SARAH JAFFE IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2017. PHOTOS: MICHAEL SCHWARTZ. STYLING: JOSHUA LIEBMAN/HONEY ARTISTS. HAIR: MARTIN-CHRISTOPHER HARPER FOR PLATFORM|NYC USING ORIBE. MAKEUP: HOLLY GOWERS FOR ATELIER MANAGEMENT USING GLOSSIER. PHOTO ASSISTANT: AMANDA YANEZ. SPECIAL THANKS: DUNE STUDIOS.
Last Friday, Sarah Jaffe released her fourth full-length album, and by her account, and ours, it might just be the strongest yet. Bad Baby (Kirtland) has the lyricism the Texan has become known for since her 2010 debut—which she started writing while in high school—set to mature melodies. Jaffe seems self-assured as a songwriter and musician, occupying her electro-pop sound with frankness and ease. She credits this to treating art-making like a nine-to-five, and, quite simply, growing up. “The older you get the more honest you are, and I think the more honest you are the more able you are to grow and cut the shit in some areas, but also just work with it,” she says matter-of-factly of her approach, which has taken form in the years since her 2014 release Don’t Disconnect. “I just have to work with myself, every day.”
Interview spoke with Jaffe during her recent visit to the Northeast. It was a rainy day in New York, and she told us she’s toying with the idea of leaving Dallas—which isn’t far from Red Oak, the small town where she grew up—and may land somewhere upstate with her two cattle dogs.
HALEY WEISS: I want to talk about how you came up with the order and tracklist for the album, because you start with “Synthetic Love,” a song that’s over six minutes long. It feels really considered. What was the process like making that decision?
SARAH JAFFE: That song I was struggling with putting on the record at first, but then I thought, “You know what, it’s a bold move.” Dynamically it stands alone as far as the rest of the record goes; it’s very different in its length, in its tone. I think dynamic is so important, and when you start out with something that is tonal rather than wavy, it for some reason gives more volume, in my opinion. The order is so important, and I didn’t know where to place that song. If you were to place a six and a half minute song in the middle of a record, it throws everything off, so I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to put it number one.” By the end of the song, it almost follows in the backdrop, which I liked, because it is so heavy and you are hearing the same repetition of three notes over and over again. It almost cleanses the palette before you even allow the whole record to be heard. It opens the gates a little bit.
WEISS: Collaboration was a big part of this record. What do you value most in a collaborator?
JAFFE: A collaborative effort where everyone knows what their strengths are, where no one is diving in and their hands are in multiple cookie jars. I work with [Don Cento, Scott Danbom, and Matt Pence,] a band that I’ve been playing with for so long. I know each of these guys personally on a friend level, so there’s that comfort where if something feels contrived, or something feels forced into something that it’s not, then we all know it. We know each other so well that we know when something sounds like bullshit, so we very seldom cross that line of, “Oh no, this isn’t it.” I’m not that person, I know what my strengths are, and Scott who plays keys on the whole record knows what his are, et cetera, et cetera. We come to the studio, I basically say, “I really hear this one being this tempo. Although it may be acoustic right now, I definitely wrote this to be more of an upbeat track.” We operate from this [position of], “Let’s build the skeleton and then insert the filling.” We have this ping-pong dynamic with each other where we’re able to try different things and bounce different ideas, and it ends up being us building this thing together. I’ve never had a moment where I’ve been like, “I don’t like it.” Actually, that’s total bullshit. I’ve had many moments where I’m like, “I don’t like it,” but it’s always evolving. The track “Help Yourself,” I was like, “No, not feeling it.” I think it’s because it was probably the most like Suburban Nature [Jaffe’s second album, which was released in 2010]. I really struggled with that one until I was like, “I kind of love it.” There’s always that evolution where I come around to something because I just sit with it.
WEISS: And that’s the song where you start off saying—
JAFFE: –“Fuck.” Yeah, which is why I left it, and which is why I love that.
WEISS: It felt like such an honest moment in the middle of an album.
JAFFE: Absolutely, and I thought it was really brilliant on [producer and bandmate] Matt [Pence]’s part to leave that, because throughout recording my vocals, there are so many weird moments internally for me where I kind of fall apart and put myself together in a way that’s like, “Can you fucking get it together and quit being a goddamn baby and do what you do.” That was a way he encompassed that personality pretty effortlessly. I love moments on records like that, where you hear someone actually speak in a way that they don’t know they’re being recorded and having a meltdown. [laughs] It was a weird moment to come back to, but I also think that it was necessary for this record especially. I’m not really sure why, but it was kind of an epicenter for me, to go back to something organic so that I could build off of it.
WEISS: What was your mindset going into this record? When we interviewed you in 2012, you talked about how you had always written around guitar melodies and you were trying to write more around bass. Was there something like that that pushed you?
JAFFE: For the most part that plays pretty similarly. It was really wrapped around a time where I was not writing at all, when I was very complacent creatively for a good chunk of time after Don’t Disconnect , the last record. I was really kind of miserable with myself personally and all of the things that you can be creatively, until someone said—and I don’t know what about it made it click at this specific time—but they said, “You’re not 18 anymore, and you’re not writing songs in your old bedroom. It’s work. You should get up every day and set a perimeter of time and start compartmentalizing your life.” I create my own schedule, so you start out each day and you say, “Okay, from 10 to 11 I’m going to write,” and on the dot at 10, I went downstairs, got dressed like I was going to work, and at 11 I stopped. I don’t know why, what kind of wizardry about that worked, but having the structure for a month, I was [snaps] dishing out songs. So I think what was different about this record was that I had given myself some structure, and through that structure I was able to portray the honest truth of what I’d been going through for that year and a half, two years, of creative complacency, to be honest with myself about that. That was the thing, and going in knowing I wanted to make this record with the bandmates I had been playing with for several years prior, so that when we would go to play these songs live, we would all know what the hell was going on musically. That’s always a process in itself, teaching your band members to play the songs, and what’s their part in it? I wanted that communion with them again.
WEISS: At what point do you bring songs to the band? Do you have a couple stacked up? Is the album basically done?
JAFFE: Before recording, a lot of times I’ll play them the song day of. This one in particular was a mish-mash of circumstance. I sent a good portion of them to Matt, the producer, who’s also the drummer on the record and in the live band, who’s absolutely brilliant. I sent 14 or 15 songs to him beforehand, and maybe a couple to Scott who plays keys as well. But for the most part it was all impulse, like, “Hey, let’s try this one today,” or, “Let’s focus on this one today,” or, “Let’s flesh out this one.” It kept everything really fresh. No one had time to overthink anything, especially because simply put, we only had a two week block of time, so it kept everyone on their feet every day.
WEISS: You’ve lent your vocals to other artists’ tracks and you’ve written for others. Do you think using your voice and writing as tools for someone else has affected the way you approach your own music?
JAFFE: Not only is it the favorite part of the process, it’s allowed… There’s a part of me, and I’m sure every single musician that writes for themselves [has this]: there’s a layer of precious that you have to shed. I’m constantly trying to let go of, “Well, what about this, this would be cool.” Some of that is needed, but a lot of it is total BS. Especially working with Larry [D. Griffin] and the Dividends, and writing hip-hop hooks, the meat of the song, it’s like a light bulb going off and every time you’re like, “Yeah! This is what is fun about music.” Not thinking—just the pure melodic riffing off of each other, being in the studio and being in the moment, allowing yourself to have fun and also let something be what it is and tweak it from there. But normally, the shit that you think is gross or weird ends up being the most interesting part about something, in both your own material and other people’s material. It’s allowing yourself to be insecure about something and letting those things go. I think it’s seeped into my own writing in every possible way.
WEISS: How do you feel about this new record? You recorded in October, so you’ve had it for a while. Has your perspective on what you’ve written changed? Do you have some distance?
JAFFE: I have some distance on it. I’m maybe the most excited about this record than I have been about any other record, for a number of reasons, one of them being that I know that there will be times where I feel creatively pooped, but when you give yourself some structure and you work, things work out. I’ve done four records now, and your idea of what it’s going to be for that record is never what it ends up being, so there’s cynicism in my outlook but there’s also some positive outlook in it, like, “I can’t really control anything outside of what it is that I do, so I’m going to do my very best and put my best foot forward in everything that I do.” The music and whatever else comes outside of that, if something great comes out of it, awesome, if not, I’m going to make another record and another one after that. That’s really all I can do.