Austin folkie Sarah Jarosz goes to the head of her class with album, tour

Folk music is a rich, fine canvas for Sarah Jarosz, the classically trained country singer/songwriter who will appear Sunday at Ardmore Music Hall. She has also drawn inspiration from her surroundings - her hometown, Wimberley, Texas; Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, which she attended; and New York City, where she lives now.

On her newest album, 2016's Undercurrent, the clawhammer banjo and mandolin prodigy is blunter than she used to be in her arrangements. She's also a less melancholy lyricist.

"I've had some conversations of late with other musicians where the idea of landscape is crucial," Jarosz, 25, says. "I'm a true believer in that now, growing up in Texas with that raw country-soul landscape affecting my early music."

Scanning her three previous studio albums - 2009's Song Up in Her Head, 2011's Follow Me Down, and 2013's Build Me Up from Bones - Jarosz sees a natural flow to the work, even though Undercurrents sounds different, stripped-down. "But that flow is not one that I planned, you know," she says. "Especially when you consider that I was really young when I started, so you can hear me growing, which is really cool."

Jarosz truly was a kid - 11 years old, playing her head off at old-fashioned jam sessions ("I really honed my mandolin playing and sense of Appalachian-style sound there") - when she began popping up at bluegrass festivals and playing with such distinguished players as mandolinist David Grisman, fiddler Tim O'Brien, and guitarist Ricky Skaggs. She released Song Up in Her Head while still in high school.

"I'd be crazy to say that there wasn't some level of intimidation playing with those guys, but any time that I ever felt that, I just transferred that fear - harnessed it - into raw energy and inspiration. I just worked . . . harder to continue to be in those situations. I've had so much love and encouragement from my heroes."

Along the way, that inspiration fueled an elegant brand of songwriting, punched up a dynamic sense of instrumental prowess (she plays clawhammer banjo just like bluegrass master Ralph Stanley, who died in June) and enhanced the potency of an ever-sweetening vocal sound. "By age 13, writing my own songs had a real pull for me," she says. "I resigned myself then to place importance on all levels of my musicality and be a great singer, but really concentrate on writing - that was going to be the thing that made me stand apart."

Undercurrents is the first Jarosz album written post-conservatory, and the first to feature straight-ahead bluegrass songs she wrote or co-wrote. She made the music on Undercurrents more simple so the complexity of her lyrics could shine through. Example: the intricate emotional weight of bitterly tossing a boyfriend aside on the bluesy, minor-key "House of Mercy."

"It feels like a departure, a fresh start," Jarosz says of Undercurrent's softest, hardest cuts. "I now trust that I can play my instruments well and write, too. With this project, I really had a chance, while in New York, to be of that city and be away from the road. That was a real gift to me."

In "Everything to Hide" and "Still Life," Jarosz uses an interesting phrase to describe herself: "a child of sin." It rouses curiosity - "as it should," she says with a laugh. "That's a line that's inspired by a Gillian Welch song called 'Tennessee.' That was just a little phrase that stuck to me and seemed pertinent to my situation. It was used to honor her, especially since Gillian pulls in lines from other people's music to explain who she is. Plus, it was meant to be me stating - on my part - that I'm not a kid anymore."


MUSIC

Sarah Jarosz, with Donovan Woods, 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave.

Tickets: $26.

Information: 610-649-8389.