Though she quips of being "the first female in the world to ever play the acoustic guitar and sing her own songs" (via twitter, of course), there's no denying that Sarah Jaffe does what she does exceptionally well. With a focus on the complexities of personal relationships, the native Texan can hold a room in a still and quiet awe, her thoughtful chords and half smoky vocals delivering stories from frustration to fruition; emotional dichotomies of being echoed by the dynamic rise and fall of songs like "Vulnerable", "Nurture It", and "Clementine". Our latest show may not showcase the first female in the world to ever play the acoustic guitar and sing her own songs. But it's utterly captivating; a spellbinding capture of one the most affecting artists we've had the pleasure to work with this year.
"I feel like Suburban Nature was a common stretch of road for me," says Sarah Jaffe. Not that the twenty-something singer-songwriter's debut LP was in any way ordinary. Critics, peers and fans alike snapped to rapt attention when they heard Jaffe's expressive voice and suckerpunch songs. But like any good singer-songwriter, Sarah Jaffe excavates her soul, always looking to explore new territory and she mapped the ground she covered on Suburban Nature anywhere from three to seven years ago.
"These were older songs that I wasn't really able to move on from," she says from home in Denton, TX. "I felt like I had to take the opportunity to record and put them out." Despite being authored by a teenager, the songs on Suburban Nature led to flattering quotes from tastemaker publications. NPR said Jaffe has "the ability to relate to people's daily lives and the wisdom to express emotions in new and powerful ways." Magnet raved about "lyrics so intimate you'll feel like you've read her diary and a focus on her lovely, smoky voice." Summing it up, Blurt called the album "a startlingly assured debut."
Jaffe says it's "surprising" to her, that her high-school self could write such brave songs back then. "There was nothing mind-blowing going on when I was 17. So it's just kind of amazing to me, that I could get such a clear-headed song. I had no other intentions but to write." That remains her aim, but as Jaffe has grown, so has her catalog of lyrics and musical ideas. Now that she's given her younger voice public utterance, it's time to allow her seasoned self some mic time with The Way Sound Leaves a Room.
A CD/DVD of new, live and alternate tracks meant to bridge the gap between Nature and her second LP (due in February 2012), Sound is a snapshot of Jaffe's creative evolution. Whereas she initially presented herself as a more or less acoustic folkie with indie pop tendencies, Jaffe has moved toward the latter sound, indulging her propensity for instrumental and technological tinkering while retaining the confessional songwriting style that caught so many ears.
Strange, then, that the impetus for her new direction was grounded in writer's block. "Every time I'd pick up a guitar, I'd get frustrated," she says. She felt an "awareness" that came from trying to write for an audience, and it threw her off. To combat this, Jaffe embraced the imbalance and went to a pawn shop to grab a drum set and a bass guitar instruments she didn't know how to play. It took all of one day to write "A Sucker for Your Marketing," a bold song with a driving rhythm that belies Jaffe's inexperience with her new instruments. "All I needed, really, was that spark."
The flash led Jaffe to hole up in her house and "just keep writing. Most of the summer I just set my laptop in the hallway, then went in my room and played bass. Then I would try drums." She left her laptop running, the only mic in the place, and it captured a feeling that adds great depth to the songs. "It kind of created this low sigh" she says, describing the way sound left the room.
In no time Jaffe tracked a pile of tunes that evidenced leaps in maturity and musicality, as well as a shift in sound from spare acoustic to lush acoustic-electric with orchestral embellishments. She says this was incidental "but a little bit intentional. It was mixing those acoustic songs, with these really great electric sounds. I was excited because it was my first time doing all of these things; I had this feeling of gratification."
The Way Sound Leaves a Room CD includes an alternate version of fan favorite and Nature standout "Clementine," as well as home demos of new tracks "Sucker," "When You Rest," "All That Time" and the title track. "When people hear this," Jaffe says, "I want them to be mindful that my intention was just to introduce something that's different for me. It was an uncomfortable time for me, but I liked it a lot." In addition, Jaffe covers Drake's "Shut It Down" and Cold War Kids' "Louder Than Ever" in the studio with members of Midlake and The Czars.
The accompanying DVD contains a gorgeously filmed 45-minute documentary by filmmaker Jon Todd Collins. It shows Jaffe alone in her home, alluding to the sigh she described, and performing the upshot live at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas showcasing Jaffe's commanding yet engaging performances.