Sarah Jaffe Found Her Muse Through Collaboration on Don't Disconnect
This time last year, Sarah Jaffe decided to get away from it all. She had released two albums and toured around the world, and she knew that in order to be inspired she needed to get out of her comfort zone. Staying at home wouldn't do. So she rented a house in the small town of Marfa in southwest Texas for two weeks to be by herself and write.
Jason Janik Sarah Jaffe releases her third album, Don't Disconnect, at the Majestic on Saturday.
"It was just kind of a glazed-over time," Jaffe recalls. She sits, arms folded and legs crossed, leaning back in a chair on the patio at Dream Cafe in Uptown. Dressed in ripped-up blue jeans and an old Robert Plant T-shirt, her face is obscured by a pair of black sunglasses. "I had to separate myself and try to gain some focus."
Back in 2012, Jaffe had released The Body Wins. The follow-up to her debut Suburban Nature, its emphasis on electronic beats marked a major step forward from her roots as an acoustic singer-songwriter. She worked on that album with noted producer John Congleton, but it had been a difficult experience as Jaffe struggled to get through writer's block and dealt with severe anxiety. "After Suburban Nature, I was basically cleaning my plate," she says. "I had been singing a lot of songs I'd been singing since high school."
A door seemed to open later that year when Jaffe was contacted by Waco-based hip-hop producer S1. Eager to have a chance to broaden her horizons, she composed a hook for a beat that S1 had sent her, called "Bad Guy." "I had been moving," she says, "and when he sent me that track the chorus just came out." The next thing she knew, "Bad Guy" had been picked up by Eminem and become the opening track on his The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
Being a part of such an unfamiliar process was a revelation for someone accustomed to more traditional pop songwriting. "We found out last minute that we had landed the track, because that's how the hip-hop world works. It was insane," Jaffe marvels. "You can be a massive part of a song and not know about it until you see the track listing," she adds. "But it's also kind of a thrill."
Meanwhile, the following spring, Jaffe had the opportunity to collaborate with an old friend, McKenzie Smith, the drummer for Midlake and owner of Denton's Redwood Recording Studio. Smith had admired Jaffe's work since he first saw her perform a solo acoustic set at Dan's Silverleaf several years prior. "After about a half song, the whole place was dead silent," he remembers, still in awe of the experience. "You could hear a pin drop."
Jaffe had toured as an opener with Midlake on multiple occasions, but she and Smith only first worked together on a recording for 35 Denton in March 2013. Having thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the two hit the studio a short time later to record two new songs of Jaffe's, "Satire" and "Defense," which were eventually released as singles later that summer. That is when she decided to head to Marfa.
The thing is, when Jaffe finally settled into her new temporary surroundings, isolated from distractions and left to her own creative devices, she quickly encountered a problem.
"I sat down and I couldn't make it to the second verse," she says. Looking back from a distance, Jaffe makes a disarmingly frank assessment of herself. "I think it's because I can only go so far musically," she concedes. "I know I can only play the guitar so well. I know my limitations."
Jaffe looks across the empty patio and takes off her sunglasses. Her eyes are pale green, almost gray, and fixed with an intent, thoughtful gaze. "I kind of realized that my most difficult points are me being by myself," she continues. "I realized it takes other people's creative energy to move past my own mental limitations."