When Texas-born songwriter Sarah Jaffe sat down with producer Aaron Kelley, the plan was to collaborate on songs to ultimately give to other artists, scratching an itch Jaffe had developed to learn about that side of the music business. But she quickly realized that the songs she was coming up with were too personal, too specific, and too urgent to subject to the protracted process required.
The pair changed gears and emerged with a pair of stark electronic and often-experimental EPs, This Is Better Part 1 & Part 2, inspired by a rough stretch of Jaffe's personal life that instigated some internal reassessment and reckoning. Across their seven tracks, dark nights of the soul are revealed, leading to acceptance, appreciation, and a sense of moving forward.
AllMusic spoke with Jaffe about how she realized she had to keep these songs to herself, how they do or don't fit within her overall body of work (and if that matters), and how she's learned to allow herself to be precious and nostalgic in times of despair. Both of the This Is Better EPs are now available.
AllMusic: These sessions started with you writing songs for other artists, but you kept them for yourself. How early in the process did you make that decision?
Sarah Jaffe: I was in a really broken place in my life where I just saw the end of a relationship, and it happened very abruptly, and everything I was writing was very visceral and heavy for me. We were maybe two tracks in when I looked at [producer Aaron Kelley] and said, "Would you be cool with me just putting this stuff out?" There was nothing pretentious about it, there was just an openness to our approach, and listening back to these tracks, they felt like mine.
AllMusic: When you're going through such a rough time, are you able to simultaneously realize that this could be good fuel for your music?
Jaffe: I think humans don't give themselves enough credit for how resilient we are and what we do unbeknownst to our conscious self, what we do to channel or to process. A lot of my processing has always been through music, it's how I understand and move on, so for me, with the end of a seven-year relationship, it was how I was processing, and how I was remaining sane. This was the only area of my life that was keeping my head above water, so it was really a lifesaver in a lot of ways.
AllMusic: The second EP ends with "It Can Only Get Better," which makes it sound like you were really hitting bottom at the time.
Jaffe: That's not the way I thought of the song, really, but that's funny. When you're stripped of all these things you thought were it for you, and it turns out those things were not it, it is the bottom in that sense.
I think for me it was the acceptance of it all, but also when you go through a breakup or go through grief, your head, your heart, and your body can split, there's this thing where you're abruptly separated, and it's the only time you feel the divisiveness of those three things.
My head is really what saved me in this instance; it was logic, and I needed to listen to logic. My heart was on a whole other planet, and my body was doing its own thing, just reacting to all this grief in a totally separate and different way. But my head was like, "We're gonna be good, just keep diving into writing and music, and we're gonna be great." So for me, that's what the song really was about, the acceptance and the gratitude for what was and then looking forward, about taking the good things with you from the past and extracting those and using them to move along.
AllMusic: Ending with that track felt like a very deliberate decision on your part, to close with some uplift.
Jaffe: Everything about both of these EPs was for sure intentional, and maybe even a little bit precious in the thematic element to it. But with heartbreak, it is a precious thing, and everyone can relate to it. So by the time that we got to EP 2, I was already in a totally different headspace and I didn't want to spend too much more time on songs about healing and moving on, because I'd already processed those things, and we were making songs that were of a different texture, and it felt like a good bookend for the two EPs. I wanted to leave on a hopeful note,
AllMusic: You've said you wanted "Happy New Year" to sound like nostalgia, and nostalgia is something that can come across as very precious without handling it well. How did you approach that?
Jaffe: It all depends on where you are in the present. The specific idea with "Happy New Year" was that I extracted all this audio from videos of my friends, specifically from the end of 2018, when I was with this group of friends who all had a horrific year.
I remember bringing in the new year with them and for the first time in my adult life, that New Year's Day meant something to me, all of the sudden I remembered the feeling of putting in a pin and saying, "That was the past, and from here on out, I'm only taking the good into the future, enough of dwelling on things I cannot control," and notably feeling the year and time in a different way.
So I wanted to say something that kind of represented that feeling, and that's the audio from the New Year's we celebrated together, then took that track and used parts of it in "It Can Only Get Better," so the two go together as a representation of taking that good nostalgia with you into the future.
AllMusic: That sounds like a thought process you may not have had in your twenties.
Jaffe: I was hyper-aware of how sentimental it was, but if you're doing fine in your life and you haven't come across any struggle, you're not really thinking about the past, your head is in the present. But when anyone goes through a rough time or a rough patch, nostalgia and sentiment suddenly become very important, so everything I did artistically, I would have made fun of in my twenties, I would have said, "That's really precious and overthought," but that's just where I was.
AllMusic: Because of the way these songs came about, do you think of them as fitting in with your overall body of work, or are they in their own space?
Jaffe: I'm still trying to make all the pieces fit, I'm figuring that part out. I don't know that I necessarily think that they have to fit, because I've already kind of thought, "How do I go from 'Clementine' to 'It Can Only Get Better,' how do you make that jump?" You don't. So that's still in question, I'm figuring that out, the same way that there's a part of me that wants to make all these pieces fit, I don't know that I'm going to be satiated with whatever the puzzle piece is that makes them fit, because I don't think they necessarily have to.
AllMusic: You contributed songs for the movie Never Goin' Back, how did that experience live up to your expectations of what working on a movie would be like?
Jaffe: It was such an amazing learning experience, mainly because of the technicality of you thinking the song is amazing as it is, but when it has to fit onto a director's vision, it's not necessarily about the song, it's about the movie. Also, I got to work with other producers, which opened up an avenue of writing for pop songs, which is something I'd always wanted to do. It was amazing, it opened up the hatch.
AllMusic: When you're writing for other people, do you have specific artists in mind?
Jaffe: We'd do these calls where certain artists' A&R would say, "So-and-so is looking for this," and give you a laundry list of artists who are working for stuff. So we'd hop on these calls, and after the calls ended, we'd jump right into something, just pick a place on the map.
AllMusic: Are they big names?
Jaffe: Yeah, they're all amazing artists. In the beginning it was like that, but with Aaron, once we go the ball rolling, these songs were all ones I didn't feel like I was ready to give up my artistry. It's this protective nature of, "I don't want to see these songs fucked with." There's a bit of a selfish nature in it, but I'm sure topliners struggle with that all the time, releasing a song into the wild and being like, "Good luck, I hope you do well," and five years later, collecting a really fat check. But there's a whole business to it that I'm still very much learning, and fascinated with. It's a fascinating world, the team of people to make a massive hit will always be fascinating to me. It's insane.
AllMusic: An insanity you want to be part of.
Jaffe: Yeah, I think it's the competitiveness of it, and how quickly that world turns over. In Los Angeles, there are these groups of people who it seems like they kill it for like a year, they're at the top of the writing pool and everyone's working with them, and then all of the sudden there's a new group. It's amazing to me, the inner-workings of it, and it's like a sterile process that just resonates with me, it's an applied pressure that I'm like, "Ooh, how's this going to work?" I don't think I'm competitive, but I guess I kind of am, because I want to be the best at everything, and it bothers me when I'm not the best at everything, so I think it scratches that itch a little bit.
AllMusic: Does that competitiveness come through in other parts of your life?
Jaffe: Oh yeah. My dad was a women's basketball coach for half of my life, so I grew up playing basketball. So there's still that part of me, I'm still bratty.