Sarah Jarosz: New territory for a FreshGrass favorite

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NORTH ADAMS — Folk artist Sarah Jarosz has attended the FreshGrass music festival on three previous occasions, but her fourth visit to the annual event at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art brings a different type of expectation.

Unlike when she came to North Adams in 2011, 2013 and 2015, Jarosz is now a Grammy award-winner. The multi-instrumentalist's fourth record, "Undercurrent," won best folk album in 2016, and one of its tracks, "House of Mercy," triumphed in the best American roots performance category. Jarosz had been nominated three times before that, including for a song off of her debut album, "Song up in Her Head," which was released shortly after her 18th birthday in June 2009.

"I think it was especially surprising and thrilling in that moment to sort of be sitting there and being used to hearing someone else's name get called and then, all of a sudden, they called my name, so it was a very surreal moment to say the least," Jarosz told The Eagle during a telephone interview last Friday.

But Jarosz's recent accolades aren't the only reason her arrival at the festival at 6 p.m. Friday, will be met with a fresh round of anticipation. Jarosz is one of two musicians who will be sharing the results of the FreshGrass Composition Commission, a new initiative "given yearly to an artist whose work reflects the FreshGrass mission to preserve and support innovative grassroots music," according to the festival's website. Essentially, the commission's recipients must produce an extended interpretation of roots music, according to festival co-founder Chris Wadsworth.

While Wadsworth said Bill Frisell, the other artist commissioned, would be playing a continuous stream of music for about an hour, he wasn't sure what Jarosz was going to perform just more than a week before her scheduled performance at Mass MoCA.

"That's the excitement around it for me," he told The Eagle during a telephone interview two days before the call with Jarosz.

"It's a really exciting challenge for me and a new sort of adventure for me as well musically," Jarosz said. "All that I was really told was write 30 to 45 minutes of music and that's sort of it. There weren't really rules."

The 26-year-old said audience members will hear a 30-minute song cycle she's calling "The Blue Heron Suite." The work has a couple of motivations. First and foremost, Sarah's mother, Mary, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December, Jarosz said.

"It doesn't go into too [many] specifics about what she's gone through, but obviously that's a life-changing experience," the Wimberley, Texas, native said.

The second inspiration is related to the first. It stems from bird-watching during the singer-songwriter's childhood, when she would often spend time on the Texas coast.

"We would always see the great blue herons," she said.

Her mother appreciates spotting them.

"She thinks of it as a good omen when she sees the blue heron, and so I was just kind of thinking of what a beautiful symbol that bird stood for, especially at this time in our lives," Jarosz said.

The songs will be performed in a trio configuration, with Jeff Picker on upright bass and Anthony da Costa on electric guitar and vocals.

Jarosz will sing and play acoustic guitar as well as the octave mandolin, perhaps a Fletcher Brock model she received in 2008 that is her favorite instrument.

"It feels like my baby," she said.

Indeed, Jarosz's success on a variety of instruments — she also plays the clawhammer banjo, for instance — propelled the success of her early work more than her lyrics. While she was a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, finding time to write was challenging. Moreover, she didn't compose with a particular theme for an album in mind.

"It definitely felt more random, like a collection of songs that don't necessarily have anything to do with each other," she said.

That changed on her latest record.

"For 'Undercurrent,' it felt like the first time I was writing towards an album," she said.

In tracks that often feature a stripped-down, acoustic sound, Jarosz explores the two primary meanings of the word "undercurrent": an underlying feeling or influence and the actual current running beneath a body of water's surface. Jarosz covers the former in "soul-bearing" love songs that also strike a chord of independence.

"Don't try to wear me down / you'll never get inside this house," the refrain ends in "House of Mercy."

The latter meaning of undercurrent is less apparent, though one number, "Jacqueline," refers to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park, which Jarosz said she spent a significant amount of time circling while working on the album. (Jarosz now lives in New York City.)

"[The reservoir] felt very central to the writing of these songs," Jarosz said.

Jarosz's more thoughtful songwriting process has undoubtedly been working well; her tunes have not only garnered Grammys but also critical acclaim, specifically for her lyrics.

"She refuses to dilute the raw sentiments with gloss or misdirection," wrote Jim Fusilli in The Wall Street Journal.

Aside from the success of "Undercurrent," spectators in North Adams have another reason to expect Jarosz's new material to be revelatory: the motivation Jarosz draws from the festival's accomplished performers and setting.

"Mass MoCA itself is, I think, a really unique and special place," Jarosz said. "It's just one of those spots that you arrive, and you sort of feel inspired."


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