I'm With Her performs Fri., March 29 at 7 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre as part of the Savannah Music Festival. www.savannahmusicfestival.org
AL JARDINE of The Beach Boys once said, "I like to be surrounded by harmonies and fullness and richness and vitality."
If that’s the case, Jardine would find lots to love on “See You Around,” the debut album by I’m With Her, a trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan.
While the threesome collectively released nine solo albums, co-founded a pair of seminal bands (Watkins with Nickel Creek and O’Donovan with Crookes Still) and contributed to critically acclaimed albums by an array of esteemed artists, there was always the danger that this might be a project that worked better on paper than in real life.
Instead, it’s a group that’s yielded a trove of rich material steeped in shimmering harmonies and exquisite musicianship. It’s the kind of stripped-down approach whose vocal purity is so raw that it can be a bit jarring first time around.
But subsequent listens reveal a rich intermingling of vocals and melodies that more than live up to the expectations you’d have from this kind of world-class talent. For Watkins, this kind of creative intimacy was what she, Jarosz and O’Donovan were looking to bring from the concert stage into the recording studio.
It’s a major reason why she and her bandmates chose to head up to Vermont to work with producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams/Paul McCartney), who was the only other instrumentalist on these dozen songs aside from the three ladies.
“A lot of times when you go make a record, there are so many different ways to record in terms of a process or a setup. A lot of times that process includes isolation of one kind or another—where you’re literally separated in different rooms connected by mics and headphones. You’re close together, but you still have headphones on,” Watkins explained in a recent phone interview.
“The most bare it can be is when you’re in a room, with no headphones on playing to each other, and what this does is capture a dynamic that is easily lost once you start listening through headphones. That was Ethan Johns’ setup and that’s how he likes to record. It took us a few days to get comfortable with it. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to work with him—the sounds that he gets and the dynamics that he’s able to capture, which are really hard to get. It was a little uncomfortable for a bit. We found our way into it and are really happy with how it came out.”
Among the many highlights are “Wild One,” a gently strummed ode to a young girl that beseeches the subject “Do not cross over/Don’t get yourself undone” with a yearning desperation that might just as well be applied to someone fighting for their life.
Elsewhere, the bluegrass sensibilities of “Ain’t That Fine” reverberate through Watkins’ strong and soulful lead vocals and get an extra boost via O’Donovan and Jarosz angelically goosing along the chorus, while “Waitsfield” is a jolly instrumental slice of old-timey music that finds Watkins’ fiddle and Jarosz’s mandolin playfully bouncing off each other.
Then there’s “Game to Lose,” an irresistible fusion of high lonesome manna and precise finger-picking. Capping the proceedings off is a stark reading of “Hundred Miles,” a previously unreleased Gillian Welch composition that finds this unity of voices serving the song on so many levels throughout this message of hope.
While the three musicians first met while playing various festivals in pairings dating back to 2002, it was an off-the-cuff performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014 that hinted at the creative riches awaiting the three if they chose to continue down that path.
It was further confirmed when they met up in New York to prep for a series of European shows in early 2015 and later wound up calling themselves I’m With Her.
“It’s really just the spirit of the band and it was in early 2015 we were doing our first tour in the UK and we needed a name for it, so we called it I’m With Her because we felt like we were all kind of happy to be with each other and happy to be included in the company of our bandmates,” Watkins recalled.
“It felt very genuinely reflective of our feelings about the band. After the tour, friends started being referred to us like that and we just started out that way.”
Not unlike that United Kingdom tour, which found the three crafting unique arrangements of various covers of artists ranging from Nina Simone to Jim Croce, the current string of dates will give fans more of the same.
“[Folks will] be hearing a bunch of songs off the record and additional songs that we’ve worked on with other various projects and collaborations. We have a set list that’s different from night to night, so I can’t say what we’ll specifically play,” Watkins said.
“We’re at the phase now that we’ve been touring for several months and it’s been fun to throw in different songs here and there and expand the repertoire that we already have. That’s a big part of this band. When we were doing any shows for the first couple of years together, we were playing mostly cover songs that we all really loved and enjoyed. That was a big part of what we were doing in the beginning—a celebration of material like that.”
While the trio has plenty on the back-burner, Watkins envisions plenty more I’m With Her going forward to the point that a handful of new songs will see the light in 2019.
“[This year will see] a new song or two. We really haven’t had a lot of time to do any writing because we’ve been pretty busy just touring,” she said. “I think after the summer, we’ll take a little break, reassess and figure out when we can hit it again. Though we are all involved in many, many projects, including our own individual ones, we’re all going to make time for I’m With Her projects in the future for sure.”