Sarah Jarosz is only 25 years old, which is why it's hard to believe that her new album, Undercurrent, is her fourth. But she's packed a lot of experience into that quarter-century. By the time she signed a record deal with Sugar Hill in her senior year of high school, she'd learned to play clawhammer banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Around the same time that her first album came out in 2009, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of music, graduating with honors in 2013 with a degree in Contemporary Improvisation.
Oh, and she also found time to work with Bela Fleck, Victor Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and Shawn Colvin, among many others, before forming a supergroup of sorts with Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan and Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins and releasing two more albums. What's great about Undercurrent, though, is that you don't need to know any of this to enjoy it.
Bathed in a crisp, autumnal production (by Jarosz and long-time coproducer Gary Paczosa), the album moves between stark, intimately stripped-down songs, like the opener, "Early Morning Light," and more intricately arranged songs like "Green Lights" — songs that delicately layer acoustic instruments and Jarosz's light but powerful voice into shimmering webs of music. It feels like both a logical extension of her previous albums and a huge step forward, and the title is an apt metaphor for the changes Jarosz was going through while recording it. Undercurrent is the first album Jarosz recorded since her graduation, and the first one she was able to give all her attention to.
"The song that that word appears in ("Everything To Hide") was the first one I finished in this group of tunes," she says. "That word, from the very beginning, always popped out to me. I loved both the definitions: 'An underlying feeling or influence, one that's contrary to the prevailing atmosphere,' or, 'A current of water below the surface moving in a different direction.' I think both of those are a big part of this record. That word gave me a sense of direction in terms of what the songs were going to be like and how they were going to be recorded."
There are four solo or near-solo acoustic performances on the album, and Jarosz says those pieces are where the entire album flows from. "I think this time around, I had more of an idea in mind for how I wanted things to sound than ever before," she says. "I feel like the record is kind of anchored around the four solo performances, which I'd never done in a studio setting before. I was very adamant with Gary about keeping it really stripped down to reflect the solitary feeling behind so much of the subject matter."
The album was recorded over two months in Nashville, the longest period of time Jarosz has ever had to record an album. That gift of time turned out to be a bit of a blessing and a curse, however. "Sometimes in the studio, you push beyond the original intention of the song," she says. "And it's fun because you have the time to try some things, but for a while it felt like it was getting away from my original intention of having it be a sparse record. At the same time, it was such a gift to be able to be in one place. I lived in Nashville for two months, and that was so different from my typical experience of squeezing it in when I wasn't in class, and recording for a day or two here, a week there whenever I had free time. My sense is that the overall feel of the record as a whole is that there's a little more of a through line through the songs. I was in the same place, I was in the same head space, and I was in the same mind-set for the whole process. That was an eye-opening experience for me."
Despite the occasional conflict in vision for the album, Jarosz says that her collaborative relationship with Gary Paczosa was invaluable to the finished product. "Having worked with Gary on all four of my records, almost a decade, that's kind of just become our thing, setting the bar as high as possible for ourselves," she says. "I love working with him so much. He pretty much has a home studio; it's basically in his garage, so it doesn't feel like as much of 'And now we're going into the studio.' It's more like you wake up and make some coffee, and then you walk into the studio. It's easier if I'm feeling super inspired to just go in there and get the take. And also that's all I've ever known; in terms of my own records, we've always done it there. I think it's important to have a certain level of comfort so that it doesn't feel like too much of a different process."
One of Jarosz's collaborators on the album was singer-songwriter Parker Milsap, who co-wrote a song called "Coming Undone" with her. The experience went well enough that the two have begun a joint tour. "It was kind of through Gary that we got together to write 'Coming Undone,'" she says. "Gary had just finished working on Parker's record, and we just hit it off. We're pretty close in age, Parker's from Oklahoma, and I'm from Texas, so we have this similar background coming from the same part of the world, growing up in music, and now we're doing our own thing. And I think that we're kind of kindred spirits in that sense. We just hit it off musically, and I even wound up singing on his new record. I think the tour's going to be really fun."