Three distinct voices and careers merge in I’m With Her
First things first: Roots musicians Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan calling their new trio I’m With Her does not have anything to do with Hillary Clinton.
“Honestly, no,” Jarosz, 26, said earlier this week while enjoying a short respite at her home in New York City before I’m With Her embarks on a tour supporting its debut album, “See You Around,” which arrives Feb. 16.
“We named our band back in early 2015, before Hillary announced her campaign and long before that became her slogan.
“Initially, that was the name of our tour in the spring of 2015,” added Jarosz, who shares writing credits with Watkins, 36, and O’Donovan, 35, on all the album’s songs but one, the closing track, “Hundred Miles,” which was written by Gillian Welch.
“We had done three weeks of shows in Spain, the U.K. and Ireland that had really solidified our love of playing together. Hillary’s campaign came along, we first thought, ‘OK, that’s her slogan now.’ But ultimately, we decided to keep it because A) it’s tough to change band names and B) I think it really symbolizes the spirit of this band.”
The album showcases the trio’s symbiotic approach to singing and playing, each of the women coming to the group with solid credentials as a solo singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
“From the beginning, we wanted to be a band, and not a side project,” Jarosz said. “By saying, ‘I’m with her,’ it underscores that we’re all such fans of each other, fans of each others’ musicianship. Each of us wants to do really well for each other, because we love each other as musicians.”
In addition to their tightly woven harmonies in different combinations of two and often three voices, Jarosz, Watkins and O’Donovan move among more than a dozen instruments on the songs they wrote, some while sharing an Airbnb for four days in Los Angeles, the others from a subsequent eight-day stay at a house in Vermont offered to them by a friend of a friend.
“See You Around” was ultimately recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio in Bath, England, where the three women co-produced sessions with Ethan Johns.
Known for his work with a variety of roots artists such as Laura Marling, Kaiser Chiefs, Ray LaMontagne and Ryan Adams, Johns also was at the helm for three critically acclaimed late-career albums from veteran Welsh singer-sex symbol Tom Jones.
The trio’s vocals and instrumentals share an intimate sonic environment, closely recorded so listeners can almost feel their breath as they trade lines and blend voices.
The songs explore a gamut of emotions and situations, from the heartfelt farewell of the title track to the seismic relationship split in “Pangaea” to the open-hearted romantic celebration of “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree).”
The three first sang together as a trio in 2014 at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado as something of a lark.
“I would say our harmonies were the thing that initially clicked,” Jarosz said. “If I listen to our voices separately, we have different timbres and vocal qualities, but when we sing together — I remember listening back to some of the demos during our early writing sessions, and I wasn’t able to tell which voice was which.”
Jarosz, who was born in Texas, and Southern California native Watkins — the Nickel Creek/Watkins Family Hour member — grew up steeped in the tradition of bluegrass music, which is rich with two-, three- and sometimes four-part harmony singing.
O’Donovan, whose heritage is Irish and whose given name is pronounced EE-fah, was less immersed in bluegrass, Jarosz said, but she added, “We all share a similar history growing up singing harmony.
“I wouldn’t say there’s one go-to example [of vocal harmony groups] we’ve held up as a band, but we’ve all admired people like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, harmony singers like that,” she added. “Also, I’ve noted when singing with other people, for vocal range reasons you can’t simply switch parts around easily. If I’m singing with a guy, I’m probably going to be singing above him.
“So this is fun for us because we can say, ‘Oh, let’s switch parts,’ and I can switch to the low part here, or maybe all three of us don’t have to sing at the same time, we can do unison here — there are so many different combinations. It creates a whole different sound from song to song.”
On one song, in fact, they don’t sing at all. “Waitsfield” is a sprightly instrumental highlighting their musicianship while name-checking a town adjacent to Warren, Vt., where they holed up writing.
“It was crucial that we had that time for bonding,” Jarosz said. “Waking up every morning, we could fall into a routine making breakfast — doing little things you wouldn’t otherwise think about, but they were important to the birth of this band. I think it would have been a different process altogether forming the band if we’d just flown to Los Angeles and sat in a hotel room writing songs together and then gone our separate ways at the end of the day.
“It’s really special the way this band has unfolded,” she added.
I’m With Her’s tour starts Feb. 27 in Downers Grove, Ill., and brings them to the Teragram Ballroom in L.A. on April 2.
“It started four years ago this summer, which is crazy. But this also feels like the beginning in many ways,” Jarosz said.
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