Sarah Jaffe Talks Legalization, Virtual Reality and Dining with Dre

By Daniel Oberhaus on July 10, 2017

Sarah Jaffe first started recording music at 22 years old and quickly gained recognition for her moody, indie minimalism. In the seven years since her Suburban Nature debut, Jaffe has gone from playing local shows in her hometown of Denton, Texas to making appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and writing hooks for Eminem. But nothing has changed quite so much as Jaffe’s sound, which is showcased on the new record Bad Baby (July 7), her fourth full-length and most ambitious work to date.

The album’s somber opening track, “Synthetic Love,” makes it immediately clear that, although Jaffe is continually pushing her sound in new directions, she hasn’t lost her touch for the melodic melancholia that defined her early records. What may come as more of a surprise, however, is Jaffe’s heavy incorporation of poppy electronica in her new work, a stylistic shift she pioneered on her previous full-length, Don’t Disconnect. In the intervening years, she has evidently spent a great deal of time honing her electronic ambitions, which resulted in an album that is stylistically closer to Purity Ring or the Knife than Mazzy Star. PRØHBTD spoke with Jaffe to talk about her new sound, her first time trying virtual reality and dining with Dre.

Your last album came out in 2014. What have you been up to these last few years?

I've spent a good amount of time doing domestic, boring things. I worked with my good friend Saschka [Unseld] on a Pixar short, and I worked with him on a short film he did for Sundance. I started working on this side project called the Dividends with the producer S1 [Symbolc One], a hip-hop producer out of South Dallas. I spent a lot of time working on that. About a year leading up to this record just writing and honing in on producing my own work on the side. I was up to a lot.

You've embraced electronic elements as a songwriter. Why did you start pursuing this new sound?

 When I made Suburban Nature in 2009, it was just me. I hadn't been playing live long enough. I hadn't formed a band, and I was in my early 20s. The further I got recording each record, the more confident I became. All that time I listened to anything, including a lot of electronic music. After Suburban Nature came out, “Clementine” was kind of the hand that fed me. I really just, as a musician and an artist in general, I can't imagine making the same record over and over again. I wouldn't want to. That's not the way I listen to music, so it's not the way I write music. I still feel very much internally like a singer-songwriter. The way that I write songs is usually on the acoustic, sometimes on the bass if I just need a melody. I still write like I did 12 years ago. I just have a grander vision for it instrumentally. 

What were you listening to while recording?

Everything. A lot of Harry Nilsson, but also top 40 radio like anybody else. There are a lot of great electronic records released in the last few years. I think the Knife is one of the best electronic bands ever and really like old Kraftwerk. Melodically they're just so inspiring.

You contributed voiceovers for the VR animated film Dear Angelica recently. What was that like?

It blew my mind. In this age where we're just constantly in front of technology, I didn't think anything else could blow my mind, just because we're so spoiled. But I had never seen anything like it. I still haven't seen anything like it. It's hard to imagine that that will become a norm for how people view film. But that came about through Saschka, who gave me the opportunity to do the Pixar film and another short Sundance film that he had done. Last summer, he had just emailed me to ask if I was interested. He flew me out to San Francisco, I found out Geena Davis was in it and I flipped out. Saschka does beautiful work in motion. He's just so brilliant. And the story behind it was brilliant.

Was that your first time trying VR?

I had heard of companies, I knew Oculus was owned by Facebook and on the forefront. I didn't know what was going on. I've never seen anything like it. 

Do you think VR is going to become mainstream?

The world we live in now where we can watch anything instantaneously—we're used to the platform, that's the ground we work off. So watching something that heightens that was incredible to me. I'd be curious to know how it will become a social norm just because watching it requires physical objects, the goggles. But it's hard for me to imagine that it couldn't not be the new foreground of technology. 

In a review of your album by NPR, it says you “dabbled” in hip-hop. But you wrote the hook in Eminem’s “Bad Boy,” which seems like more than just dabbling…

"Dabbled in hip-hop" is a funny term to me, but that was several years ago. The way I met S1 was he's in Eryka Badu’s band called The Cannabinoids. I'd worked with them before, we did a remix and a few shows together. I knew of his work in that band and as a producer, he'd done Kanye West's tower, he'd done a couple of tracks for Beyoncé. He just wrote me randomly on Twitter six years ago and said, "Hey, would you ever want to write a hook for me?" It's something I've always wanted to do and did in my own free time. Not necessarily hip-hop, but just I'm a sucker for a hook. So he sent me two tracks that day, and one of them I wrote, and it was “Bad Guy,” and it ended up on Eminem's record six months later. That was just a really good foot in the door and a chance that S1 randomly took. But we worked so well together. 

Did you hang out with Eminem?

I didn't meet Marshall, but we did hang out with Dr. Dre, which was just in-fucking-sane. Even telling this to this day—it's been almost four years now—is surreal to me. S1 and I flew out to LA together, and we had a meeting with a label out there, but the meeting got moved. So he texted me from his hotel room and said, "Hey, do you want to go have dinner with Dre?" I thought he was fucking with me. I was like yeah, of course I want to have dinner with Dr. Dre. We show up to this place, and it’s me, S1, Dre and his small posse. I'm the odd man out. I have like a shaved head and am all fucking pale, and here I am with this badass clique of dudes, and Dr. Dre is one of them.

How was dinner?

We're all just sitting having dinner and Dre’s so lovely and earnest. It’s encouraging and inspiring to know that after so long in the business that he still had the curiosity and the hunger about other artists and how they write. Earnest is the only way I can describe it. We had a lovely dinner, and he was like hey, you guys come back to the studio and I'll play you a bunch of songs. So we basically just sat in his studio for five hours while I was trying not to geek out. We played him a bunch of tracks, and he played us some tracks. He's just a cool dude, a super good guy. 

You’re from Denton, Texas, but now live in Dallas. How’ve you been coping with the pushback against weed legalization there?

Now you know why I go to Colorado for my summers. I honestly don't know what the fucking holdup is in Texas. In every sense of the way, legalizing marijuana is only going to boost the economy, boost jobs. If the holdup is old white dudes in power, they need to know that it's going to do nothing but good things. 

Any touring plans after the record drops?

Not at the moment. I have a couple of one offs in New York, probably in Los Angeles shortly after those shows. But no tours. I'm trying to do things in spurts to be honest. Touring is just a stressful thing, although if they legalize marijuana, it might be less of a stress. 

Photo credits: Melanie Little Gomez and Facebook.

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