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Denton's Sarah Jaffe is music's gifted heartbreak kid

Posted 11:02am on Wednesday, May. 12, 2010

It's been nearly two years since I first heard Sarah Jaffe's Even Born Again EP.

At the time, the singer-songwriter was barely 20, yet she was gifted with a plaintive voice -- the kind that knocks down your defenses and creeps into your soul.

Not long after, I saw Jaffe (pronounced like "taffy") perform at the 2009 South by Southwest music festival. Every performance I've seen since has been a living extension of her sound on record -- raw, powerful and a little pained.

Like a violent car crash, you cannot help but stop and stare at Sarah Jaffe.

A little over a year later, I'm across from her outside J&J's Pizza in Denton on a sunny, windblown afternoon. Jaffe's green eyes widen slightly whenever she's about to unfurl another self-deprecating observation about life, her music or the world into which she's releasing her debut album, Suburban Nature: "There's a lot of music out there that's honest but candy-coated in a strange way," says Jaffe. "For me, when I hear music that's blatant and very true, there's really nothing like it. You ... relate to it, learn from it and love it. That's the kind of music I want to make."

The 24-year-old Lufkin native spins tales of heartache that feel torn from the pages of some private diary. "My heart pretends/Not to know how it ends," she sings in the anguished Before You Go, "Let me hang in suspense/Let me cry on your fence/Before you go."

Truth, unfiltered is the core of Jaffe's appeal as an artist. It's also the reason that I believe she is about to take a giant leap from playing intimate clubs across North Texas to something much, much larger. (Check out audio samples above, and a video embed below this story.)

It's not just a hunch: In the past 12 months, Jaffe has been popping up all over the place. Her song, Clementine, could be heard on ABC's Private Practice; she made an appearance at last year's Austin City Limits Music Festival; earned glowing mentions in Rolling Stone and on NPR; and held down a series of high-profile opening slots for acts like Lykke Li and her fellow Texans Midlake and Norah Jones. In June, she'll go on tour with seminal lo-fi folkie Lou Barlow.

This steady rise leads up to the release of her full-length debut, Suburban Nature, on Dallas label Kirtland Records. (It's already available on iTunes; the physical version materializes Tuesday.) She'll celebrate Nature's arrival Friday with a show at Dallas' Sons of Hermann Hall, featuring fellow heat-seekers Seryn.

With 13 songs, produced by local producer/musician John Congleton, that are as stunning as anything yet released in 2010, Suburban Nature is the fulfillment of Jaffe's long-simmering potential.

Songs reveal what singer won't

But Jaffe's desperately romantic songs don't always square with the person singing them.

Call it the case of the two Sarahs.

Offstage, there's barely a trace of the woman who wrote raw-nerve confessionals such as Stay With Me.

Like Jones before her, Jaffe is an average suburban kid, albeit a very talented one, who has parlayed word-of-mouth buzz, mesmerizing performances and a few instances of good fortune into a truly promising career. Clear away the hype and, as in most cases, there's a human being underneath: She chuckles at 30 Rock like the rest of us, enjoys browsing vintage clothing stores and loses herself in Imogen Heap albums.

Clad in all black and a jaunty porkpie hat during our conversation in Denton, Jaffe is quick to laugh, possessed of a slightly goofy sense of humor and grounded in the belief that she can always improve.

"I pride myself on being pretty honest," she says. "I know when something is shit or when it has the potential to be something better."

Even though she recently opened for multi-Grammy winner Jones before 3,000 people in Fair Park, it wasn't that long ago that she was playing an open-mike night at Dallas' Club Dada, her parents serving as chaperones. Jaffe relates stories of living at home -- she wrote Vulnerable, which turns up on Suburban Nature, at 17 -- and having her parents provide instant feedback. "My love for music came from their appreciation," Jaffe says. "My mom has a really pretty alto voice; she always sang during childhood."

Jaffe also points to being sensitive to sound early -- "I remember driving to day care, hearing the blinker and tapping along" -- and when she was 3, Jaffe asked a family friend in Chile for musical instruments: "I started asking for guitars and drums -- anything to do with music."

These days, Jaffe is getting feedback from the likes of USA Today, Magnet and American Songwriter -- and it's almost universally positive.

"She is a great talent, and in making music that speaks to her, makes music that speaks to everyone," gushes Pure Noize Magazine.

"Watch out for Sarah Jaffe to make a big splash within mainstream audiences this summer," advises Aerial Noise.

Jaffe, while flattered, remains wary of flying too high, too soon.

"It's awesome; it's so nice when you hear something good and people think highly of you," she says, "although, as soon as something negative comes up, I latch onto that. I have so much cynic in me, but at the same time, I've been so blessed thus far."

At the Fair Park gig, Jaffe delivered an efficient, emotional set that was powerful but oddly impersonal. The surely nervous Jaffe didn't ignore the attentive crowd -- near the end of her set, she cracked a joke about needing a drink when she finished -- but she let folk-tinged songs like Black Hoax Lie and Clementine do most of the talking. Through her music, she shared her vulnerabilities without fully letting the audience in.

When asked if she ever fears revealing too much, Jaffe laughs knowingly, pausing a while before answering: "I don't think I'll ever be that person. I'm not looking to push the envelope. I'm just looking to be as honest as possible and write music that I can be proud of."

Many feel she is incapable of anything less.

Denton's Robert Gomez, an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right, plays guitar and provides backup vocals for Jaffe. (She's also frequently joined by Becki Howard and Jeff Ryan in concert.) He suggests Jaffe's appeal lies in her musical contradictions -- melodically appealing, lyrically biting.

"The thing about Sarah is she has an amazing voice and also an amazing sense of structure and what makes a tuneful song," Gomez says. "I think Sarah's music can be enjoyed from a lot of different angles. I think that's why she's been catching on; there's something there that can appeal to a lot of people without being trite or generic."

Ready to spread 'my wings'

Suburban Nature sounds lush and fully realized, as if the songs were agonized over in a recording studio for months on end. But the record was captured quickly, in just over a week. With such a tight timetable, some songs, such as Vulnerable and Summer Begs, were cut live, although others were nabbed in one or two takes.

Despite Nature eliciting near-universal raves, it is an inescapably out-of-date reflection of where Jaffe stands now. Two years have passed since she completed work on the album -- D Magazine's Zac Crain, in an oddly patronizing review of Nature, noted "honestly, Jaffe is probably capable of better right now" -- but in the interim, Jaffe has only intensified her focus.

"[I'm] artistically spreading my wings a bit; that's all I've ever wanted to do," she offers, by way of explaining that whatever comes next, it won't resemble Nature much. "I just feel like something in me wants to learn more."

These days, Jaffe immerses herself in learning new instruments, such as drums and bass, as well as experimenting with loops and beats, in the tradition of hip bands like Passion Pit.

She doesn't dismiss the idea that she might release a dance record some day. Still, the notion of Jaffe clad in headphones and buried in her laptop does add another layer of contradiction -- the folkie turned DJ.

Regardless of where Jaffe's insatiable appetite for knowledge takes her, the artistry on display throughout her debut album cannot be discounted.

Suburban Nature is a tour de force of emotional clarity and musical skill.

But try as you might, Sarah Jaffe won't let you in all the way. Her heart-on-sleeve songwriting doesn't reveal a great deal about its author -- and you get the sense that is just how she wants it.

She'll let the music speak for itself, all the way to stardom.

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