The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe

  • musician
  • songwriter

Sarah Jaffe is a Texas-born musician whose initial EP, Even Born Again, was self-released in 2008. In late 2009, Sarah signed to Kirtland Records and her official, full-length debut was made in 2010 with Suburban Nature, followed up by The Way Sound Leaves a Room in 2011, which included a cover of Drake's song "Shut it Down." Her most recent album, The Body Wins, was released in 2012.

Interview

Tina: Describe your path to becoming a musician.

My respect and adoration for music definitely came from my family. As early as I can remember, my dad was always listening to James Taylor and Cat Stevens—and he loved Joni Mitchell. While my dad’s side of the family definitely gave me a love for folk music, I also grew up listening to my mom’s amazing alto voice in the choir at church.

When I was 17—and still in high school and living with my parents—I was playing around the Dallas music scene. I became my own PR rep and manager, all in one! I would burn CDs and put together my own press kits. I even cut out pictures of myself to slip in with a little backstory. I genuinely miss those days when a lot of time was spent on a very hands-on presentation.

From the beginning till now, my career has been a series of accessible people being gracious with their talents and time. I met this great musician named Doug Burr, who found me on Myspace and kind of took me under his wing. I played a few shows with him and that gave me some momentum. I continued building a fan base in Dallas and briefly lived in LA before settling in Denton, Texas. That’s where I met a whole other slew of amazing musicians, most of whom are in the band I play with now. It’s been great.

Did you consider going to college after high school, or did you decide to focus on music right away?

I went to community college for literally two weeks. I physically walked out of a class like, “Nah, I don’t wanna be here.” A lot of my friends were going to college, which made it appealing because I wanted to be with them, but I just wasn’t interested.

I knew I wanted to play music, but it became very clear to me that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I had always hoped. (laughing) My cousins, who are musicians out in LA, invited me to come stay with them for a month, but I ended up staying for a year. It was an amazing experience, but my skin got thicker and part of my starry-eyed, naïve approach to music went away. I realized that this shit wasn’t going to fall into my lap. I came back home to Texas with my tail between my legs. (laughing)

It’s interesting to hear you say that. Despite the myth that people just “make it,” it really does take a lot of hard work, especially in the music industry.

I talk with my bandmates about the music industry all the time. The whole thing is messy because people don’t really buy music anymore. We’ve been diminished, to a certain degree, no matter the level of success. What’s left? That’s the way it is now: people excitedly come up to me after hearing my music on Spotify or Pandora, but they don’t know that they can listen to my song however many times and I’m not getting that money—somebody is, but it’s not me. So I’m still trying to figure it out. I can’t knock a person for being excited about where they found my music. I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I asked for my music to be taken off of these platforms where people can hear it. I know it’s that way for a lot of my artist friends as well.

There’s a pretty grand illusion about the music industry. I’ll tell family members that I’m going on tour and they’re like, “Ohh, big-time!” And I reply, “No, you don’t understand. It’s awful, actually.” (laughing) No one was made to sit in a 12-passenger van for 10 hours a day. I wasn’t made for it; my body physically breaks down. After that, I have to perform; then I have to go to the merch table–it’s just a constant exertion of energy. That being said, though, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Most of the time when I’m on the road, I want to be home; but when I’m home, I’m just itchin’ to go. I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the process, but when I’m performing or writing, I sincerely feel at peace with it all.

Sarah Jaffe playing live
Sarah performing at The Wyly Theatre in Dallas; photo by Dylan Hollingsworth

“…when I’m on the road, I want to be home; but when I’m home, I’m just itchin’ to go. I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the process, but when I’m performing or writing, I sincerely feel at peace with it all.”

Other artists we’ve interviewed have said the same thing. David Bazan does living room tours and finds other inventive ways to earn income from projects because it’s tough to make money from the music anymore.

I respect David, so I’d trust him on everything as a musician. While I don’t know half of what he knows, I’m with him on that. I worry about the music industry. I’m hoping that my cynicism isn’t right, and that we don’t have to hit rock bottom in order for people to figure it out.

Was there an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to do music?

No, not really. Music was just a no-brainer for me—there was nothing else I wanted to do. From a young age, I wanted any and every instrument I could get my hands on, and my family catered to my interests. When I was 9 or 10, my mom brought home a guitar for me and that was what I ended up sticking with.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

Oh my God, yeah. Robert Gomez, who plays guitar and pretty much anything else he lays his hands on, has been pivotal for me as a musician: he turned my music around. When I moved to Denton, I was a chubby, 21-year-old kid who only had demos. I doubt very highly that he looked at me and said, “This kid is gonna be a star!” (laughing) He just wanted to play, and thank the good lord that Robert liked my songs; he’s been playing with me ever since.

Scott Danbom, who I also play with, has taught me so much about patience while on tour as well as just being good at what you do; he’s an amazing pianist and violinist. Will Johnson, who Scott plays with in Centro-matic, has been a huge mentor for me as well.

It’s the same with pretty much everyone I play with: they’re grown men with their own shit going on. They’ve got their own bands and personal lives, yet they dedicate time to tour and record with me. I’ve got a backbone of good, solid people—they’re great musicians, but more importantly, they’re people of character. I’ve been blessed and I’m forever grateful to them.

Has there been a moment when you’ve taken a big risk to move forward?

I think The Body Wins was was a big risk, but I may not have realized it until afterwards. A lot of times, I’ll go into the studio and find myself holding back, which is weird. There’s something about the mic being in front of me and knowing that someone is pressing record—all of a sudden, I feel a restraint. In recording The Body Wins, I tried to let go of that. I wanted to feel uncomfortable; I wanted to push myself and make a record that was full and lush with sound. I knew I didn’t want to make Suburban Nature again—it was time to go outside of myself a little bit. The Body Wins was also different in that many of the songs I went into the studio with were unfinished; they were just snippets of recordings. Looking back at that process and seeing the differences between the two records, it does feel like it was a big risk.

“Music was just a no-brainer for me—there was nothing else I wanted to do. From a young age, I wanted any and every instrument I could get my hands on…”

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?

Yeah! Insanely supportive. If I’m playing in town, my parents will try to be at every show. They’re the best humans on the fuckin’ planet.

My sister and my best friend are also supportive in that they keep me calm when I get hot-headed. Negative reviews really get to me, and I can get fired up, but the two of them are there to tell me, “Just calm down. Bring it on back.” That can be hard for me.

It’s gotta be hard to put yourself out there and have people write about you.

I shouldn’t be reading that shit anyway. Everyone’s going to have an opinion, and a lot of times, I’m not going to be pleased. Like my sister always says, it’s a waste of my energy and I shouldn’t go there.

Does your family live in Denton as well?

No, they live south of Dallas in a little town called Red Oak. The only way people usually know about it is because it’s on the way to Austin.

I haven’t been to Texas.

Oh, you haven’t?

No, we’ve been wanting to go to Austin, but we haven’t made it out there yet.

Oh, Texas is so hot outside right now. It feels like the inside of someone’s mouth. It’s awful.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Absolutely. It’s probably just a human thing to have that constant feeling of, “I should be doing more.” I’ve always wanted to give. I’ve also always wanted to travel; I want to see other parts of the world and know what’s going on outside of Texas. I’ve gotten to travel, but I usually only get to see places from the inside of a venue. I want to get in there and see what’s going on. I’d like to travel and go to people’s homes to talk with them and learn about them, and help if I can. I mean, you can find any white girl who says, “I just wanna help people!” (laughing) That’s what I sound like right now, but I really do mean it. I’ve always hoped that music would allow me to do that and I still kind of believe that it will in some way—I just don’t know how.

Sarah Jaffe
Photo by Stanton J. Stephens

“A lot of times I’ll go into the studio and find myself holding back, which is weird…In recording The Body Wins, I tried to let go of that. I wanted to feel uncomfortable; I wanted to push myself and make a record that was full and lush with sound.”

Are you satisfied creatively?

No, I’ve never felt like, “Well, that’s it!” There are moments when I think, “This is good,” but those moments are very fleeting. And I don’t know if I ever want to be satisfied, because I know what I’m like when I’m content—I don’t do shit! (laughing)

Is there anything you’re itching to do or explore in the next 5 to 10 years?

There are a lot of things. I would love to collaborate with a number of artists. I’d like to tour Europe again—I’ve only gone once. I would love to be able to travel, like I mentioned. It’d be great to have a bulk of time to see other parts of the world, come back, and feel liberated and inspired to write.

I want to make one, two, three more records. Continuation is the most important thing to me. The thought of not being able to do music anymore is scary. I don’t ever want to feel like I can’t write anymore, or that I can’t move past writer’s block. I don’t like feeling stuck. I want to continue to learn and grow, and make records that I can be proud of and stand behind.

If you could give advice to a young person starting out, what would it be?

Uh, good luck! (laughing)

Music is hard fuckin’ work, and it isn’t always a money-maker. But if your heart is in it and you love it, you’ll find a way to do it.

Also, don’t listen to negativity: that’s a huge one. You’ll get stuck on the shit people say or write, and it’ll stop you. I have to follow this advice, too. I think it’s best to almost shut yourself off from certain press, which is a hard thing to do. The key for me is trying not to take myself so seriously–I’ve learned to laugh, breathe, and shrug off any negativity.

How does where you live impact your creativity?

I actually find that my head gets in a creative space most when I’m traveling. When I come home to Texas, I generally do very logical, boring things. At the end of a tour, I long for the things that make me feel comfortable: I just want to be with family, do laundry, nap, and watch cable.

As far as inspiration goes, the house that I live in isn’t really inspiring; the neighborhood that I live in doesn’t inspire me. (laughing) I love it and it’s my home, but it’s just a pivot point for me—a place that I always enjoy coming back to.

Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community?

Absolutely. When I’m in the studio, I’ll get inspired just by being around creative people, although I may not consciously realize the effect it has on me until after the fact. It’s just like when you’re around positive people and you become more positive, or when you’re around negative people and tend to become relatively negative. When I get around a group of musicians who know what they’re doing, and a producer who has been making amazing records for a while, my head just gets in that space and I want to make something good.

It’s the same with my friends, too. When my friends are around, I want to make them laugh; I want to do something that’s fun, cool, and great. It’s about being around the right people and being in the right setting. I’ll definitely write at home, but it’s usually with an applied pressure (laughing).

What does a typical day look like for you?

When I’m home, my typical day is embarrassingly boring and involves sweatpants. (laughing) I go to bed too late and wake up too late, usually because I am trying to write or working on something that my producer sent me. I’ve been working with S1, who’s a hip-hop producer out of Dallas. He’s been sending me tracks to write hooks for and while in the midst of working together, we started a side project called The Dividends, so we correspond back and forth a lot of the time.

On tour, depending on how long our drive is, my day usually consists of sitting in a van and driving to a venue. Once we get there, we load out and do a sound check; wait three hours; play; sell merch; and then go back to the hotel to get six or seven hours of sleep, so we can do the whole thing over again the next day. I used to think, “I don’t know if I like touring or if I like routine,” but touring is the most militant routine there is. It’s the same process, just with different people and different energies, so it’s kind of hard to gauge each night.

What has been the longest stretch of time that you’ve been on tour?

The longest one was my very first European tour with Midlake. They took me out for a little over a month and it was amazing: it changed my life. They’re good friends and watching them every night was a blast. I was also the only girl on the tour bus with 13 boys, so it got interesting. That tour was 34 days, but by no means mind-boggling; it was just long for me because I’m the queen of 2-week tours. (laughing)

Current album on repeat?

Chris Flemmons, who’s also out of Denton, has a band called the Baptist Generals. They just released a new record that I bought during my last tour. It’s phenomenal and I’m obsessed with it. I’ve also been listening to Daft Punk’s new record, as well as Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space, which is a favorite from a while ago.

Any favorite movies or TV shows?

I’ve been watching this new show on Netflix called, Orange is the New Black. I was literally watching it about an hour ago and it’s so good. There’s only one season out right now, so I’m trying to slow my roll with it because I know I’ll be pissed when I finish. Its so funny; the situational humor is just spot-on.

I’ve been saying that Amélie has been my favorite movie for years, and I think that’s still true. And I’ll watch Shawshank Redemption every fucking time it comes on television. It’s always on, but I will watch it every time, and I’ll be engrossed in it. Dennis the Menace, from the 90s, is another favorite. (laughing)

Do you have a favorite book?

I don’t read a whole lot. That’s sad, I know. My friends give me so much shit for it, but it’s just hard for me. My attention span is every which way, so it’s hard for me to sit down with a book.

Actually, the last book I read was, Skinny by the Canadian writer Ibi Kaslik. The book is about the relationship between two sisters, one of whom is anorexic. It kind of goes through their different perspectives on the illness. It was a really good book, but I read it about four years ago! (laughing)

Do you have a favorite food?

Mm-hmm. I have lots of favorite foods, but I fucking love sandwiches. I also like pretty much any Italian food. I know it’s very 12-year-old boy of me, but I love pizza. (laughing) Green curry is my favorite and I could eat Thai food every day–but I love sandwiches!

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Hmm.

Sorry to go from sandwiches to legacy.


(both laughing)

I’m thinking about food.

You know, the legacy I want to leave has nothing to do with my music, strangely enough. I just want to be remembered by the ones I knew and loved—maybe even the people I met. Kindness is important to me and I think it’s a hard thing to be kind at times. At the end of the day, I don’t know if it even matters if people remember my music so much as the fact that I was good and tried my best to be an honest and solid person. I never want to leave any bitterness or ill-will toward anyone. I just want to do things honestly. I want people to feel good when they think about me. That’s simple, but important.interview close

“Music is hard fuckin’ work, and it isn’t always a money-maker. But if your heart is in it and you love it, you’ll find a way to do it.”