Sarah Jaffe: Beyond a Singer-Songwriter

Sarah JaffeThe first time I heard Sarah Jaffe (who is opening for the New Multitudes boys at the Crystal Ballroom this Friday, March 9.) she was maybe 20 years old. It was 2007. I had just moved to Dallas to take the music editor position at the alt-weekly Dallas Observer, and one of the first things I heard out of the mouths of those in the know was, “You gotta go hear this girl, Sarah Jaffe. Singer-songwriter. She’ll blow you away.”

I was doubtful. I had already spent four years covering music elsewhere, and I had grown cynical about the genre. The words “singer-songwriter” to me equated “bore you to tears,” not “blow you away.”

So I dragged my feet and avoided the whole matter. Tootled around with indie bands and boozy tributes to Bruce Springsteen. I cocked an ear toward the mellow ’70s rock revisit that was floating in from Denton, danced to futuristic electronica  in Deep Ellum, and endured a ’90s revivalism that was better left rotting in Nirvana’s grave. But still I avoided Sarah Jaffe.

What a dummy I was.

My friends finally forced me to her show at a coffee shop near my apartment.  I might have literally dragged my feet on the way there. Visions of off-key campfire caterwauling filled my head as we made our way across the pavement.

I mean, seriously: Total. Dummy.

By the end of the first chorus of the first song, I was transfixed. This was no ordinary singer-songwriter. This was an old musical soul hidden in the body of a shy, still-awkward woman barely out of her teens. This was Janis Joplin if she were whispering in your ear. This was Etta James telling you secrets. This was hard-scrabble emotional edge of an old country woman from the Depression. In a random coffee shop in downtown Dallas. Before the end of the first song.

Here’s a little sample of what I heard that night. This is “Even Born Again,” from Sarah’s first EP of the same name (released in 2008).

I followed Sarah’s rise for a while after I left Dallas, but I’ll admit that as much as I loved her, she fell off my musical radar after a bit. So when I saw she was opening for the New Multitudes show (co-starring her fellow Denton-ite, Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson, with whom she recently toured), my heart burst with the thrill of a musical re-discovery. I could not wait to find out what Sarah had blossomed into. I started fishing around online and found these two gems, from her 2011 CD/DVD The Way Sound Leaves A Room: “Clementine” and “The Way Sound Leaves A Room.”

Sooooo… yeah… let’s just say I knew Sarah would have matured musically, and I knew that she would have crafted some things of beauty in the time since I’d last heard her, and I knew that her voice would have gotten stronger and more confident… but, as we say in Texas: Hot damn! I sure didn’t expect this.

I love how her voice creaks like a rocking chair on a front porch. I love how the music aches as it still sashays and sways. I love how the songs remain old-hearted and yet thoroughly modern. In short: I love this music.

Sarah (and I should note here, usually I refer to artists by their last names, but her music is just so intimate and immediate, only “Sarah” will suffice) has a new album, The Body Wins, coming out April 24 on Kirtland Records. Here’s the promo, “Talk”:

From the sounds of it, she’s taken a modern turn toward a more ambient, sophisticated, almost Tegan and Sara sound. With badass producer John Congleton (Modest Mouse, the Thermals, Paper Chase, to name a very few) at the knobs for this one, I expect Sarah’s sepia tones to explode into full color. This is gonna be good.

I don’t know which Sarah will show up at the Crystal this week -the young acoustic singer, the raspy songwriter, or the new sophisticate, but I know this: You may be going to the show Friday night to hear New Multitudes, but there’s no doubt that Sarah Jaffe alone is worth the price of admission.

So don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t drag your feet.

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