Interview: Sarah Jarosz on ‘World on the Ground’

Sarah Jarosz just released World on the Ground, the long-awaited follow-up to her 2016 Grammy-winning album, Undercurrent. The album is a departure of sorts for Jarosz, her first collaboration with producer John Leventhal. We can’t recommend it enough.

Sarah was our guest on this week’s Fretboard Journal Podcast, where we talked about everything from staying sane during the pandemic (she famously explained to NPR that she’s making a lot of sourdough bread) to octave mandolins, Leventhal’s laid-back approach to production, and her top-five Texas singer-songwriters (she originally hails from Wimberley, Texas, but now calls New York City home).

What follows are excerpts from some of the many topics we discussed.

The Fletcher Brock Octave Mandolin

His instrument changed my life… I started on the mandolin at such a young age. When I started writing my own music and kind of trying to find my own voice, it felt like it all happened simultaneously to me buying the octave mandolin. That was in 2007, I think, at IBMA. I should probably give the credit to Tim O’Brien because he has [one]. I think [his is] actually some sort of archtop guitar that was changed into an octave mandolin, but it has a similar shape and body and look. That kind of single handedly made me want to save money to buy one of my own.

Once I bought the octave, it was just like this flood of new music and what felt like my own sound started happening. It’s interesting with this record, because there’s really not a lot of octave mandolin on it, at all. I was just writing so much on the guitar this time around. But, still, when people ask me, “If you had to pick one instrument, which one would it be?” It’s always octave mandolin.

Embracing the Guitar as a Songwriting Tool

I’m not as picky when it comes to guitar as I am mandolins. I still feel like I know my way around a mandolin the best in the sense of the fretboard; I could put my finger on a note and tell you what that note is. With the guitar, it’s all by ear…

The guitars that I have at my apartment in New York are my two Collings guitars, the D1A and then a rosewood [guitar] that they gifted me, which was just incredible. I wrote a lot of the songs on my last record [with it]. [On] this record, I think I was mostly writing on my D1A. That was the guitar that was just out and available for me.

Working With John Leventhal

He was urging me to write from a perspective that was more as a storyteller and less looking inward. Just the simple act of him saying that really inspired me to take on this more storytelling role. I studied the songs and the lyrics of some of my favorite Texas writers.

John and I didn’t know each other before this process. We had crossed paths a handful of times in New York and at different events, as musicians do, but I definitely was going out on a limb to ask him to do this and I’m so glad I did.

John really likes to be a part of the co-writing process as a producer. I went in with three or four songs that I had written by myself and then he and I wound up writing four songs together. It was nice, having never done that before.

We started working on the record basically a year ago. I was still touring very heavily with I’m With Her, but we worked on-and-off for the remainder of last year. And I think we wrapped up in February of this year before the world changed. I’m just glad that we were able to get it done and finish it.

Her Favorite Texas Singer-Songwriters

James McMurtry definitely is maybe number one for me. With his songs, it was kind of the first time that I actually felt like I studied lyrics. It was the first time as a songwriter [where] I’ve really taken the time to sort of notice [lyrics]. He brings up this image in line one and then he uses the next three lines to describe that same thing. There’s so much detail, as opposed to just introducing a new idea with each line. I think he’s also huge for me in the sense of writing about people… other characters besides himself and painting this picture of humanity.

Obviously, Shawn Colvin is in my top five, for sure. She was being honored at the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame last October and she very kindly invited me to sing with her on that. She’s just been one of my heroes forever; her songs have changed my life. I would say Steady On and A Few Small Repairs were maybe single-handedly the reason that I wanted to work with John Leventhal.

I would say those are the big two. The list sort of goes on from there. Nanci Griffith is huge for me. Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett… Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt. It’s amazing how many of those great writers come from Texas. Also, Eric Taylor is someone who I feel like I should mention. He actually just passed away in March, sadly, but his self-titled album, Eric Taylor… I hold that album in the highest regard.

Future Plans for I’m With Her 

There will absolutely be more [recordings], that was sort of always our intention. It’s nice because we never want it to be an obligation [where] it’s like, “All right, time to make another record.” We want it to be a creative project that provides balance for us… whether that’s in two years or five years or a year, it’s hard to say when. But the answer is “absolutely.” We will be making more music together.

Want to listen to the whole conversation? Just click the play button below. 


Above photograph by Josh Wool.