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The 20 Things You Need to Know For 2011

We figured out the people, places, and ideas that matter this year in Dallas. You're welcome.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Sarah Jaffe will break your heart—and break big.

Sarah Jaffe was mostly local when 2010 began. She had earned positive notice from the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone, but she was still largely a Dallas-Denton-Fort Worth sensation, known for her big voice and big-screen take on folk. Many musicians never move past that point. Then Jaffe went on a European tour with Denton’s Midlake. And opened a string of amphitheater dates for Norah Jones back in the States. And released her debut full-length, Suburban Nature, to widespread acclaim. And went on her first headlining tour—or “first time playing last,” as she says. And then another. She was away from home for most of the year.

“I love touring,” she says. “There’s such a joy, a thrill, in driving nine hours and having just a lot of time to think and get things sorted out, to be away from home for a bit. It’s part of the chaos I’ve always wanted and will continue to want.”

By the time September rolled around, Jaffe was national, which upped her standing locally even further. And she learned one of the biggest paradoxes of success: you can do whatever you want. Except when you can’t.

The 24-year-old singer-songwriter headlined a show at the Granada Theater on September 11, a sold-out gig that was less a concert than a coronation. The crowd was whisper-quiet, rapt, offering the sort of respect even bigger names have struggled to garner in Dallas. She was grateful and overwhelmed by the turnout and said so after almost every song.

But she was not indebted. When it came time to perform “Clementine”—the song in heavy rotation on KXT, the song NPR singled out in June, the song whose video premiered on the Granada’s big screen just before she took the stage, the song that sold most of those tickets, the song Jaffe never wanted to record in the first place and still mostly hates—it took a moment for the audience to realize what they were hearing. Because, instead of the version found on Suburban Nature, up-tempo if not exactly upbeat, Jaffe delivered a spare reading. Slowed to a crawl and stripped down to just Jaffe on an electric guitar and Scott Danbom’s piano, it took several bars before the familiar buzz of recognition spread through the room.

You can do whatever you want.

A week later, Jaffe is at Banter, a cafe in Denton just off the town square. Her hair is bottle blond and short, and her threadbare t-shirt is maybe a spin cycle away from a quiet death. What really stands out when she is a foot away instead of on a stage: her eyes, giant and the blue-green of swimming pools in the summer. She is not talking, at the moment, about “Clementine” or Suburban Nature, but instead a recording that doesn’t officially exist, and may never. 

The song is “A Sucker for Your Marketing,” short and rhythmic, almost hypnotic in its repetition. Jaffe wrote it over the summer, not long after she bought a cheap drum set and a cheaper bass guitar—so she could learn to play them, so she wouldn’t have to play acoustic guitar anymore. The new instruments were her version of crop rotation.

“I couldn’t hear the acoustic anymore,” Jaffe says, a ripple running through those swimming pools. “I would physically and mentally get frustrated.”

Her mom brought home a garage-sale guitar when Jaffe was a 10-year-old in Red Oak. She learned how to play it on her own, each new note and chord feeling like an invention. But by last year, she knew, more or less, what she could do with a guitar. Bass and drums still held the promise of invention. After a couple of months, she had done just that, writing and recording (in her Denton bedroom) a quartet of new songs. She planned to release an EP in the fall.

But then, while performing at the Living Room in New York, Jaffe was filmed performing “A Sucker for Your Marketing.” The clip was passed around among her fans; bloggers blogged about it. It quickly became a highlight of her set. It was not the bare-bones version she had recorded alone but the one worked out on the road by her backing band of local all-stars—Danbom on piano, Becki Howard on violin, Robert Gomez on guitar (mostly), and drummer Jeff Ryan. The other one was now all but obsolete.

“It’s really, really lo-fi,” she says. “The majority of the people who would go out and buy that have heard it live, and so they know the fullness of what it sounds like now. To me, there’s some charm in it, but I don’t know if that would be a progression, or if it would be kind of like not really helping.”

Except when you can’t.

Jaffe will face more of these types of contradictions, as more people hear her, as her success breaks its various glass ceilings, becomes more tangible. And, rest assured, you might not have heard Sarah Jaffe yet—you might not have heard of Sarah Jaffe until a few paragraphs ago—but you will. This is an incontrovertible fact. This is inevitable, inexorable, inescapable. Only the when and the where are up for debate, and even that I can narrow down slightly. It will happen this year.

When it happens, you will understand why. You will hear Jaffe’s voice, so tough and tender, a sunrise seen through cigarette smoke, and it will feel instantly familiar and foreign, a welcome stranger. That voice, that chest-squeezing, heart-melting voice, will come at you from somewhere—the radio, a Starbucks, the penultimate scene of a Grey’s Anatomy two-parter. Somewhere.

And, yes, she knows that part of making that happen means she is not done with “Clementine” just yet.

“I wrote that song in someone’s dorm room as filler,” Jaffe says. “I hated that song. I threw a temper tantrum recording that song. I never wanted to hear it again.” She laughs, still a bit bitterly. “I think it’s funny. It gives me a well-deserved slap in the face. I can be a brat about things sometimes.” —Z.C.