Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015: A Conversation with Sarah Jaffe

Jaffe on her latest album, growing as an artist, terrible parking at FFF, John Congleton, and Radiohead
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Jaffe on her latest album, growing as an artist, terrible parking at FFF, John Congleton, and Radiohead

Cover: Sarah Jaffe by Lucciana Costa

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Sarah Jaffe and I are drinking cocktails on the back patio of Austin’s Empire Control Room, a former lesbian bar turned double-venue that’ll play host to more than 15 artists over the next three nights. “I feel like the retention rate for venues in Austin is really weird,” Jaffe says, eyeing the patio as though she’s expecting a city inspector to shut down the establishment in a matter of seconds. “I’ve never played this room before, but it’s really nice and the people here are great, too.”

This is a perfect screen-grab of Sarah Jaffe’s disposition: One part tired realness mixed with one part matter-of-fact optimism. Very little surprises Jaffe, but tons of things excite her. This is a good thing, because as at least the second-most influential female musician to emerge from Dallas’ secretly exploding music scene, she has a lot to be hopeful for. We sat down to talk about her most recent album, Don’t Disconnect, hopes of an upcoming tour and who she considers cool.

PMA: There was a tour happening a while ago, and it’s wrapped up. Here we are in Austin, and you’re playing your first show since September. How does it feel, and how does it feel to start back up in this city?

SJ: Well, let it be said as a disclaimer: I love playing shows. It’s my favorite thing. But I feel like I’m in Austin all the time. I play Texas quite a bit, and when you do that, Austin comes with the territory. But this is great! I’ve never played a show for Fun…Fun Fun Fest? Fun fun fun?

PMA: All the funs.

SJ: Yes. All the funs. So many funs. Except for parking.

PMA: Parking is not fun here.

SJ: No!

PMA: You have a one-off show coming up with Metric in Dallas—your first non-festival show in a long time. What’s to come of this? Is there a tour on the way?

SJ: Well, we did a lot of summer festivals as one-offs. I just got a new booking agent, and she’s been doing a great job. She’s been playing catch-up, though, which means a lot of festivals, and I’m fortunate to have a great hometown that allows me to continue playing and doesn’t hate me for it. Oftentimes, I feel like I wear out my welcome in Texas, but it feeds me and allows me to keep going out on the road. And I’m psyched for Metric. I love them. Emily Haines has never really let me down.

PMA: I want to talk to you about Don’t Disconnect. I loved it. It was powerful in tons of really interesting and unexpected ways. Obviously you had a mindset going into this record; is the final product everything you wanted it to be?

SJ: You know, it’s weird, because with every record I’ve made, in the looking-back phase, I’m always super, super proud of what I’ve done. Like, “Great. I have something that gives me purpose for the next year and a half of my life.” But to be quite honest, I don’t think I’ll ever feel—and I don’t think I’ll ever want to feel—completely satisfied. Because I’ll always be of the mindset that it could be so much better, or I could be so much better. That being said, I had so much fun making Don’t Disconnect. We all had a lot of fun.

PMA: It felt unforced and confident. You definitely graduated a little bit.

SJ: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. But I do have my confident days where I believe I’m growing as an artist, and then I have those days where I feel like a fucking dumb-dumb. But that’s life, and I feel my absolute most confident—as an artist and as a person—when I’m in the studio making something. That’s when I feel free to try things. On stage, it’s basically a presentation, but in the studio, it’s the best time—even when I’m having a hard time getting something out.

PMA: Let me go back to what you said a second ago about “being better.” When you’re in the studio trying new things, how much of your progress is about being better versus just being different? Or are they the same thing?

SJ: I think it has to be the same thing. The two go hand-in-hand for me. Sometimes I have to separate being different for certain things, and that’s dangerous because then I get in the mindset of, “Ugh. I just want this record to be cool.” But I was watching an interview with St. Vincent, and she quoted a line from Miles Davis’ autobiography where he said, “It’s the hardest thing for an artist to sound like themselves.” And that’s struck a chord with me for the last few months of my life.

PMA: It’s absolutely true.

SJ: It is! And I think it’s true with life. A lot of times it’s really difficult to accept yourself in any form. In this case, it’s my music. The way I write a song is usually: Me at home making a demo with an acoustic or an electric, keys, and an electric drum machine, and a lot of times you have to, like, hate yourself a little bit. That being said, the light bulb won’t come on until I’m in the studio with other musicians, and we’re all moving forward together. It literally takes other people to get me out of myself.

PMA: You mentioned having a visceral wish for your records to be cool. Who’s cool to you?

SJ: John Congleton is the coolest. He’s the fucking coolest. He’s like a deep, dark pool of wisdom in the form of a slap in the face, which I respond to really well. <laughs> It’s honesty the way it should be for me. He’s so smart. But I think for an artist, he’s such a good musician because he doesn’t buy into the bullshit of, “Let’s just make a fun record.” He pushes you in the direction of where you are psychologically. He’s just the best.

PMA: Are you excited with the direction you’re going with your music right now?

SJ: I am excited, but there’s always anxiety that comes with big emotions like excitement. But I’m glad I got out of a corner. I could keep making [debut album] Suburban Nature over and over again, because that’s how I write. But those songs are old, and I needed to make that record so I could cleanse my palate and try something new. And that’s how it’s gone each time. Take Radiohead for instance: I wouldn’t be mad if they did The Bends over and over again, but I’d get bored. And I know for a fact that they’d be super bored. But I’m definitely still in the excitement phase with Don’t Disconnect.

PMA: You could remove any single one record from Radiohead’s portfolio, and something would feel missing. You can’t say that about many artists.

SJ: I 100% agree. Can you really say that about any other artist?

PMA: Good point.