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On 'Up In The Clouds,' Sarah Jarosz Adjusts To Staying Still

Nov 25, 2020
Originally published on November 25, 2020 6:28 pm

The Morning Edition Song Project, in which musicians compose an original song about the COVID-19 era, returns this week with singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, Americana artist and one-third of the band I'm with Her.

Jarosz had big plans for 2020. She'd recorded her first solo album in four years, World on the Ground (now nominated for a Grammy). She had a new band and a big tour in the works. Naturally, it was tough when the pandemic shut everything down.

"I made this record that I just believe in so much and had the best time making," Jarosz says. "And then everything changed, of course,"

When she wrote her last album, Jarosz says tried to get out of her head and be more of a storyteller; her characters were people from small towns who dreamed of something more. At first, she tried to write a couple of songs like that for this project, but it didn't work.

"I kind of realized, why I was hacking away at those [when] my experience this year has been my inner monologue, being in my head?" she says. "Once I realized that ... this song just poured out of me."

NPR's David Greene spoke with Jarosz about putting the touring life on hold, her move from New York to Nashville and turning her headspace into a new song, "Up in the Clouds." Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


David Greene: How did you pivot away from the travel you were planning for this year? What did you do instead?

Sarah Jarosz: Well, it's been a very slow process. Because, you know, in the beginning, it wasn't clear how long this was even going to go on, so there were many layers of kind of thinking, "Okay, well, I'll cancel these couple of shows and then maybe we'll get back to it at the end of the summer." And then I think, by August, it had really set in, like, oh no, this is the long haul.

This tour is not happening.

This tour is not happening. I've been a touring musician since my teens — started playing shows around the Austin area in my early tweens, even. And my life has sort of been this constant motion, never being in the same place for very long, and kind of getting used to that over the years. So it's been a humongous adjustment recalibrating into day in, day out in the same place.

Through all of this, you've also decided to move from New York to Nashville, right? What prompted you to want to move from a new city in the middle of a pandemic?

I wouldn't say it was really a decision — it just kind of was the way that it went down. It became apparent, with the more and more work that started to get canceled, that I just wasn't going to be able to make it work to stay in New York anymore. In July, I drove up there and quickly got my things out of my apartment. It was very emotional. I think I'd always thought, when I leave New York, I'll ...

Go to your favorite restaurant, see some of your favorite spots.

Go to my favorite restaurants and bars! And this was very much the opposite of that. It was just sort of in and out — packed up the apartment that I had been in for seven years.

When you emailed us an early demo of this song, you wrote, "I settled on a 3/4 time signature because it evokes the waltzing, swaying, floating quality that mirrors what it feels like to be alive right now." Talk more about that. Why does a waltz feel like what life is like in this moment?

It's not even. It's not four on the floor. You're being jolted to one side, and then swaying back to the other, and then back and forth, up and down. Because it's been so hard, I knew that I wanted to try to have a hopeful sort of twinge within the song, allowing the song to sort of lead me forward.

[Music] is my livelihood, and it's also what I love to do — that's definitely where the anxiety has sort of rooted from. But there's been silver linings in having this time to kind of stare that down and try to grow from it. Because if I ever experienced those things before this time, I would've been so caught up in my music and my life that I would've just sort of set it to the side. I'm trying now to sit with it, observe it from this different perspective, with this time that I haven't had before.

At the end of the song, there's a line about opening your windows to hear birds still singing. Is that just a poetic image, or has it really been a sense of comfort for you when you open your window and hear that?

I have found such comfort in small things. Literally, the last few days I've just been waking up and staring out my window, and there's been all these millions of birds outside. I don't know if they're migrating or what, but I've just been watching them kind of flock around outside the house. I wouldn't have taken that time before. Those little things create so much hope.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's get back to the MORNING EDITION Song Project. This is the series where we invite musicians to write a song for us about the COVID era. Today, we'll hear from an artist who had big plans for 2020. Her name is Sarah Jarosz, and she had just recorded her first solo album in four years. She had a new band and a big tour in the works.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY")

SARAH JAROSZ: (Singing) How could a boy from a little bay town grow up to be a man, fly the whole world round...

I made this record that I just believe in so much and had the best time making. And then everything changed, of course.

GREENE: So how did you pivot? What did you do instead?

JAROSZ: Well, it's been a very slow (laughter) process. I think it just was many layers of acceptance because, you know, in the beginning, it wasn't clear how long this was even going to go on. So there were just many layers of kind of thinking, OK, well, I'll cancel these couple shows, and then maybe we'll get back to it at the end of the summer. And then I think by August, it had really set in - like, oh, no, this is the long haul.

GREENE: This tour is not happening.

JAROSZ: This tour (laughter) is not happening.

GREENE: And Sarah Jarosz's song for our song project has a lot to do with that. It's called "Up In The Clouds" because she says that's where her head has been.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP IN THE CLOUDS")

JAROSZ: (Singing) Up in the clouds is where I live. Down in the ground is where I'll end up, for half a century, till the water washes me away.

I've been a touring musician since my teens - you know, started playing shows around the Austin area in my early tweens even. And my life has sort of been this constant of just - constant motion, never being in the same place for very long and kind of getting used to that over the years. And so it's been a humongous adjustment, recalibrating into day in, day out in the same place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP IN THE CLOUDS")

JAROSZ: (Singing) Every morning it's the same. Coffee and memories fill my cup.

GREENE: Through all of this, you also decided to move from New York to Nashville, right? What prompted you to want to move to a new city (laughter) in the middle of a pandemic?

JAROSZ: I wouldn't say it was really a decision. It just kind of was the way that it went down. It became apparent with the more and more work that started to get canceled that I just wasn't going to be able to make it work to stay in New York anymore. And so in July, I kind of drove up there and quickly got my things out of my apartment. It was very emotional. I mean, I think I had always thought, like, OK, when I leave New York, I'll...

GREENE: Go to your favorite restaurants...

JAROSZ: Going to all my favorite...

GREENE: ...And, like, your favorite spots and - yeah.

JAROSZ: ...Favorite restaurants and bars. And this was very much the opposite of that. It was just sort of a in-and-out - packed up the apartment that I had been in for seven years.

GREENE: When she wrote her last album, Sarah tried to get out of her head and be more of a storyteller. So she wrote songs about characters, people from small towns who dreamt of something more. And at first, she tried to write a couple songs like that for this project. But it didn't work.

JAROSZ: I kind of realized while I was hacking away (laughter) at those that - what I know this year and what my experience has been this year has been my inner monologue (laughter) and being in my head. Once I realized that, once I realized, like, oh, I need to write about that because that's where I've been and that's been my reality day in and day out, this song just poured out of me.

GREENE: And when she emailed us an early demo of the song, she broke it all down for us, like the music conservatory student she once was. She wrote, I settled on a 3/4 time signature because it evokes the waltzing, swaying, floating quality that mirrors what it feels like to be alive right now.

Talk more about that. Why does a waltz feel just like what life is like in this moment?

JAROSZ: It's not even. It's not four on the floor (laughter). You're being jolted to one side and then swaying back to the other and then back and forth, back and forth, up and down. Because that's been so hard, I knew that I wanted to try to have a hopeful sort of tinge within the song, allowing the song to sort of lead me forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP IN THE CLOUDS")

JAROSZ: (Singing) And I've been thinking that I should learn how to do something new with my time - dig my hands in the dirt, build something that works, get all my loose ends tied.

It's my livelihood, and it's my work, and it's also what I love to do. And that's definitely where the anxiety has sort of rooted from. But there's been silver linings in having this time to kind of stare that down and try to grow from it because if I ever experienced those things before this time, I would have been so caught up in my music and my life that I would have just sort of set it to the side. And so I'm trying now to sort of sit with it, like observe it from this different perspective with this time that you haven't had before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP IN THE CLOUDS")

JAROSZ: (Singing) Open my window, birds still sing. I want to learn all of their songs, sometime this century till the water washes us away.

GREENE: At the end of the song, you do say, open my window, birds still sing. I mean, is that sort of just poetic? Or is that - has that really been a sense of comfort for you when you open your window and hear that?

JAROSZ: I have found such comfort in small things. Literally, like, the last few days, I've just been waking up and staring out my window. There's been all these millions of birds outside (laughter). I don't know what - if they're migrating or what. But I've just been watching them kind of flock around outside the house. And I don't know. I wouldn't have taken that time before, and those little things create so much hope.

GREENE: Well, Sarah, thank you for this beautiful song. And it's really been lovely talking to you.

JAROSZ: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP IN THE CLOUDS")

JAROSZ: (Singing) Sometime this century till the water washes us away.

GREENE: That's Sarah Jarosz. Her song for the MORNING EDITION Song Project is called "Up In The Clouds." And you can hear the full song at our website at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.