By Michelle Trauring
Only now are the two golden phonographs inside Sarah Jarosz’s Manhattan apartment starting to settle in — no longer foreign, or so out of place.
The Texas-born singer-songwriter had fantasized about her Grammy win for a decade, but when it finally happened on February 12 — twice in one night, to be exact — it felt surreal.
Perhaps it was because she was holding fake statues — the real ones arrive via mail months later, she noted — or maybe because the publicity was too thick. But seeing her name engraved on the plaques today has made her realize one thing.
It actually happened.
“It’s still sinking in to a certain degree, but I’m just about there,” she said. “Singing has always been a part of my life, from the time I was 2, so this is one of the biggest dreams come true in my life thus far.”
Almost 20 years ago, Paula Cole was riding the same fame wave with “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Her Grammy award for Best New Artist, and the celebrity that came with it, also took her by surprise, and she enjoyed it for a time. But then she withdrew herself completely.
For almost a decade.
“I finally can see it better, now that I’m older and I have some distance on it. Then, it was very weird. It’s like winning the lottery or something,” Cole said. “Lottery winners sometimes have PTSD, or blow it in some way, right? And a lot of musical artists who experience fame that quickly also go through that. And I wound up abandoning it, and I did go away for nearly eight years.”
Getting back to touring has been a welcome challenge, Cole said, and she looks forward to joining Jarosz — whom she’s never met — and GE Smith on stage at Guild Hall on Friday for the “Portraits” series kickoff. The concert will feature two solo sets, with Smith accompanying, and then a group performance, with conversation about the music and themselves scattered throughout.
“It reveals more about the artists and the songs, and because I’ve been a musician my whole life and hung out with musicians and show folk, as they say, I’m very comfortable in that role,” Smith said of playing host. “This is a very interesting pairing, these two women: one who’s been around for a long time, and one who’s brand new, so there are similarities and disparities between them. And I can’t wait to get them in the same room.”
The “Portraits” series took a year off in 2016, following a slate of performances that featured Carter Burwell, Dan Rizzie, Ethan Hawke, Ralph Gibson and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters — which proved to be polarizing and drew protesters.
These concerts are not about politics — never have been and never will be, producer Taylor Barton emphasized.
“We represent art. That is what we care about. That is why we stand up on stage. My politics are I believe in the planet, I believe in clean water and I believe in the music,” said Barton, who is married to Smith. “If there was one show I think everybody should go out and see this summer, these two women is what I would see, because they’re not going to see this kind of talent in one place together with GE anywhere else.
“Sarah and Paula are such an unusual and serendipitous pairing,” she continued. “After her Grammy wins, no one will be able to see Sarah in such an intimate space after this; she’s on the rise. And Paula is a pioneer for all women songwriters, she really commands the stage and is so powerful and so moving and so open.”
While Cole is still working on her set list, she said fan favorites will certainly be there, including “I Don’t Want to Wait,” which was, famously, the theme for the television series “Dawson’s Creek.”
“It plays itself and it’s uplifting, and even though I’ve played it so many times, it’s a joy to play,” she said. “And audiences usually sing along, so that will definitely be there.”
An entry into talking about her childhood will be “Glouster Harbor Shore,” which describes where a young Cole grew up, written from the perspective of the wife of a fisherman waiting for her husband to come home.
“It’s very much a fishing community, even though both my parents were musicians and artists,” she said. “I was singing before I was speaking. I was singing in the stroller, loudly, as my mom pushed me around town. I didn’t even have words. I was making up melodies. I learned the American songbook through my dad, and how to improvise and listen to chords. My dad was a science teacher, too; he had to make a living. He was very weary of me going into music. It took a bullet of courage.”
She said she still feel that way, reemerging on a different scale, as a different artist, and a different woman.
“So I’m in this, but I had to shed that ill-fitting snakeskin that was my first career, all of that inauthentic publicity that was around it, and the big hits on the radio and the photo shoots and glam. It was not me,” she said. “I’m a high introvert, I didn’t like feeling objectified behind a camera with a wind machine and some gross photographer guy. It was f—-d up, and I left it.”
Cole reset her life, focusing first on her daughter, and then on her music. Her newest album, “Ballads,” will drop on August 11. She has dedicated it to her father.
“I’m still trying. My career has been very frustrating at times. In a way, it was too big before and it’s been too small the past couple years,” she said. “It will never ever be what it was, because I’m going to be 50 next year. The world, honestly, really needs that perspective. We need wives, women, mothers in music out there. We need them. The world needs them and I need the music, so I’m still here. Even though I’m crazy to do it, the music business is harder than ever.”
Four studio albums deep, Jarosz said she can relate, though she acknowledges that her career is just getting started. The majority of her “Portraits” set list will come from her most recent effort, “Undercurrent,” she said, though she also plans to cover “Ring Them Bells” by Bob Dylan.
“That song was my window into Dylan’s music. My dad played it for me when I was 14 because I was getting into mandolin and he thought this song would be really cool on it. I’ve been singing it ever since,” she said. “GE played with Bob, so there’s no way I can’t not do that song with him. I think his history with him feels really special, to get to sing that song that’s been so special to me for so many years.”
For Smith, there is nothing better than working with talented songwriters, he said — from Hall & Oates to Dylan and Waters. The longtime “Saturday Night Live” music director never had that great ambition to be the frontman, he said. He wanted to be the sideman.
“Paula Cole I’ve known for a long time, Sarah is new to me — and I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m very impressed with her musicianship. I’m kind of scared to play with her,” he said. “She’s so good. Every now and then, you run into somebody like that and she’s so good on her instrument.”
At the time of this interview, Jarosz had recently returned home from playing a festival in Telluride, Colorado — one that is particularly symbolic because it was exactly 10 years ago, that past weekend, that she performed her first major set at that same festival. She was 16 years old, singing in front of 10,000 people, one of them her future producer, Gary Petrosa.
“I think it’s pretty crazy to be able to bookend a decade’s worth of work with not only that festival being a symbol of that, but also here with the Grammy’s,” she said. “I’ve never been in it just for the awards, I would keep doing what I’m doing regardless, but it’s certainly nice. It might be easy for some people to say, ‘Oh, you’re 26, you’re just getting going,’ but it has been a lot of work for, basically, 10 years solid.”
She laughed, and continued, “Having been nominated before, and gone, and not won, to have the timing of these wins happen at the end of this period of work feels really special. Like, okay, that was those 10 years, that was a lot of work. Now it feels like the gateway toward what’s to come.”
Paula Cole and Sarah Jarosz will join GE Smith for the “Portraits” series, produced by Taylor Barton, on Friday, June 30, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Tickets range from $55 to $150, or $53 to $145 for members. For more information, call (631) 324-0806, or visit guildhall.org.