  • Sarah Jarosz - 5
    Sarah Jarosz performs in the Radio Heartland studio in 2016. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)