Words and photos by Nichole Wagner.
Sarah Jaffe, a soft-spoken singer/songwriter currently from Denton, Texas (though originally from just outside of Dallas), released her first full-length record, Suburban Nature, in April. She’s currently touring with indie rock’s lo-fi king, Lou Barlow, which is where we caught up with her before their show at The Mohawk in Austin.
Your debut album came out earlier this year; how has the reception been?
Sarah: For the most part it’s been really, really good. Of course with every handful of good you’ll get a couple bad, and that’s just the way it goes; that’s the ratio. But people have been very cool, really warm and receptive to it. I can only be so honored; it’s a really good feeling because I’m proud of the record, excited about everybody who played on it and to tour with it.
Which songs are you most excited to play live?
Sarah: At this point I’m excited about expanding on it and that’s what’s cool about touring with a three-piece: It allows for a certain amount of ambiance and experimentation. With the full band, we stay true to the record. We’re still doing the same parts with the three-piece, but all of the people who play with me are in other bands as well and the cast of musicians playing with me changes a lot. It’s interesting to play off of each other and not necessarily come up with different parts, but there’s a new energy and more experimentation, looping, adding layers. “Clementine” is really cool with a three-piece; it’s still got the constant rhythm with the guitar, but it can’t help but be different because I don’t have a drummer.
Who is playing with you on the tour?
Sarah: Scott Danbom from Centro-Matic and Buffy Jacobs, she’s playing the cello and she also plays with the Polyphonic Spree. Scott will be playing keys and violin. They’re great.
What’s life like in Denton?
Sarah: I think for me, the reason why I love Denton is because I’m a small-town person. I like that feeling of a small vicinity and I feel like moving there three years ago was the right move. I did it on impulse, but it felt very right. I feel at home there and it’s a pivotal place. I’m able to go all these places and come home and still pay cheap rent and be inspired by all these musicians. It’s like a little gem; I’m very aware that not all of Denton is as cool as the square, but I love it.
So your day-to-day life when you’re not on the road?
Sarah: I make sure that I stay boring. I’m not necessarily a homebody, but I’m a creature of habit. I’ll eat at the same place for a week at a time. When I’m not playing shows, I’m responding to emails and trying to book shows or in contact with management and booking. It’s new for me because I have, for the first time ever in my music span of life, I’ve got people working with me and for me, supporting me. It’s nice to have someone booking shows for me and a management team looking out for me. I spend a lot of time with my family, I love going home to my parents and my sister and her family.
Do you sit down with the intention of writing a song or do you wait for them to come freely?
Sarah: I know a lot of people that write with a strategy and schedule, but I’ve never been able to do that; I don’t know if I’m quick enough. Mostly I’ll write off of impulse; I never like forcing things and going in saying, “I’m going to write a song.”
What is your musical guilty pleasure?
Sarah: Top 40 radio. I like it and listen to it constantly. I’ll listen to anything; I like bad music. And I’m fully aware of the irony of why I might listen to it, but you can’t deny the genius in it; there’s a lot of songs out there that you’re like, “That’s a fucking good pop song.” And from the get-go I didn’t have a choice: I had a truck that didn’t have a cassette player or an auxiliary cord so I was forced to listen to Top 40 radio. I can hear a song for about 30 seconds and by the next time it comes on, three hours later, I love that song already.
How about other things you listen to or are inspired by?
Sarah: Always Nina Simone; if I’m not careful I can cry at “Wild is the Wind.” Harry Nilsson. I really like electronic music. Passion Pit is great. The Dirty Projectors are brilliant. I’m totally into college indie; I’m looking forward to Arcade Fire’s new record, but I’m also constantly changing my musical tastes, though the staple has always been Top 40 radio.
Some of the songs on the record were written when you were still in your teens. How has your writing changed since then?
Sarah: It has changed; it was bound to. Different circumstances and mindsets, ways of thinking, what I’m listening to, who I admire. When I was younger, writing songs like “Vulnerable,” I remember writing it and where I was and what I was thinking. It’s a very weird thing because I wasn’t necessarily going through something life-altering at 17 but at the same time I still felt the depth of those situations and I feel like now, maybe it’s the same but it can be more difficult tot write because its hard not to write to please. You have to shut that off and write honestly.
What are some of your future ambitions?
Sarah: The only goal I have, as of now, is to continue touring and once I’ve toured a lengthy amount to come home with ideas and songs, record and get started on a future record, laying the outline. I feel like the ball is rolling creatively for me and I don’t want to put a halt to it. I’m done with the heady “In five years I want to be doing this.”
What are some of the most important things you have to have in the van?
Sarah: My iPod, for sure. Control. I hate clutter, I’ll go out and there will be trash everywhere and it’d be so much easier if people would take their little snacks and throw them away. The main thing I have to have is control. We have certain rules, whoever’s driving gets to listen to what they want to. I recently got a laptop so next time I go out I’ll bring a lot of DVDs to kill time but for now I just got a wireless internet hub and I’mm zoning out on the internet for more hours than I should be. I’ll find myself four hours in on YouTube going, “Ahh, how did I get here?!” West Coast has long-ass drives, everything’s sprawled out, everything’s 5 to 14 hours but it’s really beautiful. Seattle, Portland and those towns in between. I’m enjoying the quite and watching, there’s a good energy in the van, that big white van.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Sarah: We should be getting vinyl soon—if not by the end of the month, by July. It’ll have an alternate version of “Vulnerable” that I recorded at my house.