Kids adore humungous, dramatic, generally impractical career aspirations, and Sarah Jaffe was no exception. She once wanted to be a professional basketball player, preferably suiting up for the Houston Rockets, since she was a devout Hakeem Olajuwon fan. (The Denton, Texas-based Jaffe, who’s 27, grew up in the Dallas area in the 1990s, when the Mavericks profoundly sucked.) She contemplated life as an astronaut, too—or maybe a musician.
One of those three dreams did come true, though—zero points for guessing which one—which the singer-songwriter greatly credits to the adults raising her. “My parents nurtured this desire. It probably stuck out to them as well, because they may have seen something,” says Jaffe, who, according to her mother, started asking for musical instruments at 3 and began writing her own songs soon after getting her first guitar from a garage sale at about age 9. “Any time I asked for an instrument, my mom was ready and willing to support whatever endeavor I wanted to get into,” Jaffe says. “Music was just the main one.”
Jaffe’s parents were crucial in shaping her early listening tastes, too, turning her on to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens. By around 17, she was playing shows with the intention of making a real run at a music career. “I graduated high school a year early to start pursuing it in whatever way I could,” she says. “I was sending out demo packets at the time to clubs in and around Dallas.”
After accumulating experience at various types of concerts and open mics, she started gaining serious connections in her local scene. Dallas singer-songwriter Doug Burr was a key ally who took Jaffe under his wing as she established her name.
In 2010, Jaffe at long last made her full-length debut with Suburban Nature. The acoustic-heavy record reflected an upbringing built on folk, even if Jaffe’s take on the genre was much more dim and raw. Suburban Nature was full of pained, withheld moments, as if Jaffe always sat on the precipice of a personal explosion—or bloom—but never wanted to take the final step to truly stir things up. Boilerplate lonely-person-with-a-guitar themes like regret and romance were woven into the record, too, and though Suburban Nature wasn’t by any means ugly, it didn’t have the right kind of punch needed to rise above a constant wave of folk/alt-country releases.
Jaffe has seriously refined her approach with 2012’s The Body Wins, a record that takes select traits from her alt-country days—her unadorned voice, the sense of things rising and falling—and drops them into a bed of carefully manicured electro-pop beats. Jaffe’s voice has always sported the attractive aloofness of Metric’s Emily Haines, and that similarity comes through even stronger in this new context.
Jaffe ascribes this aesthetic shift to having written the majority of Suburban Nature back when she was in high school. “The time gap between Suburban Nature and The Body Wins might have not been that long physically, but mentally, I had moved on light years,” she says. Another recent event that affirms this tweaking is her role in composing and singing the hook for Eminem’s “Bad Guy” off his recent The Marshall Mathers LP 2—a major professional coup she calls “just another example of sometimes [when] you take the smallest of riffs and they have the biggest outcome.”
Now about a decade after having accomplished her basic task of becoming a musician, Jaffe has more practical, serious ambitions left on the table. “For me, the main goal is longevity,” she says. “It’s a matter of continuation for me and a matter of doing things that I’m proud of and making things that I’m proud of and collaborating with people that I enjoy as people. There’s a sea of talent [out there], but a lot of people are assholes. I really pride myself on surrounding myself with not only good artists but good people.”
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Tuesday, Dec. 10, 9 p.m.
$12 in advance, $15 day of show