Sarah Jaffe looks like an elf and sings like a storm. The singer-songwriter comparisons to Cat Power are almost inevitable at this point, but her gender is a factor she remains almost aggressively tied to. The 25-year-old's first guitar cost $10 at a garage sale, and though she has upgraded to a Gibson, not much else has changed. And then there's her upbringing, a deeply rooted family focus that has seen her on tour away from her home in Denton, Texas, but never finds her thoughts far from it. A to Z talked to the softspoken singer about her history, her instruments and her new EP before her July 5 show at Off Broadway, opening for Centro-Matic.
Kelsey Whipple: Your sound has matured since your self-released EP in 2008. How have you developed as a songwriter?
Sarah Jaffe: I think when I wrote the EP, at the time I was 22 and songwriting in general was still very fresh to me. There was a newness factor to it. For any writer, as you go along in your career, the importance of composition becomes more weighted than when you first started writing. Now I'm a little bit too aware at times of the structure of a song and how I think it should be and how people will receive it. There's a good quality to that, and there's also a negative side. You get caught up in it. I think I've grown a lot, but I miss those beginning stages every once in a while. It was more freeing.
So much of the press you receive revolves around the female singer-songwriter type. Is this something you're comfortable with?
I've personally never had a problem with being a female singer songwriter. I don't know if any of my friends who are in the same world have had problems, either. I think that might just be a reflection of who I work with. Not everyone I work with will stand for that bullshit. I do think that female musicians in general become objects to compare to other female singer-songwriters, which is strange to me. You can hear Andrew Bird and the next person who comes along and sings and plays the violin isn't compared to him, but it seems like on the female side we always earn the same series of comparisons. I've never had a respect issue, though.
At what moment did you decide that this was the direction you would take in life?
It's been as long as I can remember. My mom told me that when I was three and four I just begged for musical instruments. It helps that I grew up in a family that had a deep, deep appreciation for music. It was kind of inevitable for me. My sweet mother, when I was 9, brought home a guitar she had bought at a garage sale down the street for $10. I remember just freaking out and locking myself in my room that entire summer. As far back as my memory can take me, there has never been a back-up plan. It's scary but comforting at the same time. What kind of guitar was it?
It was a classical. It had nylon strings and was just a really cheap guitar. I ended up pawning it about seven years later. It wasn't much, but it has had so much value to me. I learned how to play guitar on it. What do you play now?
I play a Gibson Jumbo. It's a little too jumbo. It's huge. I've had it for going on three years now. My mom took me to get it as well after my 22nd birthday.
What is your favorite song?
A friend of mine actually asked me this last week. I hadn't really thought about it until he asked me, but my choice for what I would listen to the rest of my life would be Nina Simone's "Wild Is the Wind." Her performance and her voice are just heartbreaking, gorgeous. There's no other voice like it. The piano, the voice and her emotion translated in that song are just earth-shattering to me. It's like The Shawshank Redemption. It doesn't matter how many times you hear it. It changes you every time.
When will your new EP, The Way Sound Leaves a Room, be released?
It will be out the first week of September. It's definitely an EP, and five of the songs on it I produced and played every instrument on. It started out as an experimental endeavor for me to learn more instruments, but I ended up writing a slew of songs. The way I go about writing is different with those instruments. I also did a cover with the guys of Midlake on it. It's a small group of songs to introduce the new sound. There are eight songs on it, and I fully plan to re-record some of them for the new full-length I will record in the fall.
Your tour bus broke down last night. What happened?
There have been a lot of in-between details that can make things frustrating on tour. We have been having lots of problems with the van, which was terrible. We got stuck in Harlem when it eventually just broke down, but we lucked out because we're playing in NY tonight.
To what extend does your age influence your music?
I heard someone say once that when you get older, you don't feel an age, like my grandmother for instance. You go about your life, and you're 25 and then 50 and then 60. It's not really on my conscience. It just is. These songs just are. I feel like I operate in a very logical realm and get my emotional balance through songwriting. That's where that reflection comes in. For the most part, I'm logical. I'm doing laundry or sleeping. But when I start writing songs, I reflect. Age may come into play because I definitely have a shit-load to learn, but I don't think it really matters.