I’m With Her Soar at Bush Hall, London
Q: When does 1+1+1 = more than 3? A: When it’s I’m With Her. This is the collaboration between three exceptionally talented artists in their own right — Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, who together create a captivatingly unique fusion of song and music. Their first full-length album, See You Around is due for release on Feb. 16, in advance of which they came over to the UK for a few shows.
While they were here, I caught up with Sarah Jarosz for a fascinating chat about how I’m With Her came about. What came out most was just how much this group means to all three; this is no side-line to three flourishing solo careers.
I’m With Her owes its existence to a chance encounter in 2014. They had all met each other before; Jarosz was a big fan of Nickel Creek, the band Watkins founded with her brother, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile. At a show, Sara Watkins met the nine year-old Jarosz and they stayed in touch thereafter. Jarosz and O’Donovan had contributed to each other’s records. O’Donovan and Watkins had sung together. But in 2014 O’Donovan and Watkins were on the bill at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Jarosz was not booked but after a workshop session the three of them played a short set of six songs, staples of the bluegrass tradition they shared. They enjoyed it so much they agreed to do it again. “It was fun and magical, so we said we should do more.”
How do you get on writing together? “It was a good exercise to start with other people’s songs; John Hiatt’s ‘Crossing Muddy Waters,’ Nina Simone’s ‘Be My Husband.’ That worked well but what’s so special about writing together is that egos are left at the door. We all have our own careers, they are separate and I’m With Her is on its own. If an idea doesn’t work, that’s OK, we move on. There is constant forward motion in this band.”
Unsurprisingly, they share influences. “That’s why the band makes sense,” Jarosz said. “I loved Crooked Still. And if someone said while I was watching Nickel Creek on TV I’d be playing in a band with Sara Watkins I’d have said that was insane. Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien, Wilco, The Decemberists, Dylan. I’m listening to Billy Joel like there’s no tomorrow. We are voracious listeners and it’s so fun to do that together.”
On recording their new album in the UK, she credits their producer, Ethan Johns. “His studio is near Bath. He was able to capture the raw energy of the trio. There aren’t any overdubs!”
Bush Hall was an ideal choice in terms of acoustics and feel, although judging by the size of the audience, I’m With Her could have filled a larger venue. The stage was sparse; a single old-style mic at the front with their instruments forming a semi-circle behind. The welcome indicated high expectations. These were met.
The trio took a few seconds to compose themselves, then, to a room where you could have heard the proverbial pin drop, I’m With Her opened with “Little Lies.” O’Donovan led, then all three harmonized with a clarity and sparkle to match the chandeliers hanging above them. Watkins played a mournful fiddle before leading on the next song, “Ain’t That Fine.” Next up was “Walking Back to Georgia,” on which Jarosz took the lead. After these three songs alone the trio had blended beautifully their individual talents into a single sound. The audience in return listened raptly. And so the evening progressed.
Like a dance from their bluegrass tradition, Jarosz, O’Donovan, and Watkins rotated around the mic, swapping instruments and taking turns with the lead vocals. As Jarosz said, there are no egos here.
They featured other songs from the new album: “Game To Lose” was one of the best examples of their precision, gentle plucking of the strings, lamenting fiddle, and soaring harmony. Also, “Waitsfield,” “Ryland Apple Tree,” and the set’s final song, “Overland,” on which Watkins so perfectly conveyed the anguish of upheaval: “Goodbye brother, hello railroad … I’m bound for San Francisco where a new life is for me.”
I’m With Her delved into their back catalog. All three sang “Send My Love” a tribute to the fact that breaking up isn’t always a bad thing, “Crossing Muddy Waters,” and an eerie “Be My Husband,” where the only accompaniment was three pairs of feet beating a relentless rhythm. The Swedish “Vasen Street” showed their instrumental prowess, sounding more like a Scottish reel.
While interspersed by some very good humor, this was serious business. The songs are meticulous, every word and note counts. There was nothing superfluous. Gathered around that single mic, I’m With Her generated a powerful bond with the audience. There was a delicacy about their performance but not fragility, more a reflection of the exquisite sound. The overriding impression was how differences can blend into something that sounds so unified. As Jarosz put it, “our voices do sound different, but it was a fun surprise to see how well they blend together. We play different instruments, we have a palette of musical colours to choose from. We are a band.”