Two-time GRAMMY winner Sarah Jarosz at the 59th GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 12, 2017
Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Sarah Jarosz Graduates to GRAMMY Winner with ‘Undercurrent’
(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. In this installment, Sarah Jarosz details the making of Undercurrent, which won Best Folk Album at the 59th GRAMMY Awards, and "House Of Mercy," which won Best American Roots Performance.)
The early gestation period of [Undercurrent] goes all the way back to 2014. I got to play this tour called the Transatlantic Sessions, and it was one of the first times that I was by myself, not with my band. I remember being in my hotel room in London and writing the song "Everything To Hide" over the course of about an hour. It really set the tone for the record, because in that song it says the word "undercurrent." From then on, that word kept popping out to me.
Of all my albums, Undercurrent has the most sense of having a through line. I really do feel that the two definitions of the word defined the theme of the record. There's the water definition of an undercurrent, where a current of water is moving in the opposite direction below the surface, and there's the other definition, which is an underlying feeling or influence. At the time that I was writing these songs, that just felt kind of perfect. It's the first record that I've written not being in school, and I was out of a relationship and on my own in New York City, which was also a change. All of those things filtered into some of the songs that I wrote by myself. Then, along the way, I did more co-writing, and that brought its own magic to the whole process.
All of the album was done at [GRAMMY-winning engineer] Gary Paczosa's studio. I think that's another reason that the record feels more like it has a through-line, because I literally went to Nashville, Tenn., and lived there for like two months at Gary's house. That really contributed to being able to hunker down and focus, instead of being distracted with homework, or a million other things.
I wrote "House Of Mercy" with Jedd Hughes. I had met him during my last record, Build Me Up From Bones. I remember vividly — we were sitting in Gary's living room, and Jedd got on his phone. In his voice memos he had a [file] labeled "Jarosz Idea." He had the phrase "House Of Mercy," because he was living in Los Angeles at the time, and he would drive past this funky-looking little church in East L.A. called the House of Mercy, and he thought, "Wow, that would be a great idea for a song." With those two pieces, we sat down and wrote the song, learned it, then brought it to [bassist] Mark Schatz, and we tracked it all together in one room at the same time.
It was nice to have time in the studio to explore possibilities, but time can also hinder you. If you have too much of it, you can get away from the point of the songs. That was something we actually dealt with on this record. We toyed around with the idea of building some of the songs up a lot, but I really fought for keeping things sparse — having a lot of [the performances] be solo, or really stripped down, which a lot of it wound up being. I think it's good to have disagreements in the studio, up to that certain point where you think, "We're really diving into these songs, and seeing how we can make them the best that they can be."
(At the 59th GRAMMY Awards, Sarah Jarosz won Best Folk Album for Undercurrent, and Best American Roots Performance for the song "House Of Mercy," marking the first GRAMMY wins of her career.)
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Chronicle, and other distinguished publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)