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The freshman

A professional career beckons, but Sarah Jarosz has chosen the life of a New England Conservatory student

By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

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PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE rarely lavished on the young, but Sarah Jarosz is downright gifted in the elusive art of waiting. Folks have been clamoring for an album from the mandolinist, clawhammer banjo player, and singer-songwriter since she began traveling the bluegrass festival circuit at the tender age of 12. Jarosz wouldn’t be rushed, biding her time until she had amassed a striking collection of original tunes. Happily, the wait was brief and fruitful. “Song Up in Her Head’’ was released in June on Nashville’s Sugar Hill Records, a few weeks after Jarosz’s 18th birthday. Praise poured in, and she was promptly booked on “A Prairie Home Companion.’’

Now, just when most rising stars would be leaping headlong into the beckoning arms of agents and promoters, Jarosz is putting her career on the back burner to study at the New England Conservatory. She admits that enrolling in the school of life was a tempting choice; plenty of musicians do it, and many believe that hitting the road is the only legitimate path for a player.

“I talked to a lot of musicians that I respect and got a lot of different opinions,’’ Jarosz says over coffee at a cafe near campus. “And I definitely did ponder the idea of just going straight into the music career. But there’s always more to learn, and I also didn’t want to miss out on the college experience. My roommate is a classical vocal performance major; she does a lot of opera singing, which is something I’ve never really been around before. I’ve been listening to a ton of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. I’m in a world music and a Jewish music ensemble. I’m getting out of my comfort zone.’’

Jarosz announces her intentions with glee, and her eagerness to shake up her own status quo seems remarkable considering how consummately comfortable she sounds on “Song Up in Her Head.’’ Her voice is clear as water, as settled and steadfast as her songs, which are rooted in bluegrass but feel far broader. Gillian Welch comes to mind, but Jarosz isn’t a revivalist. So does Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still, Jarosz’s friend and mentor, a Newton native who also attended New England Conservatory. There’s an inevitability to Jarosz’s musical choices, a sureness that belies her youth and stretches back to Friday night jams in her hometown of Wimberley, Texas, which she started frequenting as a 10-year-old mandolin novice. Since then she has shared stages with elder statesmen Earl Scruggs and Del McCoury, and allied herself with newgrass royalty like Tim O’Brien, Abigail Washburn, and Chris Thile from Nickel Creek, whose crisp stylings grace Jarosz’s album.

Despite her lifelong immersion, Jarosz doesn’t consider herself a bluegrass artist - not anymore. Look no further than the album’s two cover songs, the Decemberists’ “Shankhill Butchers’’ and Tom Waits’s “Come On Up to the House,’’ for a glimpse of where her wandering heart lies. Jarosz loves Radiohead and the Strokes, too, but on top of being a skilled musician she is a tasteful one. And four years from now - assuming she’s here for the long haul - Jarosz will also be a wildly well-educated one.

“The idea is to be challenged by everything that’s come before you in music. There’s no other reason to go to school,’’ says Hankus Netsky, chair of the contemporary improvisation department at NEC, which was founded in 1973 by Gunther Schuller and shepherded through 2005 by Ran Blake. “Sarah is a quick study. She’s humble and open, and I think she wants to be a complete musician. She’s that kind of person who says to herself, I have limits and I’d rather not.’’

Jarosz set her sights on Boston years ago, she says, when friends from music camp began making annual fall pilgrimages to study at Berklee or NEC. She auditioned and was accepted at both schools with generous scholarship offers. It was a tough decision, Jarosz says, but in the end NEC’s small student body (750 to Berklee’s 4,000) and contemporary improvisation department, which emphasizes individually tailored courses of study, won her over.

“The idea of being able to work on my personal style and do it in a conservatory setting was so intriguing,’’ says Jarosz, who is enrolled in fundamentals of music theory, solfege, development of long-term melodic memory, a freshman writing class, a liberal arts seminar called Consumption and Waste in America, and a split studio, which involves weekly private study with two instructors. Jarosz is smitten with her studio work - “I’m diving really deep. It’s awesome!’’ - where she’s focusing on repertoire and vocal technique with Netsky and jazz singer Dominique Eade, who are likewise smitten.

“We’ve really only had a handful of lessons,’’ says Eade. “I was struck by her, though, because sometimes people can come in and be so talented and fluent in a language without any flexibility or ability to go out beyond what they’re familiar with. Sarah seems to be excited about the basic human desire to make music.’’

Jarosz, the only child of two teachers, doesn’t remember when she started singing; according to family lore she was 2. Her mother, an amateur guitarist and songwriter, teaches pre-K at the private school Jarosz attended through eighth grade; that’s where she studied with a music teacher who taught the Kodaly method of ear training, which is rooted in folk music and encourages an intuitive understanding of singing. Her father teaches government and politics at Wimberley High School, where Jarosz graduated last spring “in the top 10 percent of her class,’’ she notes with pride, even though “there were times when I felt like I had two lives going on.’’

Following several years of piano lessons, Jarosz picked up a mandolin when she was 10.

“I’d heard it on recordings around the house and just thought it sounded cool,’’ she says. “A family friend offered to let me borrow one, so I fooled around with it for a while. Then I found out about this Friday night bluegrass jam and asked my parents to take me to it. I just fell in love. I begged them to keep taking me back.’’

Before long Jarosz’s parents were hitting the interstate, their daughter, her mandolin, and eventually a banjo on board, to make the festival rounds - Telluride, Wintergrass, Rockygrass, Grey Fox - and drop Sarah off at music camp in California and Colorado. In 2005 Jarosz was invited to appear in a bluegrass banjo tribute at the Country Music Association awards shows; last year she was a special guest at McCoury’s New Year’s Eve Party at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Engineer and producer Gary Paczosa, best known for his work with Alison Krauss, heard Jarosz in 2007 at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival; the pair co-produced “Song Up in Her Head’’ at Paczosa’s home studio in Nashville on weekends and holidays during Jarosz’s senior year. Guitarist and dobro player Jerry Douglas, who played on many of the sessions, thinks that “Sarah sounds like an old man playing the banjo.’’ For those not versed in bluegrass aesthetics - that’s a compliment.

“She’s so nonchalant about the whole thing,’’ Douglas says. “She doesn’t realize how different she is.’’

Different, perhaps, but among her kind at this elite conservatory. There isn’t much time for songwriting these days, and the shows page at her website is sparse. Jarosz isn’t worried. She knows what’s in store.

“She can see the future,’’ Douglas says, “because she has one.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

SARAH JAROSZ opens for Joy Kills Sorrow at the Lizard Lounge on Wednesday night. Doors open at 8:30; the show starts at 9:15. Tickets are $10. 617-547-0759.

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