HOMETOWN: Denton, Texas
ALBUM: Suburban Nature
FOR FANS OF: Rachael Yamagata, Sam Phillips, Joseph Arthur
Back in 2008, Paste declared Denton, Texas, home of the nation’s best music scene, citing the community ethos and ambition for artistry that’s marked the city for years. Tucked among the many artists included in our round-up was a young singer/songwriter named Sarah Jaffe, “blessed with both a trenchant lyrical pen and a vocal instrument perfectly suited to mainlining her effortlessly crafted, heartbroken tunes straight to the soul.” Since then, Jaffe has released her debut LP, Suburban Nature and toured the U.S. and Europe with Norah Jones, Lou Barlow and fellow Denton-ites Midlake. We recently caught up with Jaffe while she was on a radio tour of the Northeast.
Paste: Tell me how you got into the music business. Is this something that you always knew you wanted to do?
Sarah Jaffe: I don’t know. I just always had a really deep love and admiration for music. I grew up listening to and loving music. From an early age, I started asking for musical instruments. When I first got a guitar and started learning, writing just kinda came with that learning process. So I started writing immediately and just fell in love with that. I never remember wanting to do anything else. It’s always been writing and performing.
Paste: As a young singer/songwriter, what challenges do you face?
Jaffe: You know, I think there’s definitely a plethora of female singer/songwriters. I think, especially now days, there’s just been a saturation of everything. That’s good and bad. When you’re a new artist like myself, and you’re just introducing yourself to a large group of people, playing shows outside of your regional area, it’s a difficult thing for people not to place you into a specific genre. I understand people initially, in order to relate to what you’re doing, have to say “you sound like this” or “you sound like that.” But that’s always a frustrating thing to do something that’s original to yourself and be placed with a slew of other artists who are doing the same thing, or like the same thing. But it comes with the territory. And if that’s the worst thing that happens, then I think I’ve got it pretty good.
Paste: You’ve had some pretty cool opportunities recently, going out on tour with Midlake and Norah Jones. How did those opportunities come about?
Jaffe: Well, I live in Denton, Texas, and both Nora and Midlake are Denton natives. Midlake was the first tour I went on. They asked me to go out with them to Europe, right when the record came out. You know, they’re just good friends. Obviously touring with good friends and one of my favorite bands was a no-brainer. While I was out with them, I got a text from Norah asking me if I’d be interested and available to open a slew of shows with her. So, of course, I was all too excited about that. It was just a couple of weeks in the Midwest with her. She’s great, she went to University of North Texas. She’s good friends with some of my good friends. So that was a really warm introduction, for sure, and obviously an honor to be out with her. And with Lou, that was just my booking agency, at the time, hooked that up. He was amazing to tour with. He’s a really really chill guy and a blast to watch every night. His fans are just crazy about him. He’s an amazing writer as well as just a really good person.
Paste: Any stories jump to mind, being on tour with those folks?
Jaffe: Lets see. There’s a lot. With Midlake, just because I was out with them for so long, I was out with them for little over a month. I turned 24 on the road with them when we were on the road to Paris. We celebrated in Amsterdam, so you can imagine the insanity that happened. I think when you’re out for that long, and you’re seeing that many places in such a little amount of time there’s a lot that happens. I feel like everyday is a bit crazy. And a lot of it is mundane in the speed that you’re going, there’s so much that happens. It’s hard for me to take in all of it. There’s a lot of good things to be said. Things I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life, as far as learning and watching these artists—trying to grow as an artist myself, I think more than anything.
Paste: And you’re not originally from Denton, are you?
Jaffe: No, no. I grew up in a lot of small suburbs around Texas. When I was eight years old, my parents moved to a small, small town called Red Oak. It’s about 30 miles south of Dallas.
Paste: Why did you choose Denton as a place to make home?
Jaffe: After I graduated High School, I lived in Los Angeles for about a year, and just got the shit kicked out of me. I kinda came home with my tail between my legs and I stayed home for about a year. I had some really good friends in Denton, that I visited quite often, and I loved the bands and just the whole community vibe—how everyone was just really accessible. I just loved it. I thought about Austin, I wanted to be in Texas; I wanted to be pretty close to home. I did kinda move there on a whim. My friend was like, “We’ve got an extra room, you should just move here.” The rent was insanely cheap, so it was a no-brainer at the time. I’ve lived there for four years now, and I just love it. I think thus far, it’s been the best decision I’ve made musically. It’s just been a really good place to grow and a really good pivotal point for me to travel and still be able to maintain a sense of home, be able to afford rent and come back to a group of people who are humble and doing what they love. It’s amazing.
Paste: What is it about the place that inspires all that camaraderie and creativity?
Jaffe: You know, I’m not sure what it is. I know all of the musicians who are still living there—for example, Midlake and guys I play with like Robert Gomez—are just phenomenal musicians. Robert lived in Brooklyn for seven years and then came back to Denton. I think it’s just, it may just be about the people. I think it’s just a really humble place. It’s small, it’s just a college town. In viewing, it just looks like a college town. But I think the people who have stayed there have kinda built this haven of good character. I think that’s what made Denton just a cool place to be.
Paste: As you’re writing songs and making a go of music as a career, what are some of the things that inspire you?
Jaffe: A lot. Performing, just gaining confidence as a performer. I’m just trying to get a bit more gutsy. I listen to a lot of music that may be unexpected to most—bands like Little Dragon and Robin, heavy electronic music. I love that kind of stuff. Just venturing out to do those things. Picking up different kinds of instruments and just learning as much as I can, while I can, and to the best of my ability. I think, all in all, I’m just trying to learn to be a better musician as apposed to just a singer/songwriter. Leaning from the people around me has been the key for me lately.
Paste: Any instruments in particular that you’re working on now?
Jaffe: Yeah. A few months ago, I bought a bass and a drum set. So I’ve kinda been at it with the two of those. Equally gratifying and embarrassing for myself. It’s been really fun. I haven’t played drums live yet, and I don’t think I will. But I do play bass now a lot live. Bass is cool, because you can be a one trick pony for as many songs as you’d like. I love it.
Paste: Your first record came out earlier this year. Where do you go from here?
Jaffe: I think, since the record came out, I’ve just been touring nonstop. Sporadically, I’ll have a couple weeks off here and there. But I’ve been on the road. We did a couple of Pacific Northwest and Midwest dates. Now that I’m on the Northeast coast, I’m going to come back with Ben Weaver who’s a great artist as well, just a phenomenal singer/songwriter. I’m going to come back with him in December. There’s some tentative dates that I have in January that I’m still trying to work out with the label. But, I’m guessing that the way things are going now, going out and playing for radio stations and such, that I’ll probably be out until early next year. Which is great. I love to have this momentum, and I hope it continues. Hopefully, I just continue writing while I’m on the road.
Paste: Is that hard to do, writing on the road?
Jaffe: It’s actually come more easily than being at home and writing. For some reason, I’m having a hard time writing at home. Now that I’m out, just the feeling of having momentum and moving is kind of spurred on some creativity in ways that wouldn’t have happened at home recently. It’s been good. It’s been a little weird at times, I’ve kinda had writers block. But it’s been going really well.