Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe and the Risk of Being a Middle-Class Musician

Laura Leebove

By Laura Leebove

Managing Editor
on 08.25.14 in Features

Sarah Jaffe is caught between two worlds. In one, she’s an acoustic folk-turned-pop singer, whose material has evolved from the sparseness of early Sharon Van Etten to the moodiness of St. Vincent or Bat for Lashes. In the other, she’s working with A-list producer S1 writing hooks for hip-hop, one of which eventually became the first track on Eminem’s last album. The two paths aren’t as disparate as they seem; the music on Jaffe’s third full-length, Don’t Disconnect, falls somewhere in the middle. Despite these pursuits, her livelihood is at constant risk: The 28-year-old Texas native is supporting herself entirely through her musical endeavors. And though she’s on the verge of greater success, she knows the security she has now might not last forever. As a middle-class touring musician, there’s “a weird blurred line of getting too comfortable and still being on the edge,” she says. “Like, it could all fall out from under my feet…You may be fine right now but nothing is totally guaranteed.”

‘There was that moment of terror, like, “Am I gonna get fucked over?” — Sarah Jaffe’

In 2010, Jaffe released her first full-length, Suburban Nature, a gorgeous folk LP on the Dallas-based Kirtland Records. The album is no-frills and mostly acoustic; its songs are entirely about heartbreak, but there’s never any wallowing, and its lyrics are clever but never cutesy. Her voice — a reedy, full-bodied, unwavering alto — is remarkable. Around the time Suburban Nature was released, Jaffe played an opening slot at Dan’s Silverleaf, a small venue in Denton, Texas. She wasn’t yet known in the area — she’d just moved there from Dallas — and acoustic singer-songwriter types don’t often fare well in a bar amid idle chatter and clinking glasses. But when Jaffe started playing, McKenzie Smith, drummer for folk-rock mainstays Midlake, who was standing far off in the crowd, was taken aback. “She kind of hushed the entire room and it was dead silent,” he remembers. “Her voice is unique, her songs are very strong and her lyrics can cut deep. They can be simple but they have a very profound and deep impact.”

She and Smith developed a friendship, which resulted in Midlake taking her on tour in Europe and the States. Her second LP, the John Congleton-produced The Body Wins, came two years later. While the folk undertones remain, Body also features strings, horns, piano, more percussion and synths. There are elements of R&B in both the title track and “Mannequin Woman” (which sounds like an outtake from Feist’s The Reminder), and reverbed vocals in “The Way a Sound Leaves a Room” and “Foggy Field.” At the end of the album, “Talk” employs crunchy guitars and spacey synth sirens, and “When You Rest” is an ethereal, string-heavy pop ballad with an echoed chorus. The Body Wins also has lyrics about love and heartbreak, but they’re less direct and more pointed: In the title track, she sings, “I gave you my guts, you gave me your limbs” and in “Hooray for Love” it’s “Fear is what I feed to the cowards/ You look like you’ve had enough.”

While most of the press around The Body Wins focused on the shock of her stylistic transformation, Jaffe says the change in direction was more organic than it probably seemed. “I didn’t want to make the same record over and over again,” she says on the phone, somewhere between Boise and Colorado. “I don’t think that’s fun for anybody.”

Her big break in the Body album cycle came after Erykah Badu’s band the Cannabinoids remixed the song “Glorified High.” Jaffe visited the studio while the band was working and met Cannabinoids member S1 (nee Larry Griffin Jr.), who’s collaborated with Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Erykah Badu. (Recently, he spent two weeks in the studio with Madonna and is working on the new Kanye West record.) S1 was enamored by Jaffe’s music. “She writes very indirectly,” he says. “I like that, because it leaves the listener with a little bit left to their imagination as opposed to giving them everything within a certain line or within a certain verse.”

After their initial meeting, S1 approached Jaffe about writing hip-hop hooks for other artists. “We would just ping-pong ideas off of each other,” Jaffe says. “He would send me a track and I would send him back a chorus. We worked so well together.” One of the first tracks he sent her became the basis of “Bad Guy,” the first song on Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2. The pair enjoyed collaborating so much that they started their own project called the Dividends — under that moniker they’ll continue pitching songs to other artists, but they’ve also recorded some of their own, which they’ll put out after Jaffe’s new-release duties.

Which brings us to Don’t Disconnect. S1 didn’t work on the recording (it was produced by Smith), but it’s obvious that his songwriting sessions with Jaffe made an impact. The first sound on album-opener “Ride It Out” is a fuzzy, club-ready syncopated bass line and drum beat. “Revelation” — about the book of Revelation and her religion-driven childhood fears of burning for eternity — has ethereal vocal effects and twinkling, layered synths, and “Lover Girl” has a plucky piano base and swelling electronic effects.

The title track, which provides the album’s theme, was inspired by Jaffe’s past few years on tour, as she struggled to maintain relationships with friends and family. Its meaning was mostly literal at first, but “I realized it takes on a lot of different [issues] about engulfing yourself and distracting yourself,” Jaffe says. “There’s so much stuff in front of everyone on a daily basis. The amount of information one person takes in day-to-day is pretty insane. It’s kind of hard to remain human.” “Don’t Disconnect” is minimal, made up of little more than cool, warbly synth pulses, as Jaffe sings, “Do you still feel me?/ Don’t disconnect/ Don’t disconnect yet.”

The Dividends

S1 and Sarah Jaffe as the Dividends

The album’s opener, “Ride It Out,” also alludes to the impact touring has had on Jaffe (“Burst of emotion follows mid-day lull/ Nowhere to hide on this logical plateau,” she sings). “Songwriting and touring, for me, have become a job. It wasn’t something I was doing on the side anymore or working to do,” she says. “Touring is really hard. There’s a lot of time to think. You get really isolated and self-involved sometimes.”

Don’t Disconnect‘s lyrics provide a human center for the largely processed music that surrounds them. Jaffe maintains the subtle cleverness and wordplay that drew me to her lyrics in her folk days (especially on “Some People Will Tell You”), but her songs are more mature and there’s more room for interpretation. “I think the growth of her songwriting is because she’s starting to realize she’s great at what she does in any atmosphere — not just in her comfort zone, but even outside her comfort zone,” S1 says. “I think she’s even more confident. It shows in the music.”

Jaffe’s key collaborators, Smith and S1, both keep busy with a variety of projects — in addition to recording and touring with Midlake, Smith runs a recording studio with his bandmate Joey McClellan, and is also a session drummer for many of John Congleton’s recordings; meanwhile, S1 has countless production gigs, in addition to his work with the Dividends, the Cannabinoids, and a forthcoming album called Black Vietnam with Lupe Fiasco.

‘When I hear her sing, when I hear the type of songs she creates, she can write with anybody. — S1’

Their reasons are both creative and financial. S1 says he wants to be tied to anything that inspires him, but acknowledges that there are no guarantees in the music industry. “I never know when I’m gonna have my next single or when people are gonna reach out,” he says. “Those calls can stop at any moment. We have to keep pushing, because if we stop or let up, we’ll never know when it’s gonna be our last opportunity.”

Smith recognizes that it’s hard for a mid-level, touring indie-rock band — his own included — to earn decent money. “There’s this upper echelon of bands just lucky enough to break through to where they can actually make a real living doing it, and the rest of us are doing everything we can to just get by,” he says. Even though Midlake has been relatively successful, with a decade of releases on Bella Union under their belts, he says the bigger the band gets, the more it costs to produce their shows. “The more money that comes in, it’s like the less money actually comes in, somehow,” he says.

There are plenty of ways Jaffe’s career could play out, but the most ideal route seems to be something like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon or Sia Furler. Vernon started Bon Iver as a lonely folk project; like Jaffe, he quickly tired of the singer-songwriter route. Around the same time, he gained access to more recording tools, so he expanded his sound from cabin-in-the-woods folk to an expansive full-band effort that was loved by critics and also won a Best New Artist Grammy Award. His unlikely contributions to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy LP in 2010 elevated his profile and allowed him to explore new outlets, which have ranged from producing records in his April Base studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to a recently announced hip-hop side project. Furler had a slow-but-steady recording career for years before writing songs for the likes of Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Britney Spears — but that can be volatile, too: Songs she’s written for David Guetta and Flo Rida have sold millions of copies, while Christina Aguilera’s 2010 comeback album Bionic tanked.

‘It’s important to have a career and not just a moment. — Midlake’s McKenzie Smith’

Jaffe will undoubtedly continue writing with S1, but he also wants her to start writing for others, too. “When I hear her sing, when I hear the type of songs she creates, she can write with anybody,” S1 says. “Her writing is just so unique and she stands out among a lot of things I hear, so I really think she can compete in today’s industry.” She’s already gotten a taste of the stress that can come with being a featured songwriter in hip-hop, which S1 calls the “wild west”: She and S1 found out only a couple weeks before Eminem’s album release that their song was going to be used. S1 explained that in a lot of big-name projects, an artist will release a song or album before paperwork is done. He and Jaffe tied everything up in time (“It’s a blessing that I have good representation around me on the legal side,” he says), but Jaffe remembers, “There was that moment of terror, like ‘Am I gonna get fucked over?’”

Whichever route she takes, Jaffe, Smith and S1 all agree that it doesn’t make sense to try to force a high-profile career when you’re planning to be in it for the long haul. Smith paraphrased a bit of advice from his friend John Vanderslice, a longtime indie troubadour with a devoted fan base: “It’s important to have a career and not just a moment.” “If you want to have a career and you want to stay true to what you’re doing, it’d be great to make a lot more money,” Smith says. “But at the same time, if you can be honest with who you are and you can make it work, that’s more important than changing for the industry or changing just to do things you think people want or need or like. I’m hoping that’s how it is for Sarah.”

Jaffe’s not sure if Don’t Disconnect will bring her another big break, but she’s OK with that. “Not knowing what’s gonna come is a big fear. Nothing’s really for sure,” she says. “I could make a record that I love and it doesn’t do great, but I think longevity is key. There’s literally nothing else I would rather do.”