Monday, March 1, 2010
My Denton Music interview: Sarah Jaffe
Jaffe talks about her personal music history, her new album, and her upcoming tour with Norah Jones.
“Can I get you guys anything?” The Greenhouse waitress has stopped at our table with an unusual degree of purpose. Sarah Jaffe glances over at me with her shocking blue-green eyes, “I’m good. You?” “No, I’m good.” The waitress then kneels down and looks at Sarah like she’s been reunited with a long-lost love. “I’m a really big fan of your music,” she gushes.
It was interesting to witness this because Sarah had just finished telling me about seeing her friends in Midlake in a new light after watching the reaction of their fans overseas. Like a twist in some Antonioni film, what to her are just friends are so much more in the eyes of others. I had a similar reaction watching the exchange between Sarah and the waitress.
Jaffe should get used to these types of exchanges, if she’s not already. After years of playing locally to growing audiences and acclaim, she’s about to celebrate the release of a full-length album, Suburban Nature, and just returned to Denton from a European tour opening for Midlake. In a couple of weeks, she leaves again on another tour opening for Norah Jones. Sarah recently sat down with My Denton Music to discuss these events, and how she got here.
My Denton Music: Where are you from originally?
Jaffe: My dad was a basketball coach, so until I was 7 we moved around a lot. All over the Brownwood area. I’m not sure if you know where that is; but there’s just a lot of small towns near the Stephenville area. My family moved to Red Oak when I was about 7 or 8, and we lived there until I graduated high school. My parents still live there. So, when people ask, I usually just say Red Oak.
Do you know where that is? It’s, like, right before you get to Waxahachie. When we moved there, there was just a Sonic and a bunch of land. But, it’s a growing suburb. Waxahachie is one of my favorite little towns. The downtown area is a lot like Denton.
My Denton Music: Did you have a musical household growing up?
Jaffe: My mom has a really pretty alto voice, and she always sang in the church choir. My dad played the banjo before I was born, and he has a love for bluegrass and celtic music. I grew up hearing a lot of folk music from my dad, and singing in the choir with my mom. My love for music probably came from my mom’s side of the family. My cousins sang, and at any kind of family get-together there was always a guitar.
My Denton Music: So it was just always around...
Jaffe: Yeah, yeah, there was always a record playing, and always some underground ... adoration of music someplace.
My Denton Music: Was there ever a single moment where it clicked, like “This is it! This is what I want to do!” or was it a natural progression considering your family?
Jaffe: I have no recollection of this, but my parents had a friend from Chile, oddly enough, named Jaime, and when I was three they took me out there and I don’t know what was going on in my three-year-old brain, but the same day I started asking to not wear pink and get high-tops was the same day I also started asking for musical instruments. (Laughs)
I started asking for little guitars, violins with plastic strings ... I got my first real guitar when I was 10. Anything that was going on musically like music at church or some school event, I wanted to be a part of it. It was some internal thing that clicked. I was an awkward child, I think, and that was my thing. It made me feel comfortable.
My Denton Music: Tell me about your new album you’re about to release.
Jaffe: Well, it’s been ... I think it’s been three years since I released the E.P. (Even Born Again). Shortly thereafter, not even a full year, I recorded the full-length. So, it wasn’t the recording that took so long, it was a number of things, finances. Some of those songs are old. Like, I wrote or recorded them when I was 17 or 18. So, I wanted to clean my slate. I very much wanted to get these songs out before I move on mentally to write more songs. That was the foundation of the record. I wanted to bring my old mindset to the songs and get them out. We recorded them in a week-and-a-half, and mastered it a couple months later.
But, it I wanted to find the wherewithal to do it right. The E.P. was a good introduction regionally, but I wanted something that could be a national release, and that I could tour with for a year. So, things are falling into place with going on the road with Midlake and going out with Norah. It’s working out pretty well.
All those months and months of frustration, I was just trying to fight impulse. I think it worked in my favor to have that slow progression. It’s been a blessing in disguise, I think. I’m glad I didn’t just drop the ball and go home! (Laughs) And I wanted to do that. I had this record sitting in my lap for a year. But, it’s good to have a modest, hard-working label. I’m glad to be where I am.
My Denton Music: How did the tour with Midlake come about?
Jaffe: Actually, shortly after the E.P. a couple of years ago, McKenzie (Smith, Midlake) mentioned taking me out in passing. They were still working on their new record, and I was still honing what I was doing. When their record came out, it was when mine was just starting to be written about, and I was at Dan’s one night with them expressing my frustration, and how I wanted to get out on the road. Eric (Pulido, Midlake) said that they all really wanted to take me out. I had just met Kirtland Records, and that really pushed them to release the album. After that, it was all about confirmation and it became really real that I was going to tour with one of my favorite bands!
My Denton Music: And do you feel the tour was successful?
Jaffe: You know, it was weird. I know you know them too, but having known them in Denton, but Pulido and McKenzie are like brothers. They’re buddies. But in London, they reach celebrity status, ya know? People are very much in awe of them, and for good reason. They’re very talented. But, they’re Denton, you know? But it was nice to see them how other people see them.
My Denton Music: What was the reaction to your sets?
Jaffe: For the most part? (Laughs) There were a couple of weird shows, but I think that was mostly my perception.
My Denton Music: It usually is, though, isn’t it? (laughs)
Jaffe: (laughs) Yeah, where you feel like, “You hate me!” But afterwards, they tell you they liked it, but you still think, “You’ve been giving me a weird look the entire time! What the hell?” I think overall it was a success. They welcomed me. I don’t want to say the crowds are different; I think people are pretty much the same. But, there’s a lot of respect. I think that has to do with the crowd that Midlake brings in; they listen to music. They were there to see Midlake, and here was their friend opening for them, so they gave me a chance. It was everything I could ask for for a first European tour.
My Denton Music: I thought you had been over there before!
Jaffe: You know, I played the Wireless Festival in Hyde Park, but I never went outside of London.
Jaffe: Yes! On Thomas Street?
My Denton Music: Yeah...
Jaffe: You were there?
My Denton Music: Yeah...
Jaffe: You know, to this day, that is my absolute favorite show. I had just moved to Denton six months before, and it was just so charming. The whole show was so charming. And, I remember it was so fucking hot! And all 80 of you were packed in tight. And the fact that it was my house, and all my friends were there, and it was so hot, and everyone was jumping on the trampoline! But, everyone was so quiet when we played, it was perfect.
My Denton Music: Well, there was a special guest there that night too.
Jaffe: Yes, Miss Norah Jones was there, sitting in the crowd and blending in. That was the first time I met her.
My Denton Music: Now, is there any connection to that and the upcoming tour?
Jaffe: Well, I’m sure it was an introduction. Robert and Melanie Gomez were friends of hers from her UNT days. I hung out with her and Melanie afterwards. She’s just ... she’s very much like Midlake to me, just down to earth and doing what she loves. She’s just a cool girl. But, I do remember jumping on the trampoline with her and sending a picture to my parents, like, “How many fucking times do you get to jump on a trampoline with Norah Jones?” But, things are circular like that. I never would have thought I’d be opening a few shows for her.
My Denton Music: And how did that finally come about?
Jaffe: Through Melanie, actually. She was in Switzerland and Norah went down to ski with her -- hard life, right? So they went skiing, and Melanie played her my new record and Norah mentioned taking me out for a few shows.
When I was in Berlin, I got a call from Melanie about it, then five minutes later I get a text from Norah asking if I would do it. Internally, I freaked out for about five minutes, then I returned her text: “Yes, very much!”
My Denton Music: You mentioned the new record being something you could tour for a year or two. After the shows with Norah, what’s next?
Jaffe: I’m not really sure. The digital release is April 6th, and the physical release is May 18th, so I think the plan is to be touring around that time and probably a couple months afterwards. I’d like to tour on-and-off for the next year to support both the album and the E.P. That’s what I want for that. I don’t know who I’ll go with, but I do want to take Seryn for a few of those dates.
Then, I’d like to work on the next record. I’d love to just go down to Marfa and track for a few weeks. I’m just not creatively able to think that far ahead, because I’m still very much focused on getting this record out there.
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