I’m With Her: We Three

Dean Budnick on February 24, 2018

i'm with her sara watkins sarah jarosz aoife o'donovanShervin Lainez

See You Around, the name of the forthcoming studio album from Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, encapsulates the spirit and origins of their I’m With Her project.

Long before they debuted onstage together in a trio format during a serendipitous, spontaneous set at the Sheridan Opera House as part of the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, their lives had entwined in innumerable ways.

“The three of us have so much history together,” Jarosz affirms. “I first met Sara Watkins when I was nine, about to turn 10, and Nickel Creek was playing at the Old Settler’s Music Festival outside of Austin [in 2001]. I had been given a mandolin for Christmas—I had been playing for a couple months, and I just thought Nickel Creek hung the moon. I was able to meet Aoife a few years later, when I was 15, at Rockygrass in Colorado. I’m an only child and she became something of an older sister to me. Sara and Aoife met each other in 2001 at the Philadelphia Folk Festival [when Watkins was 20 and O’Donovan was 18]. Over the years, we had all these moments, seeing each other

at music festivals and jams. All of these short run-ins, all of that history, led up to that impromptu performance at the Sheridan Opera House.”

Watkins shares her own perspective on these encounters: “I met Sarah at a picnic table after we’d done a workshop, but my most vivid memory of her is outside a venue, on the street. She would come to Nickel Creek shows and bring her mandolin. Nickel Creek would often play outside of the bus after a show and if we had a friend around who played, they would come play with us. I remember Sarah being about 15 and playing with her by the bus in the headlights before we pulled away. I remember thinking, ‘She’s gonna be around for awhile.’ Then our paths crossed over the years.

“But the first time I ever sang with her was when we were rehearsing for this little workshop that we did during the day, before that evening set at the Sheridan Opera House. [The lineup at the Elks Park session also included Nicki Bluhm and Tift Merritt.] We asked everyone to get together to arrange a song or two for this workshop but Aoife and Sarah and I were the only ones who were able to get together. So we did, and we worked some three-part harmonies into ‘The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn,’ and a couple of other songs—one of Aoife’s and one of Sarah’s—and it was really fun.”

Jarosz adds, “I remember Aoife showing us her song ‘Magpie.’ That was a sparking moment, singing that song, which is in a weird time signature—it’s not the easiest song ever—and all three of us kind of fell into it naturally. I remember thinking there was really something to this.”

Events then took a turn a few hours later when Chris Thile texted O’Donovan and asked if she might be interested in pulling together an opening set for Punch Brothers that night at the Sheridan. O’Donovan decided to follow up on the euphony and rapport of the workshop rehearsals, sending her own texts to Jarosz and Watkins.

“To me, the specifics of it are less interesting than what ended up happening,” O’Donovan reflects. “Chris asked, ‘Can you come and do this thing?’ But that seems like it doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is that the three of us convened and worked up these songs. Then, we did this really fun show and that kind of turned into the band.” 

What immediately followed was a collective recognition that their instrumental affinities and their voices were not only complementary, but also resonant and mellifluous. So they decided to book a series of European dates in early 2015. They named their tour “I’m With Her” but soon discovered that people assumed it was their band name. (Their selection of this phrase predates its adoption as a Hillary Clinton campaign slogan, although they’re certainly comfortable with whatever association folks have with the term.)

“At first, we were all just thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll do a few dates and this’ll be fun,’ not necessarily thinking that was the end, but not needing it to be any more,” Watkins recalls. “But for me, that changed after our three-week tour when the three of us were driving around in a station wagon. We got along so well onstage and off. And our lifestyles fit together, which is a really big thing when you’re in a band. We travel well together. We like the same foods, we enjoy towns the same way and we communicate well. So, for me, after that tour, I definitely remember feeling that we can do this, we can be a band. Life’s too short to be in a band with people you don’t really like. I’ve been so lucky that my primary band experiences have been very positive, but being in a band can be a challenging thing. Adults don’t live with adults that often when they’re not married. So it makes it all the more special when you fit together.”

This experience led them to take another step toward a long-term commitment in July 2015 when they met at an Airbnb in Los Angeles to collaborate on some original material.

“It was a very natural process,” O’Donovan reveals. “Even just in terms of arranging music, when we first got together to arrange ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’ and ‘Be My Husband’ for the EP that we put out [in May 2015], there’s just such an immense amount of respect that we all have for each other. It makes it so easy to be sitting in a room and listening to one another’s ideas and not being too attached to our own ideas, going with the flow and letting the music be the most important thing in the room. I think that same thing happened when we started to write together. Somebody would bring the beginnings of a song and be very open to other people’s suggestions. That can be really hard when you’re a songwriter. You already have an idea of how a song should go, and even if you want to co-write, it’s easier said than done. With the three of us, it’s very natural. I honestly can’t remember, for most of these songs, whose idea was whose.”

Five months after their efforts on the West Coast session, they reconvened in an altogether different environment, ensconcing themselves in rural Vermont for eight days in December. While they were focused on the task at hand, they did have an opportunity for a sip of the local color in the form of Heady Topper, an imperial IPA of national reputation that is available in limited quantity.

“We were really close to where Heady Topper is brewed, and right down the hill of the house we were staying in is a place called East Warren Community Market. It’s a  five-minute walk down a dirt road and they got Heady Topper every Tuesday. And we were there over two Tuesdays, so we were able to each get two four packs each Tuesday,” O’Donovan affirms.

As for the songwriting process, Watkins adds, “We each brought song starts to the table. We would play an idea for each other and see what the other people gravitated toward. I was just so pleased that Aoife and Sarah found something in some of my ideas to build on and bring those songs to completion. For instance, I’d messed around with ‘Ain’t That Fine’ several times but it was reworked for this album because some of these sentiments weren’t necessarily what all of us would really want to sing in a song. I find that when I’m co-writing, one of the things that helps is that you have to explain your thoughts to somebody. When I’m writing by myself, I feel like I know what I’m saying, and sometimes what I think might be obvious is not necessarily obvious to the listener. An image that matters to me might not be as effective to someone else. When you co-write with someone, you have to discuss what you actually need, what your intent is. A lot of times, as you find your way through that conversation and with the help of your co-writers, the original idea can evolve into something much bigger and much better. I found that that was the case here quite often.” 

After completing this material, it came time to identify a producer who could best serve the new body of work. The trio set their sights on Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, Ray LaMontagne) with whom Watkins worked briefly back in 2000 on Mutual Admiration Society, the album that paired Nickel Creek with Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips.

Jarosz cites Johns’ work with Marling, as well as Adams’ Heartbreaker album as particularly significant, explaining, “I feel like Ethan’s genius is in capturing dynamics on a record, which I think, especially nowadays, is easily lost. Everything can start to feel very horizontal—there’s no movement dynamically. I think he really has a gift for that. At the end, that’s what I appreciate most, and I think that comes through.”

So they traveled to the tiny village of Box, near Bath, England, to work with Johns at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. There, they were initially surprised by his decision to record the tracks live without headphones. The three performed in close proximity to one another, with Jarosz on mandolin and banjo, O’Donovan on piano and synth, and Watkins on fiddle and ukulele.

O’Donovan acknowledges, “He’s an audiophile who has an insane set of ears, but his work process is very different from what I was expecting. I had never made a record where I didn’t use headphones or where there was no isolation at all. It was a little bit jarring on the first couple of days, but what Ethan wanted was to capture us as a band. He took us out of our comfort zone, which took a couple of days to get used to, but the end results speak volumes. The rawness of it creates the texture and this sort of lush quality that you can’t get from layering instruments and overdubbing.”

“There were some tense moments, but I think that’s the case with every good record,” Watkins affirms. “When you’re in a room with three people and no headphones, it kind of puts you in a different head space. Your first instinct is: ‘I don’t want to mess up. I’m playing one foot away from my band. Any mistake that I make in front of my microphone will also be in their microphone. So I’m affecting the whole song.’ When there’s a wall between you and every other musician, any mistake that you make is just your mistake and it won’t necessarily affect anybody else—you can fix it later, and there’s a comfort in that. But when you’re in close proximity with the other musicians in the room, you’re listening differently, you’re performing differently, and if you can perform these songs without being timid or chicken, and you can still improvise boldly and be confident, then you’re likely to get a really good performance.

“A lot of bands, especially acoustic bands, will say that you never sound as good onstage as you do backstage because backstage, you’re playing to each other—you’re facing each other in a circle, or a triangle—all of your sound is going to your bandmates. This is how musicians naturally play. When you’re straight out in a line onstage, it sometimes can be harder to find that tightness and really gel in a way that’s as good as those moments backstage. When we were in the studio, there’s a similar effect, and I think that the record sounds much different than it would if we had recorded in a more isolated, stale kind of way. But it was a great experience.”

See You Around showcases this intimacy and interplay. The record soars through its rich harmonies and stirring instrumentation. This is especially true of the breakup ballad title track, the contemplative “Ain’t That Fine,” the ethereal “Wild One” and the concluding tune, a cover of the previously unreleased Gillian Welch song “Hundred Miles” that looks to the future with resolve.

The three musicians will return to Europe in early 2018 to support the record, before embarking on their first US headlining dates in late February. This summer, they joined Punch Brothers and Julian Lage on the American Acoustic tour, in which they appeared as a group and also with the larger collective. (Their communal take on The Beatles’ “Julia” was a favorite of artists and audiences alike.)

“I felt like the tour had the perfect amount of planning and impromptu moments thrown into it,” Jarosz muses. “From the first to the last show, we were all thrilled to still be doing it together. And just thinking about the history of it all, it really felt full circle. I can remember Chris signing my program at Old Settler’s when I was nine and saying, ‘Let’s jam some time.’ That was the turning point for me, where I said, ‘OK, I have to get good enough to play with Chris Thile.’ Over the years, I probably knew Chris better than Sara, but this band has been a beautiful excuse to get to know Sara Watkins.”

This sentiment is certainly reciprocated, which bodes well for the future of I’m With Her. As Watkins notes, “They’re becoming two of my closest friends. I don’t think that any of us is looking for a one-project-forever kind of scenario—I think we’ll all want to do more solo records, and we’ll all probably go out with other projects for the rest of our lives. At least I hope so, because one of the beautiful things about this life that we have as musicians is that we can try and contribute and be a part of many different projects. So I think we will definitely want to do solo records down the road. But I also think we’ll be a band for a very long time—possibly for the rest of our lives—in that we will always be able to come back together.

“Nickel Creek is something that will always be a part of my life,” Watkins continues. “Even though many years can go by without a project, we’re still a band. I think that I’m With Her is going to be a similar feeling for me because we all just love it. For now, we’re all dedicated to this band being the focal point of our touring lives for this album cycle, and we’re going to work really hard behind it. And at the end of that, who knows? Maybe we’ll do another album or maybe we’ll do solo records and come back to this, but I don’t think this band is going anywhere.” 

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here