Through moments of unflinching, forsaken honesty and homespun grace, Sarah Jaffe carves an indelible impression on her recently released full-length debut, Suburban Nature.
In 2008 the Texan singer/songwriter released a six-song EP, Even Born Again, its stark and often Gothic-folk resonance laying the foundation of her sound. "The goal was to have it be a minimal introduction," Jaffe says of the EP, "because at that point I was playing pretty much with just a cellist and, sometimes, another guitarist. So I wanted to stick to my guns and do what I did live."
When it came time to record Suburban Nature, Jaffe maintained much the same objective while, at the same time, wanting to accent elements of what she describes as "outside ambience" in the production. As she recounts, "It all came together with adding extra layers and extra vocals, stacking vocals on top of each other and just moving about the room a little bit more."
So does Suburban Nature stack up to what you hoped to make at the outset?
Absolutely. I’m really, really proud of it. The main goal was just to make an honest record. And I feel like that has been accomplished. So now that that’s happened I feel really good about playing these songs live. They’re just very true to what they are in themselves. I’m really happy about that whole presentation. There’s nothing in my mind that I’m doubtful of or questioning.
How is it translating live?
I’m working with a lot more people [now] and actually all are in other bands so I have this handful of people I work with, and they’re kind of interchangeable. When one’s out of town, another will play. And at some points they all play together. I’m playing with a cellist, a violinist, another guitarist, sometimes at least four string players, the keys who kind of fill in the ambience, and the drummer. So for the most part, all those parts from the record are being translated live.
How have you grown as a songwriter? Can you discern any difference or progression?
The songs that I wrote on the EP, those were all new, actually [upon its release]. And the weird thing about the record is that the songs are literally from all over the place. The oldest song I wrote when I was 17 and the newest one was [written] two years ago. That was kind of interesting, going back and reworking those and not necessarily making them different melodically, but relaying the same emotion [and] backing it with a different take on that same emotion.
Is it difficult to relate to those songs given the newest ones are at least two years old?
Sometimes, yeah, definitely. Sometimes I will literally detach myself from a song and not even realize I’m singing, like I physically can’t hear it anymore. Then other times I’ll sing the exact same song and it makes sense all over again. The meanings are just constantly evolving for me.
As a songwriter, how do you take to the process?
I don’t write with any sort of strategy. I pretty much do it on impulse. That’s the way all of my songs have been written. They weren’t written with any preconceived thought. I mean, there may have been a prime emotion that was there in the beginning. For me it’s one solid emotion that I want to relay. I won’t sit down and not finish a song.
You won’t leave a song half done?
Oh no, I will never do that. I would much rather just not start at all than leave something like that. A lot of times I’ll have a certain idea poking around in my head for a while until it finally makes its way out, but…
Once you start, you keep going until it’s finished.
Do you generally draw from your own experiences? Do you ever write from the standpoint of, say, a fiction writer creating altogether separate stories from what one sees or lives?
I’ve always wanted to be someone who can write these elaborate stories that aren’t necessarily true, but I write from experience. I may embellish a little bit because, I think, [it’s] just my personality that maybe things are so much bigger in my head than they actually are. And so I’m able to embellish on them and make that emotion so huge, maybe bigger than it actually is. I can’t recall writing a song that wasn’t true or that didn’t draw from something that actually happened.
Do you ever fear giving too much of yourself away in your songs?
I would be lying if I said no. That is something that I do think about, but I think there are ways of being vulnerable without giving things away. I don’t think that would stop me from writing a song that felt right. All the songs, when I wrote them, felt true to what they were and I felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to say.
Suburban Nature is available now wherever quality music is sold. For more information on Sarah Jaffe, including details of an upcoming tour with fellow artist Lou Barlow that kicks off on June 10 in San Diego, please visit her official website.
(First published as An Interview with Sarah Jaffe on Blogcritics.)