Wimberley, Texas-bred folk artist Sarah Jarosz quietly has amassed an impressive four Grammys over only five records, including a Best Americana Album trophy for 2020’s gently-strummed “World on the Ground.” Yet she was unprepared for a different honor that prompted her to rethink her songwriting strategy: a FreshGrass Foundation Composition Commission challenging her to sculpt, over one summer, a 40-minute piece of thematic music, to presented live at the organization’s FreshGrass Festival in September 2017. She acquitted herself nicely with “Blue Heron Suite,” which was released May 7 this year in an 11-track studio edition. It’s a meditation on childhood memories and mortality, inspired by the breast cancer diagnosis her mother, who’s now in remission, received in 2017. Jarosz, who turns 30 on May 23, reached a new emotional depth on “Mama,” “Across the Canyon” and the title ballad, emblematic of the regal wading birds that mother and daughter regularly studied on long beachfront walks together.
How did you learn you’d been awarded the commission? Was there a letter in your mailbox from Publishers Clearing House?
Ha! It’s not a contest. It’s not like that. It’s not something I entered or even knew that I was being considered for. I imagine it had something to do with a board or some group of people at the FreshGrass Foundation who had a meeting and thought, “Now who do we want to bestow this upon?” I was the second person to get this honor, and Bill Frisell was the first. And I had played the FreshGrass Festival many times in the past, so the invitation was almost like, “We would like you to play the festival this year, but in a different way, in a different capacity. And we would like to commission you to write a piece of music to premiere at the festival.” But being chosen was perfect timing, creatively, for me, because it had been a year since my fourth album, “Undercurrent,” had come out, and I was nearing the end of that album cycle, so I was really ready to dive into something new. And it really spurred this different way of trying to write music.
There’s a narrative running through the record, from the opening “Mama” that’s drifting away to the closing blue heron himself, or herself.
I think herself. Definitely herself. But the record is meant to be listened to as a suite, as a song cycle. And I think it started with perhaps just the word “commission.” I associate that word with classical music, because commissions are not something that you see a lot of in the folk, Americana or acoustic world. But because I do associate that word with the classical world, it put my songwriting brain in a different space. Plus, usually, people hear the record, and then they go see the live shows. But thinking about this as a premiere just flipped that whole process on its head. And once I decided that, I narrowed in on the recurring imagery and the lyrics, and I began figuring out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. I was trying to get as simple as possible, in this childlike longing for your mother, this real visceral rip-your-heart-out feeling.
How did “Blue Heron Suite” go down with the original audience?
I would say there were 1,000 people there. But it was incredible, because with a piece like this, it’s 32 minutes long, and it kind of demands your undivided attention. Not easy nowadays when people are very single-oriented and playlist-oriented, and not interested in sitting down and listening to a whole piece of music. So it was a big undertaking to actually expect that from the listener. But it’s been incredible to me, the feedback I’ve gotten. It seems like people are longing for that more than ever, maybe especially after this last year. The fans I’ve heard from have said it was such a joyful experience to sit down and listen to this whole thing. So I guess I must have done something right, because this is obviously emotionally connecting with people.
Is I’m With Her — your folk power trio with your fellow “Prairie Home Companion”/“Live From Here” alums Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan — still around?
The short answer is yes. The pandemic has kind of pushed everyone’s plans back, so we’re all currently focused on our own projects, and probably will be for a while. But we’re in constant communication, so hopefully within the next year we’ll be able to get together again, do some writing, and then maybe think about an album.