From the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS
It’s no surprise that I’m With Her, the young trio that just released its debut album See You Around, is a great-sounding band. After all, the group brings together the considerable talents of Aoife O’Donovan, who is the voice of the progressive string band Crooked Still and one of the most distinctive singers of her generation; Sara Watkins, who’s been a force in the acoustic/bluegrass scene since forming Nickel Creek (with her brother Sean and Chris Thile) at age eight; and Sarah Jarosz, a two-time Grammy winner last year for Best Folk Album and American Roots Performance. All three are accomplished solo artists, songwriters, and multi-instrumentalists—O’Donovan on guitar and piano; Watkins on fiddle, ukulele, and guitar; Jarosz on octave mandolin, banjo, and guitar.
But what happens when these three musicians band together is something greater than a typical all-star project, where the members take turns in the spotlight. Right out of the gate, I’m With Her has a distinct and true collective voice—vocally, instrumentally, and in songwriting, with a sound and style that’s tough to pigeonhole. The music has roots in folk and bluegrass, for sure, but its harmonic and melodic vocabulary draws on pop and jazz, too, and the nuanced arrangements show an attention to detail reminiscent of chamber music. The musicians are not acoustic purists either—on See You Around, electric guitar weaves in with the acoustic flattop, mando, fiddle, and other instruments in unusual ways. This is a band more interested in textures and layers of sound than in the orthodoxy of any particular genre.
In a conference call interview this winter from their respective homes—O’Donovan and Jarosz in Brooklyn, and Watkins in Los Angeles—the three musicians talked about how they came together as I’m With Her, and where they’re headed.
Finding the Blend
The potential in combining their talents was apparent from the first time O’Donovan, Watkins, and Jarosz played together as a trio, during the Telluride Bluegrass festival in 2014. A last-minute invitation from the Punch Brothers prompted the three women—longtime friends and fellow travelers on the festival circuit—to throw together a set of bluegrass-oriented covers, like Ralph Stanley’s “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn,” Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days,” for a late-night set. Right off the bat, recalls Jarosz, “There was just an energy and a blend.”
What’s interesting about that blend is that the three women’s voices and styles are quite distinct from each other—O’Donovan is silky and understated, while Watkins has more of a blues/rock edge, and Jarosz taps into a smooth modern bluegrass sound. But in the band, these qualities merge into something new. “I wouldn’t say that somebody brings the jazz and somebody brings the blues—it’s not like that at all,” says Watkins. “We all come from a culture of music where there’s an emphasis on harmony as well as lead singing, so we’ve all grown up supporting other singers, which is really helpful. A huge thing that plays to our advantage is that we all have a big respect for each other’s musicianship. We want to make it work and are excited about each other’s contributions, and that’s what makes it really fun.”
In their initial tours, the trio focused mostly on covers, delivering luminous performances of tunes like John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters” and Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” the latter sung over only hand and foot percussion. But they soon resolved to take their collaboration to the next level by writing songs together. So in 2015, during two intensive retreats, they co-wrote the songs for their debut album. In the first session, in Los Angeles a year after connecting at Telluride, they spent four days completing song starts each brought, resulting in the title track of See You Around and more. Later that year, sequestered away in a Vermont farmhouse for eight days, they began collaborating on songs from scratch, like the roots-rocking “I-89.”
Co-writing presents a different sort of challenge than blending voices and instruments, but here, again, the three women felt immediately in sync. “The best thing about our vibe when writing is the ability to let go of any of our egos,” says Jarosz. “If someone brings an idea to the table and it doesn’t really resonate with all of us, then you just move on. Because we had such a limited amount of time in both of those writing sessions, that was crucial to being able to end up with a full album’s worth of songs after just one four-day writing session and one eight-day writing session.”
The compressed time frame also helped bridge their individual styles. “We were living together when we were in Vermont, so songwriting wasn’t just limited to when we were sitting around with our instruments,” says Watkins. “A lot of the conversations happened when we were making breakfast and just talking about something that came to mind or whether we should tweak this lyric. It was immersive in a way that made the songwriting and the contributions much less fragmented. Hopefully the lyrics and the arrangements feel like one composite rather than a bunch of different pieces, because that was how the process of writing was.”
Listening to See You Around, it is often hard to guess the primary driver behind a particular song—and even the band members feel that way. “We did a thing last week where we sat in a room with a bunch of people and listened to the album, and we hadn’t done that in a while,” O’Donovan says. “I even sort of forgot whose ideas were what. The ownership of the music feels like ‘ours,’ as opposed to ‘That was my idea’ or ‘That was my lyric’ or ‘That was my start.’ I think that is a really cool thing to achieve in a band context.”
That blurring of contributions extends to the instrumental side. Aside from a handful of Weissenborn, harmonium, and keyboard parts by producer Ethan Johns, the trio played all the instruments on See You Around, and they continually swapped roles. Over the course of the album all three played both acoustic and electric guitar as well as other instruments—O’Donovan on piano and keyboards, Watkins on fiddle and uke, and Jarosz on clawhammer banjo and assorted mandos (mandolin, octave mandolin, mando-guitar). “It’s nice to vary the sonic palette,” says Jarosz, “to not all be on the same instrument for every song.”
The combination of sounds is a little different on each track. On the bouncy instrumental “Waitsfield,” named after the picturesque Vermont town near their second songwriting retreat, they fall into familiar string-band roles: Watkins plays the melody on fiddle, supported by Jarosz on mandolin, and O’Donovan adds bass lines and chords below on guitar. But on “Overland,” Jarosz’ clawhammer banjo carries the rhythm; and “I-89” opens with Watkins playing a slinky, fuzz-toned electric guitar line, then builds with flattop guitar and banjo—flipping the typical arrangement where acoustic instruments give way to electric crunch.
In arriving at an arrangement, says Jarosz, “A lot of the decisions are pretty clear when you’re writing the song, but it’s also nice to be open for changes in terms of what’s going to serve the song the best.” In the case of the haunting, elegiac “Pangaea,” Jarosz and O’Donovan sang as a duo during the writing process. In the album arrangement, though, Watkins takes over O’Donovan’s vocal part, and O’Donovan provides the core accompaniment on fingerstyle acoustic guitar, with only atmospheric touches of fiddle and electric guitar. Guiding these choices, says Jarosz, is “our awareness of creating the arc within each of the songs.”
Watkins elaborates on the point. “We’re basically trying to do as much as we can with three people, in terms of the instruments that are available to us and also our three voices, and trying to not have anything be redundant. If there’s a combination that’s happened a few times, we’re going to make sure that it doesn’t happen more than is necessary and maybe look into other options to make a sound we haven’t quite covered in this batch of songs.”
That approach means changing up vocal roles too, O’Donovan adds. “I think that something unique to this band is the fact that we don’t always do the same harmonic stack; at any given moment, each of us could be singing the high part or the low part or the melody. That does create a real variety of moods, depending on whose vocal timbre is coming through in the range that they’re in. I really appreciate that.”
One unexpected highlight of See You Around is “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” which sounds like a newly discovered gem from the Tin Pan Alley era (see transcription in the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar). Jazz guitar fans may recognize the music as the Julian Lage instrumental “Ryland,” which he has recorded in both solo acoustic (on World’s Fair) and electric trio (on Arclight) versions. A few years ago while working with Lage on a project, O’Donovan heard him perform “Ryland” and immediately wanted to write lyrics—and she came up with the sweetly romantic “Under the Apple Tree.” O’Donovan performed it once with Lage on guitar and then, she recalls, “When I’m With Her was working in Vermont, we did a bunch of edits and changes and it became our version.”
Beyond that contribution from Lage, the only other song on See You Around that came from outside the band is “Hundred Miles,” which Watkins discovered in a collection of Gillian Welch songs that Welch had not recorded. “To me that was a standout in a way that I could imagine singing it,” Watkins recalls. “I performed it a couple of times but never really found a way to do it that felt like I wasn’t just covering a Gillian Welch song—it was hard to imagine in a way that wouldn’t be a Gill and Dave [Rawlings] treatment. So I just played it for fun.”
When I’m With Her was in the studio, though, something clicked with “Hundred Miles”—with a minimalist arrangement that’s a cappella until nearly halfway through. “Somehow we just stumbled into this other way of approaching it that felt much more appropriate to our record and to our band,” says Watkins. “I think it was the last song that we recorded. It was late at night, and the take [on the record] is actually the first take.”
Keeping It Live
Although See You Around was just released by Rounder in February, I’m With Her actually recorded the album two years before, when many of the songs were freshly written. The long lag is a result of their busy individual careers—this year, their other projects cleared out enough that they could devote themselves to extensive I’m With Her touring of North America and Europe.
The process of making the album was a learning experience for the band. When they flew over to England for the sessions, Jarosz and O’Donovan had never met producer Ethan Johns in person—they’d only chatted once over Skype. And they didn’t fully realize that Johns wanted them to record in an old-school way that very few musicians use these days: laying down the songs live—vocals and instruments—in the same room, facing each other with no isolation and no headphones.
Initially, Jarosz recalls, “We would literally play a song once, when all of us were thinking we were warming up, and he would be like, ‘That was it.’ [laughs] I think he had to get to know us better to know, OK, we want to not have these be so raw, because we work on the intricacies and we want those to come through on the recording as well.”
This approach of capturing complete performances, rather than piecing together isolated and overdubbed tracks, pays off beautifully on See You Around. As anyone can attest who’s heard I’m With Her live—playing around one microphone in last year’s American Acoustic tour, for instance—this is definitely not a band in need of pitch correction and editing to sound in-tune and in-time. Still, even for musicians and singers of this caliber, the straight live approach was an adjustment.
“Once I got over the intimidation of screwing up someone’s perfect take,” Watkins recalls, “it was good, for me anyway, to just play to each other and not worry about hearing things in headphones, which sometimes makes me focus more on my own mistakes and takes me out of the performance. My studio playing can suffer because of that. I really enjoyed getting to a comfortable place with this setup. It made it much more like normal music-playing rather than studio.”
Around the Bend
After the long wait to release See You Around, O’Donovan says, “I couldn’t be any more ready to get onstage and play these songs. It’s going to be really cool to take them on the road.” While their touring in 2017 was straight acoustic, often around one mic, the album-release shows feature “a fuller sonic landscape, more similar to what’s on the record.” She adds, “I think having that flexibility is unique to this band. You could play the songs with one acoustic guitar—they don’t necessarily need all the other instruments. It’s nice to be able to build them up or take them down.”
Meanwhile, as I’m With Her continues to blossom, all three members will move forward with solo projects and other collaborations. The fact that all their eggs are not in the basket of this one project is, they agree, a strength.
“I think it’s crucial to have a variety of outlets,” says Watkins. “One of the things that’s so beautiful and joyful about this band is we can drop some of our ego. If something doesn’t work for this band, it can go somewhere else. If I present a song idea that nobody’s excited about, I can take that and put it on a solo record in a couple of years if I still like it. There’s a freedom in knowing this isn’t the only way for us to express ourselves.”
What I’m With Her Plays
Here are the instruments played by the band on See You Around:
Collings MF5 mandolin
Fletcher Brock octave mandolin
Bernard Mollberg Burnin’ Sun six-string clawhammer banjo
1952 Gibson ES-140
Ethan Johns’ Gretsch White Falcon electric
Martin 1934 0-17
Piano, synth keys
Fiddle—English instrument circa early 1900s
Andy Powers custom ukulele
1952 Gibson ES-140
Ethan Johns’ Airline electric
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.