In 2010, I was at a party in Red Oak when an old friend told me she knew this girl from our hometown in the armpit of North Texas that is Ellis County who was actually living out our rock stardom dreams, touring all over the country and getting airplay on KXT.
So I gave Sarah Jaffe a listen.
The first time I heard her debut album Suburban Nature, I was floored that something so beautiful could have come from the cesspool of repression we grew up in. And I wasn’t alone. Listeners across the nation seemed to sway in time with her acoustic pathos and weather-beaten vocals. Jaffe’s voice is the perfect vehicle for that inexplicable feeling of gorgeous surrender. Soon after at the insistence of my roommate, I watched a video of Jaffe singing a cappella in the woods at a park in Denton. We were both hushed in drunken awe of her. The juxtaposition of hopeful forbearance steeped in gushing self-indulgence poured out like sunbeams through warm rain. And that voice. The one thing nobody can ever take from Jaffe is that voice. A star was born when that voice cut deep into the bluest regions of the heart.
I think Jaffe’s fans know what I mean when I say “vulnerable” is the word that springs to mind most readily when ruminating on her early work. Not just because her third most popular song, according to the number of plays on Spotify, is called “Vulnerable” but also because the next two most played, “Clementine” and “Swelling,” cultivate the same feeling, that sad girl longing, wallowing in the calm of finally letting go and giving in to the pain that creates something beautiful out of the ugly rejection and alienation of youth. Much like other indie-rock female artists and their labels, Jaffe has been loyal to Dallas-based Kirtland Records throughout the span of her career, and like most of the Southerners (Chan Marshall, Katie Crutchfield), her accent lends itself easily to this pool of women writing from a knowing perspective of stakes and standards.
The first time I saw her in concert was in 2011 at The Kessler Theater, where Jaffe sported what became her new signature look, the bleached mohawk, and there was something different about her than her two album covers at the time indicated. On both, she portrayed the innocent, picturesque beauty of hometown folk-art martyr, clearly depressed due to unrequited love from the tortured poet-boy liars we loathed in harmony. This new Sarah was worldly, no longer Suburban-natured, and the clear-eyed look of purity had been replaced with a triumphant glare.
She had gotten out. She had shed the shackles of the world we knew. With a close listen to songs like “Black Hoax Lie” off 2008’s Even Born Again, we would have realized that she was no longer speaking about the “50 boys with their 50 lies” from “Clementine.” This new Sarah was playing that song only “for us,” those of us still stuck in the Bible Belt, as she told us concertgoers that night with some boredom in her voice, staring out at the place she survived and “flies back to on holidays,” as she said to the Weekly back then. Truly, Jaffe had come into her own. With her next album, 2012’s The Body Wins, she was letting every listener know loud and clear that her body had won, and she was talking about girls this time.
Unfortunately, Jaffe’s warm, angelic vocals have not translated very well to the techno-pop soundscapes she drastically switched to in her newly liberated glory. Or maybe it was that her audience didn’t weather her 2013 collaboration with the notoriously homophobic and misogynistic Eminem too well. Either way, judging from her spins on Spotify and YouTube, Jaffe’s fanbase has largely fallen off as she has said she’s found more joy in daily life.
After the 2014 release of her even more synth-heavy album Don’t Disconnect, Jaffe said she was always more of a techno-pop musician and played folk-rock only due to financial restrictions. The album name begs listeners to accept this about her, although considering the number of plays on her last five albums, all techno-pop, it appears that many did not. However, given that the title track is the only song other than the three she’s known for off her debut to reach more than 1 million spins online, something tells me her audience is still somewhat trying to uphold the same brand of loyalty she’s shown to her label. Maybe she’ll see some of that loyalty in the flesh this weekend.
7pm Sat at Lola’s Fort Worth,
2000 W Berry St, FW. $30. LolasFW.com.