I don’t remember where I first heard Sarah Jaffe, it was maybe four months ago, and, like (I’d guess) all of us who’ve heard of her in the lead-up to her debut album Suburban Nature, I heard “Clementine,” and “Even Born Again,” both of which are available through her website and both of which will, if you’re even remotely alive/awake, knock you flat on your ass. Jaffe’s voice is the best instrument I’ve heard in a long, long time (it was a lucky winter for phenomenal female vocalists + songwriters, actually: both Jaffee and a woman named Lissie made January-March easier to suffer through [I'm in NW IA, which meant massive snow and endless cold]).
Superlatives and hyperbole run out quick when you listen to Jaffe: her tone is gorgeously clear and dynamic and, amazingly, conveys perfectly this mixture of openness and being guarded. The album’s song which I haven’t been able to stop playing is “Stay with Me,” in which she begins with this haunting: “If you say go, I will go / if you wanted to take it slow, we’ll take it slow.” That willingness on the singer’s part, to be there or to go, to do whatever, is, to me, breathtaking. It’s hard to write about this stuff because it ends up reading as corny (hence singing it instead), but it’s true. Like any number of singers in any number of songs, Jaffe sings, at the end of that song’s chorus, “Stay with me.” It’s a simple line; reading it on the page, it’s nothing, a dandelion’s whisp. Yet who hasn’t, at some point, crumpled at hearing that phrase spoken by someone? It’s easy to dismiss those stock phrases—I love you, I miss you, etc.—but Jaffe’s able to transform them, reload them with elemental magic, and when she sings lines you feel them, deeply and true and real and aching. She’s a devastator.
By the way: guitar, mostly. Guitar-based folk-something-or-other. I don’t know if folk’s a fair word for it–I don’t know what the genre type is we file music like Jaffe’s under (any of her songs would fit on any decent comp or mix I could conjure). I know the way of blogs: the tag is RIYL and I’m supposed to say “Lissie” or “Cat Power” or whatever, but that’s a shitty system, plus it’s cheap (for everyone involved). Jaffe’s songs are direct, clear, open, engaging, lyrically knock-down (for the most part: “LUV” doesn’t hit as hard as the rest of the album), and, honestly, somewhat snarly, in the best and most enticing ways: Jaffe’s not some blusher, and these aren’t wimpy songs of want and ache; they’re muscular + determined songs, and they hit hard, like things loosened from big depths.
Suburban Nature is out on iTunes right now as a digital download, and will be out in May from Kirtland Records, and the thing’s just a stunner. Seriously: the last time I was this excited about a new singer was, I don’t know, a decade+ ago, hearing Richard Buckner for the first time (let’s be fair: I’ve dug Throw Me the Statue and Bon Iver and Ritter and Spoon and everyone else, but in terms of just pure singing power? In terms of voice? It’s not even close). Jaffe’s opening shows in May for Norah Jones and, hopefully later in the summer, will be coming to venues near enough to all of us. Sarah was kind enough to answer some questions recently, and they’re below:
1. What are you reading? Likewise, to whom do you listen, what movies do you watch, what sports teams do you follow, cooking shows, etc. Basically: what’s the input that leads to your output (not to try and decipher yr music through that stuff, at all, just out of curiousity)?
Right now I’m kind of doing some light reading. On the humorous side. This book called Mortified. It’s a collection of stories I heard about through a This American Life piece…anyways, it’s just a compilation of different stories from different people. Really embarassing diary entries, notes between friends…Mortified actually travels as a group and they read their stories themselves. It’s pretty hysterical.
I’m listening to classics right now. David Bowie, Harry Nilsson. I’m also obsessing over a couple new records. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM is insanely good. Also Gorillaz new record is wonderful.
2. What would success mean to you? Where are you, literally, in this process? Yes history/time will judge, no you have little direct control on album sales, and yet you’ve made this great disc, and you seem to be getting good notice, iTunes shines a light toward you, etc. Expand at will.
This record took about a week to record, same with the EP from two years ago. And I feel like in between the two I kind of harnessed where I wanna be, where I wanna take this record, and the next, and the next…I’ve gotten these great oppurtunities to tour with wonderful people. I guess in that way Ive gone farther than I expected, but that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the wonderful support around me (like Midlake, Norah, Kirtland bringing me on the label). People just looking out for me, ya know? I hope to always be able to travel, and expand my sound in different ways. I look forward to things like that..growing as an artist..If I can continue to do that, that would be a success.
3. Who would be your dream collaborator? With whom would you love to work—musician, producer, whatever?
Daniel Lanois. He produces beautiful records.
It would be nice to work with Stephin Merritt. And by nice I mean a dream. He’s brilliant. Everything he does is very epic in a blatant way.
4. The disc is almost entirely about personal relationships, but the thing as a whole’s called Suburban Nature, and lots of the songs on here feature this narrator (=you) sort of pushing at someone, trying to get someone to be more clear, trying to get someone else to articulate stuff, to just do stuff. Is there a story-line that arcs through all these songs? Do you feel them connecting? Is the woman the same in all the songs? Does the album as a whole work together? (feel free to answer this as expansively or tersely as you wish).
These songs are all over the place as far as timeline goes..There are some songs I wrote when I was 17, and some I wrote 2 years ago. As far as a collective storyline, nothing was intentional. Thus far in my life, my inspiration in writing comes from first hand experience in relationships. It constantly fascinates me the roles we take on, and the twists that occur sometimes…But these are songs I just chose to put on the record cause I wanted to get them out there, and together, they did, kind of create this story.
5. Do you like touring? Where’ve/what’ve been yr most enjoyable shows? Are you gonna be doing a whole bunch more touring this summer, post-Norah Jones?
I love touring. Honestly, that surprised me at first because I’m very much a creature of habit, and it is impossible to be that on the road…but i always manage to find my groove in it, and I can kind of appease both sides of my personality.
I had the time of my life seeing Europe with Midlake. That was the longest I had ever been out with what I think is an epic band. They are dears.
After Norah, Ill be doing a few more shows in May, then touring in June. Still working out those details. The plan is to be touring all summer going into the fall. I wanna tour as much as possible for this record.
6. Maybe it’s just me, but this year seems rife with great music coming–you, the National, LCD Soundsystem, Josh Ritter, etc. Is there any stuff yr super excited about that’s either just come out or is coming soon?
Im really excited about LCD Soundsystem. I just heard the single Drunk Girls and I think its pretty wonderful.
7. This is one of those sort of dorky/obligatory answers, but what’s yr take on the state of the music business at present? I’m just an outsider, a fan–I like that there’s blogs and blog aggregators, and that big companies have less and less a position in my life, but I’m curious about how it feels from the other side, as a musician. Again: expand away, I really don’t even know how much more clear to make the question. It’s maybe more of just a prompt.
I’m pretty naive when It comes to the business side of everything…or maybe not naive..I let it go over my head is more like it. It sucks the life out of me..business, that is.
I dont know that I’ve been in the business long enough to have a solid opinion on this. I mean, I know what legally, and prematurely downloading music has done for the business.. And it is something that will always continue. It still makes my blood boil a bit. But I’ve been told to take it as a compliment that the record is being “not bought”…..more opinions will be formed on the state of the music business down the road.
8. What’s the view out your window?
I’ve got the best windows and the best view in the house. I’ve got a view of my charming back yard, and my roommate’s garden.