After Sunset

Precocious mandolinist Sarah Jarosz, 15, performed last week at the Candlelight Coffeehouse.

According to, a mandolin is a “small, stringed musical instrument which is plucked, strummed or a combination of both.” A descendant of the medieval mandora, or lute, the mandolin seems to inspire a range of emotion, from the dreamlike indolence or passion of characters in Renaissance poetry to the childlike exuberance in the communal jam sessions of modern bluegrass players.

It is the slow melancholy and spontaneous precision of the sound produced by 15-year-old Wimberley mandolinist Sarah Jarosz that moves me. (It’s not only the mandolin over which she croons — or expels an Aboriginal wail — but also the clawhammer banjo and guitar.) I discovered her when she performed  at Casbeers with Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck. That night, she was all ablur with happy notes and fast solos. During her own 45-minute set at Candlelight last week, though, she presented a mix of serious-hearted personal compositions and haunting covers, like December-ists’ “Shankhill Butchers.” The dark content accompanying her often dissonant sound was delivered with poise and agelessness; I could have closed my eyes and heard the soul of any woman, any human, emotional and aware of the world. Her personal composition “I Can’t Love You Now,” written in the aftermath of Katrina, had all the elements of insight, as opposed to an expected teenaged cliché. Conversely, her sorrowful reflection on a friend’s rejection from the college of her choice was rather age-appropriate.

Surrounded by white lights, candles, and the trickle of a decorative pond, Sarah eased into the early-evening patio scene with a giddiness that was shared by an audience sipping aromatic tea and velvety wine in the late-autumn air. Herbal tea had my heart cozy on Candlelight’s patio, surrounded by family in town for Thanksgiving and a few good friends. The music of the mandolin and the beauty circling my loved ones made for a perfect extended moment (knowing I didn’t have to go back to work for four days helped). After my second exposure to Sarah, I wanted to know more.   

Lucky for me, speaking with Sarah was relatively easy. When I met her, I had that strange fan-approaching-an-artist awkwardness — despite the fact that I’m almost 15 years her senior — but she and her parents were very warm and easygoing. When I sent her some questions via email a couple days later, she responded happily and quickly (after studying for a chemistry exam).

Between the bio she sent me and her very thoughtful, detailed answers to my questions, I could likely begin a Sarah Jarosz book, but since I am limited by word count, I have chosen highlights from our online conversation.

To preface, it’s not just that she is young and motivated that catches people’s attention. She’s truly a musical natural (who works hard at her craft nonetheless). Sarah has been involved in music her whole life, and in recent years has been noticed by (and given opportunities to learn from and jam with) big shots in the business such as David Grisman, Tim O’Brien (not the author), and Mike Compton. And, despite all this, she has a good head on her shoulders; she has opted to wait until the time is right to take her career into the recording studio.

What’s your musical history?

I have been singing since I was 2 years old. I studied music using the “Kodaly” method from kindergarten through the 8th grade. At the age of 6, I started taking piano lessons to improve my knowledge and abilities in music. I started playing the mandolin about five years ago and instantly fell in love with the instrument. Soon after, I began attending a weekly Friday-night bluegrass jam in my hometown of Wimberley, Texas, where I met numerous friends and musicians. I was immersed in bluegrass, acoustic, and old-time music. About two years ago, I became fascinated with the clawhammer banjo and I have been playing it ever since. I have also played the guitar for about three years.

Who are your biggest musical influences?

Tim O’Brien, Abigail Washburn and Ben Sollee, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Hot Rize, Nickel Creek, Wilco, the Decemberists, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles.

How does your music career affect your school and social life?

Trying to balance school with a music career can be difficult at times. Over the years I have found ways to organize my time between studying and playing music. I am not sure whether or not I want to study music in college. I am working hard in school so that when the time comes to make the decision, all of my doors will be open. Sometimes it is hard to balance a social life with a music career, especially since most of my friends want to do things over the weekends, and most of my gigs fall on the weekends. However, I have figured out a way to get to spend time with my friends, while still devoting time to practice and performances.

To me, you seem to be a bit of an “old soul.” Do you agree?

I don’t think that I can necessarily be the judge of whether or not I am an old soul, since I’m only 15 years old. But I do spend a lot of time with older musicians and people, and I get along extremely well with people above my age range. My parents have always taken me to concerts and I have been around older people my entire life.

What’s your biggest dream with regard to music?

To continue to grow as a musician, singer, and songwriter, and to travel the world to share my music with people from all walks of life. I see myself spending my entire life doing what I love, and that love is music.


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