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Sarah Jarosz

The Dead Tongues

Wed, September 29, 2021
Doors: 7:00 pm
Show: 7:00 pm

9:30 Club
Washington, DC

Please Note: Any tickets suspected of being purchased for the sole purpose of reselling can be cancelled at the discretion of 9:30 Club/Ticketmaster. Opening acts, door times, and set times are always subject to change.

Sarah Jarosz

On her latest full-length World On the Ground, Sarah Jarosz shares a collection of stories of her Texas hometown, each song lit up in her captivating voice and richly detailed songwriting. Throughout the album, the three-time Grammy Award-winner explores the tension and inertia of small-town living, the desire for escape and the ease of staying put. As she inhabits characters both real and imagined—many of them sensitive souls prone to aimless wandering and back-porch daydreaming—Jarosz reveals her remarkable gift for slipping into the inner lives of others and patiently uncovering so much indelible insight.

The follow-up to 2016’s two-time Grammy Award-winning Undercurrent, World On the Ground came to life in collaboration with producer/songwriter John Leventhal: a five-time Grammy Award-winner known for his work with artists like Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, and his wife Rosanne Cash. Along with shaping the album’s spacious yet lushly textured sound, Leventhal played a vital part in Jarosz’s decision to center the album on her intricate storytelling.

“The first time we met to talk about the record, John said he wanted me to try to take a step back and look out at the world in my songwriting, rather than looking inward,” says Jarosz. “It completely opened the gates for me, and I started thinking a lot about growing up in Texas and diving into those memories in a way I’d never really done before. I think it has something to do with being in my late 20s, and starting to enter the phase where I’m looking back at what got me to where I am now—as opposed to constantly looking forward, as you do when you’re younger. It felt like the right time for me to return full circle to my roots and my home.”

Recorded at Leventhal’s Manhattan studio, World On the Ground takes its title from “Pay It No Mind,” a bright and soulful track threaded with a bit of breezy wisdom from Jarosz (e.g., “When the world on the ground is gonna swallow you down/Sometimes you’ve got to pay it no mind”). “To me so much of this album feels like the bird in the song who’s up on the seventh floor looking down at the world, taking it all in,” she says. “I feel like that’s so much of the struggle today: trying to combat the noise around you, and get down to the real stuff that’s happening in our lives.”

Elsewhere on World On the Ground, Jarosz delivers a series of character sketches nearly novelistic in emotional scope. A warmhearted portrait of “someone who’s traveled the world and then ends back up where they came from,” according to Jarosz, “Johnny” unfolds with both luminous melody and hard-won truth (one of the song’s many long-lingering observations: “An open heart looks a lot like the wilderness”). On “Maggie,” meanwhile, Jarosz presents a finespun narrative sparked from an encounter at her ten-year high school reunion. “I ran into an old friend who told me, ‘All I want is get out of here, and I just can’t seem to escape,’” says Jarosz, who grew up in a town called Wimberley (population: 2,626). Slow-burning and soul-stirring, “Maggie” emerges as a message of empathy and courage, with Jarosz singing knowingly of “fields that led to nothing but a song you’re singing in your head.”

On “Hometown,” Jarosz turns her attention to a girl who “got out faster than the fireworks,” tempering the track’s restless mood with tender reflection—an element inspired by her own experiences in visiting Wimberley from her New York City home. “There’s this out-of-body feeling you get when you go back home and really take in the world around you,” Jarosz says. “It’s happy and it’s melancholy at the same exact time—you just sort of feel the weight of everything.”

One of the most hypnotic moments on World On the Ground, “Orange and Blue” offers up a more ethereal meditation on place, its piano-laced reverie conjuring an enchanted idyll. “John came to me with a clip of an idea he’d recorded, and I very quickly had this dreamlike vision of walking down to the banks of Cypress Creek,” says Jarosz, referring to a tree-canopied body of water back in Wimberley. As “Orange and Blue” captures that landscape in exquisite detail, Jarosz turns poetic in her depiction of digging into the earth and unearthing what she describes as “a heart that’s so buried it’s almost impossible to find, and you almost can’t believe it.”

In pushing toward the profound specificity of World On the Ground, Jarosz studied many of the great Texas songwriters, including Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and James McMurtry. She also mined plenty of inspiration from Shawn Colvin, whose Grammy Award-winning debut album Steady On was produced by Leventhal himself. “Growing up, I’d hear my parents tell stories about going to see Shawn Colvin at Cactus Café in Austin before anyone knew who she was,” says Jarosz. “Her music was a very prominent part of my upbringing.”

Now 28-years-old, Jarosz began her own musical journey by singing as a little girl and taking up mandolin at the age of nine. As she honed her singular songwriting voice and multi-instrumental skills, Jarosz released her debut album Song Up in Her Head in 2009 and garnered her first Grammy Award nomination at the age of 18. While studying at the New England Conservatory, she delivered Follow Me Down in 2011 and Build Me Up from Bones in 2013, which earned her two additional Grammy nominations. After graduation, she relocated to New York City and released her fourth album Undercurrent in 2016—which won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album, with her song “House of Mercy” receiving the Best American Roots Performance prize. Jarosz then teamed up with fellow musicians Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan to record the debut album from their band I’m With Her. Arriving in early 2018, See You Around led to extensive touring, followed by the release of I’m With Her’s Grammy Award-winning single “Call My Name.” “Being able to step away and create with Sara and Aoife sort of refreshed my brain a bit, so that I was able to come back and be more inspired and excited than ever to work on my own music,” Jarosz notes.

As Jarosz points out, the nature of her collaboration with Leventhal deeply informed the dynamic energy of World On the Ground. Crafting the album’s subtle tapestry of sound almost entirely on their own, the two musicians tracked most of the songs with a deliberate lack of pressure or preciousness. “From the beginning John said to me, ‘OK, we’re just making demos here’—but then about 90 percent of what I thought were demos wound up on the record,” says Jarosz. “Because of that, I think there’s a magic that comes through in the songs. Instead of judging myself or getting in my head too much, we were just creating true music in the moment.”

In the making of World On the Ground, Jarosz ultimately moved undeniably closer to one of her greatest ambitions as an artist: to create an emotionally honest body of work that continually reveals new meaning for the listener. “My favorite records are the ones I just want to play over and over again because of all the details that are there to discover,” she says. “As I was writing this record, it was the deepest I’d ever gone in terms of getting down to the very specific details in the way I told each story. The details are what make people feel something and connect the story to their own lives, and that’s really all I want for my music.”

The Dead Tongues

When Ryan Gustafson finished recording Transmigration Blues, his fourth and best album under the name The Dead Tongues, in the summer of 2019, he slumped into a month-long haze of depression. For two decades, Gustafson—a preternaturally sensitive soul, interested in the mystic but grounded by his love of quiet woods and open deserts—had made many albums with various bands and under assorted guises. This one however, had left him wounded, momentarily empty. He couldn’t write songs, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for tapping into his emotions. Even the shows he played meant going through the motions. “The deeper wells of my being had run dry,” he remembers of how he felt when he returned to his mountain cabin, deep in a North Carolina holler. “There was just this big, open space.”

In the years since recording his 2018 breakthrough, Unsung Passage, Gustafson had built words and songs of intense emotional reckoning. He had wrestled with relationships that failed spectacularly. He had contemplated growing up in and then apart from a devoted religious household. He had surveyed the damage of living hard in his 20s, partying in the back of vans as he prowled the interstates of the United States, reckless and free.

Before any of the songs detailing these reckonings emerged, Gustafson had the title Transmigration Blues—a reference to the Buddhist concept of a dead body’s soul migrating into another host. For Gustafson, though, it also represents the “little deaths” we all experience as we grow and evolve, the lessons and fables (however indirect) we take with us as we molt and slip from an old skin into our next one. This baggage was daunting, Gustafson admits, but he’s better for having sorted through it, having pulled it from his body at last. “It took a while to come back from,” he says. “But I would rather walk out of the studio feeling that way instead of it just being another day at the office.”

Those thoughts—powerful personal reflections on his place in the world, tardy attempts to find meaning in the moments of life he thought he’d left behind—are the core of Transmigration Blues, an album that transmogrifies heavy emotional burdens into some of the most disarming folk-rock you’ll ever hear. From the graceful string-swept recollections of “Deep Water, Strange Wind” to the radiant calls and responses of “Bama Boys Circa 2005,” Gustafson drags past darkness into present light. Transmigration Blues gets to the idiosyncratic heart and unorthodox past of Gustafson, who lives the contemplative rural life about which many of his peers simply sing.

In the past, The Dead Tongues have been a pragmatically sparse project. All his adult life, Gustafson has been an itinerant sort, whether hitchhiking across the West or simply touring hard. His songs as The Dead Tongues tended toward elemental arrangements that could quickly be stripped onstage to their acoustic essence, should he need to perform them alone. But for more than a year, Gustafson has rented a century-old cabin on a 100-acre spread amid the Blue Ridge Mountains, writing songs in a little triangular greenhouse flooded by light.

This newfound stability, coupled with the wider audience that the tender but troubled Unsung Passage cultivated, allowed Gustafson’s imagination to wander, wondering what his decidedly intimate thoughts would sound like played by an all-star band of collaborators new and old. He invited some of his longtime companions from Chapel Hill’s fertile roots music scene, all of Mountain Man, and a drummer with a separate percussionist. For nine largely sleepless days living and working at North Carolina’s Fidelitorium, they gave these songs everything they had. “I had never had the experience of working like that,” says Gustafson. “It was really trying and completely rewarding, just a huge release.”

From its first notes, when organ and piano peal warmly beneath Gustafson’s strummed guitar, Transmigration Blues summons the sounds of friends supporting one of their own as he works through the annals of existence. Laced with sharp electric leads and a kaleidoscope of harmonies and hand drums, opener “Peaceful Ambassador” celebrates the lows, the highs, and the sense of salvation that singing about both can supply. He taps a surfeit of natural beauty for “Equinox Receiver”—the Badlands and the East River, green forests and golden fields—to show how we’re all suspended somewhere between despair and fulfillment, just trying to do our best with what we have. As his small studio choir joins him, you can imagine an endless audience, joining in this perfect ode to survival.

The album’s epic centerpiece is “Déjà Vu,” a song about trying to find the actual space and air to function with any kind of contentment in these increasingly harried times. It’s a gorgeous, candid confession about the odds we all face just to be happy. Gustafson and the band stretch out for seven minutes, returning for a reprise as if to remind us we’re all in this primitive quest together. “The sky is crowded/with a million lights just trying to get through a darkness/and find a way through,” Gustafson sings at the start of the second verse, his voice quiet from the exhaustion of just being. In the chorus, everyone sings together, lifting one another toward those lights.

The world has changed drastically since Gustafson wrote and recorded these songs—entropy, you may say, has found the freeway. In this stark moment of uncertainty, The Dead Tongues’ hymns to understanding your past and finding renewal in the changing seasons are more vital than Gustafson might have ever imagined. They feel like a homecoming for yourself, a farewell for all the guilt you’ve stockpiled. At a time when admitting that most of us are doing the very best we can seems revolutionary, Transmigration Blues is a welcome statement of radical acceptance.

Venue Information:
9:30 Club
815 V Street N.W.
Washington, DC, 20001
WWW.930.COM

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