Sarah Jaffe is the type of artist that never quite sounds like herself. This is because the Texas-based songwriter is constantly changing and hasn't quite landed on what "herself" is. Her latest, Bad Baby, is an exploration in ’80s synth pop that doesn’t sacrifice craft, language or lyrical content despite its lush arrangements and clever production.
Co-produced by Matt Pence (Centro-Matic, Jens Lekman, Here We Go Magic) and Scott Solter (Okkervil River, the Mountain Goats, John Vanderslice), Bad Baby is a far cry from the personality of Jaffe’s early albums and a mark of an impressive artist who is diverse and complicated.
We caught up with Jaffe, who played Denver recently, and asked her about her latest album and her desire to evolve.
Westword: There is seemingly a lot of digital production on this new record, which is a far cry from your first record, Suburban Nature, which is largely acoustic-based. How much of those sounds are pre-written, and how much is in the studio?
Sarah Jaffe: I get really protective and territorial when it comes to writing, instrumentation-wise. I may have had a different instrument playing on the demo but a grander vision for what I wanted. So Matt did this really great thing, which I hadn't done before. He just set up all these synths and a lot of percussive stations around the studio. Where one person was tracking, I would get another idea. And so it was just like taking the groundwork of an already complete — as far as songwriting goes — process and then just kind of elaborating musically on top of that.
Was that freedom to experiment in the studio part of the reason that you chose this production team in the first place?
For sure. I had worked with Matt [Pence] a couple times previously, and I've been playing with Scott [Solter] for the last eight years. Obviously, I'm a huge fan of Matt as a musician. I think he's one of the most amazing drummers I've ever seen.
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There was something really lovely about the first time working with him. All of those guys are very much from a musical background, and they flourish from that background. I flourish from my background, which is kind of like this, operating from the framework of discovery. I may not know much about theory, but I just kind of go off of vibe and feeling. They do, too, but I think their knowledge of music as a whole and my knowledge from a different background really balances out in the studio. It was just a really great chemistry.
The new album appears to be “analog feeling over digital music." Although the music has gotten more in depth, you don’t seem to sacrifice the content of your lyrics. How do you maintain that?
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I still operate from that very personal level, for sure. There's so many elements at play, but I still feel I operate with building the framework, having it be a really good song, and then just knowing confidently that something might work sonically. I like the way that you said that — analog in a digital world. I think that's such a good way to put it.
I think there's something really wonderful about the combination of two things that wouldn't normally go together. I could play "Clementine" all the live long day, and people that come to shows would probably be like, 'Cool, that's what she is,' but I don't think any artist should be just one thing. At any given moment, I could switch gears and play singer-songwriter, but that's just one thing I am.
You always want to retain your identity as a songwriter. A lot of times, when people say singer-songwriter, it's almost like they're referring to a genre of music for people to play in coffee shops.
Yeah, I think it's important to give a song some air, or just let it be what it's going to be. And so I think a lot of times that's how my records end up with this wavy dynamic. Some are geared more toward ballads, and other ones are a little bit more dance-y, but again, it's just kind of what you were saying. It's that singer-songwriter mentality, which for some strange reason has garnered icky associations. I feel like first and foremost that I feel like I'm a songwriter, and I happen to sing, as well.