8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7
With a new album on the way, a record-label deal in hand and her first major tour afoot, it feels like 23-year-old Sarah Jaffe's been at this point before. Back in 2008, the Denton, Texas, singer seemed to be gearing up for a major breakthrough. Jaffe grew up in Red Oak, Texas, a small town with "nothing there but a school and a Sonic." She taught herself to play guitar and played shows around Dallas in her late teens before moving to Los Angeles.
"I thought that was the natural move to make," laughs Jaffe. "I came back home with my tail between my legs." L.A. wouldn't be her last false start.
After a few more years of paying dues around Dallas, Jaffe released her 2008 debut EP, Even Born Again — a collection of whispery, hauntingly strummed ballads — and the accolades came quickly: The pulsing, melancholy title song was featured on NPR's Song of the Day (which described her as a "virtual unknown") and her efforts earned her showcase spots in major festivals like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. She found herself touring with acts like Denton national breakouts Midlake, who count themselves among her biggest supporters. The next several months saw her performing guest spots on respected folk artist Robert Gomez's album and, crucially, doing a stand-out assist as a doomed lover on one of 2008's best songs, Astronautalis' "Two Years Before the Mast," from the hip-hop artist's album, Pomegranate. "They can't take you from me," Jaffe pleads on the song, which Astronautalis later described as "the key to the whole album."
"I met Andy `Bothwell, Astronautalis' real name` two years ago at this annual thing called Rock Lottery," says Jaffe. "It's where they take a bunch of local artists and group them together and each group has to write three songs. I ended up being grouped with Andy and we just hit it off from the get-go. He made me laugh and we just kind of meshed creatively. We had a fucking blast doing this thing together and after that we just kept in touch."
By Christmas that year, Pomegranate producer John Congleton, who made a name for himself working with the Polyphonic Spree and Modest Mouse, was in the studio recording Jaffe's material for a full-length debut. Titled Suburban Nature, the album was completed in less than a week. And then, just as suddenly as everything happened for Jaffe, it stopped.
"It was a matter of finances," says Jaffe. "I just didn't have it. Also, I know this sounds strange, but there was also kind of a feeling that I needed to wait a little bit. I'm so used to moving on impulse and wanting things right away and that's exactly what I wanted for the record. I wanted to get it out immediately. I was proud of it and felt the urge to get it out soon, but I just thought that I should wait. It was just a thought, I guess."
Almost precisely a year after the album's wrap, Sarah Jaffe is building steam once again. Texas-based Kirtland Records (home of the Toadies and, strangely enough, Bush) is set to release Suburban Nature in March, but Jaffe isn't waiting anymore. This week's Orlando show marks one of the first in a tour with Midlake that will take her all across Europe.
"It's kind of a vulnerable moment to be like, ‘Here I am!' I don't have anything to prove myself but here I am," laughs Jaffe. "But at the same time, this is my first large tour. This entire time has been impending for me, so it's kind of like, ‘What else?' I'm obviously not gonna `turn down` a tour with these amazing people. It's just a matter of shitty timing and me trying to be patient when I'm really not. It's going to happen when it happens."
The important thing for Jaffe is that Suburban Nature will soon be heard. Considering the producing heft behind her, it's a surprisingly bare outing. Songs like "Stay With Me" and "Before You Go" feature delicately handled string accompaniment and subtly layered harmonizing, respectively, but at the fore is Jaffe alone with her guitar, the bartender-by-day exploring her heart's darker shadows.
"It's a lot more layered than the EP, but it's pretty true to what I do live," says Jaffe. "John Congleton was pretty good about letting me do that and keeping it honest and raw. Altogether it kind of tells a story and kind of goes back and forth emotionally, like an up-down, up-down kind of thing. It's weird, I always know when I need to write a song. It's like a heaviness in my chest that I get. A lot of times traveling will uproot a lot of inspiration for me. This past year, I haven't been writing a lot. It's been very much business-based, trying to get the record out.
"Writing has always been very out-of-body for me. In that way, it's therapeutic, I guess. Every song has come in retrospect of an actual happening, especially the ones about relationships. It's very rare for me that I write about something while it's going on. The songs `on Suburban Nature` are about five years old now, but shit like this happens. Timing is brutal sometimes. It's not an overnight thing."