Photo Shervin Lainez

How Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan Found Power, Gal Pal Glory in I’m With Her

On the eve of their debut album release, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan hit plenty of high notes in an engaging interview that details what makes I'm With Her click.

See You Around
I'm With Her
16 Feb 2018

In 2012, Chris Thile was the subject of a film documentary called How to Grow a Band. In 2018, Sara Watkins, Thile’s musical partner in Nickel Creek, could easily share top billing with Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz if a must-see film for every aspiring musician was made with the title: I’m With Her: How to Start a Band.

The three female folk heroes grew up in different parts of the country, took alternate paths to arrive in a similar place and brought distinctive personalities to an industry that doesn’t always appreciate originality — or strong, opinionated women in the workplace. Yet they’re all accomplished singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists with enriching musical backstories, proven and prolific solo performers with nine individual albums among them and cooperative collaborators who are always game to try new projects.

One such venture is I’m With Her, the mesmerizing trio with spine-tingling three-part harmonies that came together almost on a whim for a spontaneous appearance at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. How that happened, and what happened next, provide the basis of a story that sounds almost too good to be true as they release their debut album See You Around (Rounder Records) on Friday (16 Feb).

Calling from their residences the day after the Super Bowl were, in Los Angeles, Watkins, whose baby girl was born in September, Jarosz in New York and O’Donovan, on an Uber ride from her Brooklyn apartment to the Upper West Side. While waiting for O’Donovan, a native New Englander and still a Patriots fan despite the loss, Sara and Sarah — who call each other by their last names — got caught up by chatting about the weather.

Jarosz: “It’s so cold. I’m over it.”

Watkins: “I’m in shorts right now, Jarosz. Getting some vitamin D.”

Once O’Donovan checked in, the three gave a thumbs-up to a game that many thought managed to outshine the halftime show.

“You were hoping for another nipple slip?” O’Donovan joked after her interviewer expressed dismay over the absence of surprise guest stars — including Janet Jackson — during Justin Timberlake’s lackluster 13-minute performance.

That was a titillating start to an interview that covered arm-wrestling matches and backstage bathroom rehearsals in Telluride, along with “dopey little instrumental relief” on the album and why the members of I’m With Her truly, collectively believe they are made for each other.

Origin Stories

Some of the details are hazy (they “blur together,” Watkins said with a laugh), but the consensus is that two of their first three meetings occurred in 2001. Jarosz, who was born in Austin and raised in nearby Wimberley, Texas, said she was nine years old and had just started playing mandolin when she introduced herself to Watkins after going with her parents to the Old Settler’s Music Festival. They wanted to see Tim O’Brien, John Hartford and, of course, Nickel Creek, the progressive bluegrass band that formed in 1989, when Watkins was eight and her brother Sean was 12.

In 2006 at RockyGrass in Lyons, Colorado, Jarosz, a budding musician who quickly added to her arsenal of instruments, met O’Donovan, then the Boston-based lead singer and frontwoman of Americana string band Crooked Still, who played at the three-day festival.

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Watkins, still not a teenager when Nickel Creek got invited onto the main stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival ahead of John’s Hartford’s set in 1993, recalled seeking out O’Donovan at the 2001 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

“I heard about Aoife and her singing,” Watkins said, noticing the rave reviews O’Donovan was getting. “She was part of the band the Wayfaring Strangers, which had another musician I had really admired, Matt Glaser. … I remember getting off the shuttle to the festival. … And I remember getting off the bus and heading straight towards the stage that Aoife was playing at and introducing myself after the set.”

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Telltale Signs in Telluride

While Watkins and O’Donovan continued to connect at other festivals and camps, Jarosz became a Planet Bluegrass mainstay with her main stage debut on June 23, 2007, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in an incredible Southwest Colorado mountain setting. Crooked Still was there, too, making their first Telluride Bluegrass appearance. Besides the New England Conservatory of Music, where Jarosz and O’Donovan had earned degrees, and RockyGrass, the two were suddenly stepping on more common ground.

Before her first Telluride set with Mike Marshall and Ben Sollee that included covers of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Jarosz, then 16, received a glowing introduction:

“This young woman is proof that the future of bluegrass and music itself is certain to be full of virtuosity, passion, integrity, deep beauty and soul.”

“Yeah, that was so fun,” the soft-spoken, easygoing Jarosz said of the day. Known there for various guest appearances with Tim O’Brien over the years, she also made her mark during festival “tweeners”, a series of performances between main stage acts. Jarosz recalled a 2007 tweener with O’Donovan and Abigail Washburn.

Here’s where the memory gets fuzzy regarding when O’Donovan, Watkins, and Jarosz crossed paths together in Telluride for the first time, though.

“Watkins was there, too, with Nickel Creek that year,” the fast-talking, quick-thinking O’Donovan said.

Added Watkins: “Yeah, I don’t think we hung out, though.”

O’Donovan: “I think we hung out, but we didn’t necessarily jam. ‘Cause I remember that was the year … wasn’t that the year of the epic arm wrestling?”

Jarosz: “Oh, yeah. Well, no, maybe it was like the next year.”

Watkins: “It’s just like a lot of stuff happens at the Sheridan Opera House [in downtown Telluride]. And after a while, for me, anyway, they all kind of blur together.” (laughs)

For the record, according to the Planet Bluegrass website, Nickel Creek played the festival five times from 2000-14, but not once from 2007-13, when they were on hiatus.

So getting the three to pin down the year might be next to impossible, but what about that “epic” sporting event? O’Donovan resisted providing specifics, other than saying, “One year I remember there being a lot of arm wrestling. And I didn’t win a single match.”

Asked if there was any alcohol involved, she added facetiously: “Surely not.”


The Birth of I’m With Her

What’s certain is that Watkins, O’Donovan, and Jarosz did play together at the Sheridan Opera House in the wee hours of the morning after June 22, 2014, when the main stage and Telluride’s Town Park went dark.

Hours earlier, with fiddle, guitar, and banjo in hand instead of arm wrestling on their minds, the trio first sang a few songs at a Sunday workshop in Elks Park. “We had such a great time,” said Watkins, who hosted a somewhat extemporaneous bash there in 2011 with Thile, Willie Watson, Benmont Tench, Crooked Still fiddler Brittany Haas and members of the Decemberists including frontman Colin Meloy that also was quite enjoyable.

Back in Telluride for her 2014 Nickel Creek 25th anniversary/reunion tour with Thile and her brother, Watkins joined Jarosz and O’Donovan onstage for about a 20-minute show later that night after getting asked to open for Punch Brothers.

A 4 p.m. request by text came from Thile. “I guess we were about to get margaritas or something and we decided to work up some music instead,” O’Donovan said.

The sudden surprise didn’t bother Watkins, who said, “There’s a wonderful feeling of camaraderie, open collaboration at these festivals and especially late-night, after-hour things where you want to get a bunch of friends involved.”

Though they had to rehearse in a bathroom for the short NightGrass set because of cramped quarters backstage at the opera house, Jarosz’s immediate impression afterward was that they shared a “magical” experience.

“I think we all took notice of how the nature of these festivals and these scenes in general is, that people tend to share a similar repertoire anyway, but it was sort of heightened in this case because we had each worked in pairs before, excluding me and Watkins,” she added. “I think that was the one double of this trio that has been so fun to explore since the beginning of this band. … So it was really fun to kind of bring that history to the table and work that up for a trio setting, kind of add a third harmony in. It just really fell into place in an organic way … how quickly we were able to throw a little set together. It was mostly just so fun and I think that spirit was what sort of led us to go on to continue on with it and move forward from there.”

They didn’t have a group name yet, but the trio got their first favorable review from an excited eyewitness, who also called it “magical” in a post to Planet Bluegrass’ Festivarian Forum several days after the show:

“Seeing Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan on the same stage was magical. Their musicality together is dumbfounding. Watching them giggle with each other through lyrics and still come out with these pitch-perfect, spine-tingling notes is something else.”

O’Donovan didn’t need any outside affirmation to reinforce her intuitive feelings. If Aoife, Sara, and Sarah were destined to be a working band, when did they know for sure?

“I think it was right then,” she said.

Name that Band, Tour and Tunes

It didn’t take long for the unnamed band to get into gear. The three met in mid-September in Phoenix, where O’Donovan opened for Jarosz at Musical Instrument Museum. Watkins flew out from L.A., they spent the afternoon working up one new song, took a few band photos and booked a 2015 gig in Scotland. O’Donovan thinks the three sang her “Red & White & Blue & Gold” that night.

“When we got our first gig in Scotland, that was when [I’m With Her] became official to me,” Watkins said. “One thing that was really nice about this band was that we discovered a lot of the things that go into being a band work really naturally with this particular combination of people. … That’s pretty normal for our scene. … But when we started arranging songs together in Aoife’s apartment in New York later that winter, that was a wonderful revelation that ‘Oh, wow, we collaborate well together. We work quickly and communicate well together.’ You know, as we went on tour, we discovered we travel well together and live and work well together that way.”

Their first songwriting sessions took place over four days in the summer of 2015 in L.A., resulting basically in four “mostly finished” tunes, with the goal to make it impossible to tell who brought the initial idea to each song.

“How can we really tell the story and how we can write songs that don’t necessarily have to be so personal that they only apply to the person singing lead?” O’Donovan said they asked themselves. “I think that’s one of the things that stands out on our new record to me is that each story that we tell feels like it’s our story as opposed to, ‘Oh, Sara Watkins is singing lead on that one. That’s her story.’ “

Songs for the rest of See You Around were written over eight days at a Vermont farmhouse, then the album was recorded from Jan. 4-22, 2016, at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, England.

“We had some great meals, we had some great laughs, we had some great walks and we, of course, we’re recording everything on Voice Memo on our iPhones,” O’Donovan said of that first L.A. meeting. “And I remember being on a flight back to New York after that trip and listening to the Voice Memos of these songs that we wrote. And just kind of being like, ‘Oh, my gosh. (laughs) I’m so excited about this music.’ And that just kind of lit the fire to get ready and do it again and make a record.”

The majority of the songs, including “I-89,” “Ryland (Under The Apple Tree),” “Overland,” the title cut and “Hundred Miles” — the Gillian Welch cover performed at stops like RockyGrass when I’m With Her officially began touring in 2015 — may tell various stories but share one commonality — sheer beauty. Whether it involves the words, the instrumentation or the voices in perfect harmony, the album is filled with some of the sweetest sounds you’ll hear all year.

Jarosz also enjoyed the sequencing of the record, comparing it to “an exciting ride” that “feels like you’re lifted up at one moment and then it kind of like flows down.”

The rousing hoedown instrumental “Waitsfield” is surely one of the sweet treats, an unexpected change of pace that Watkins said is “almost like a homage to a John Hartford sensibility, in my mind,” just past the midway point of the 12-song album.

Guided by Watkins’ fiddling fury, they did a handful of takes but used the first one they successfully completed, closing with some audible chatter and laughter.

Photo: Michael Bialas

“It may seem contrived to some, but it’s just so how it was, I feel like we had no choice but to leave it on,” O’Donovan said. “You can sort of hear us holding our breath at the end until we get through the tune and then when we kind of let it out and explode, I think it just gives the listener a real sense of a release as well.”

If she had to pick a favorite from the album, O’Donovan decided to select “Pangea,” a song with an unexpected twist — her voice is not included. “It had a long sort of evolution from its starts to its finish,” she said. “… And it just has this haunting duet vocal from the beginning that I think is really, really evocative.”

Their first actual recording was made in December 2014 for a 7-inch vinyl EP released in May 2015 that included two covers also performed at RockyGrass on July 25, 2015 — John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters” and “Be My Husband,” written by Andy Stroud and sung a cappella.

Then the band name finally came. Jarosz’s planned 2015 solo concert date that April at Uppsala Konsert & Kongress in Sweden with “an amazing Swedish band” called Vasen multiplied into three women playing three weeks of shows in Europe.

“We named it the I’m With Her Tour and it just kind of seemed to stick after that, I feel like,” Jarosz said.

Sharing an all-for-one/three-for-all mentality, none of them take sole credit for anything, whether it involves a name for the song or the group.

“It just kind of made sense,” Watkins said. “In addition to this feeling of camaraderie in this band, I think [I’m With Her] speaks to our confidence in each other, musicianship and our respect for the individual careers that the others have had. And, yeah, it represents our attitude as a band.”

That state of independence came across loud and clear with her response to one innocent question.

Revealed in the liner notes, I’m With Her brought some impressive instrumental baggage to their recording sessions:

  • Watkins: fiddle, ukulele, acoustic guitar, electric guitar.
  • Jarosz: mandolin, octave mandolin, clawhammer banjo, mando guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar.
  • O’Donovan: acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, synth keys.

Yet I still dared to wonder if they would have a backing band while plugging in for the 2018 full album tour that begins this month after playing some quieter American acoustic dates last summer.

Watkins let loose: “Hell, no. Hell, no. We won’t be offended that you ask but … “

No harm, no foul, but duly noted. I’ll be OK as soon as I take this foot out of my mouth.

On Neutral Ground

Recording in England at the request of British producer Ethan Johns (who contributed harmonium, synth keys and dobro) meant spending most of their time together. Serving as co-producers, they lived on the studio grounds during the recording period, the four of them also usually dining together.

“I think it also just furthered solidified what Aoife was saying about this being our shared story,” said Jarosz, as they seemed happy to be away from outside distractions and “more focused” while working on what they called “neutral” ground. “It just felt living day in and day out for three weeks together, it was like going in every day to track, it just felt like much more of a unified process by doing it that way.”

Isolated from the rest of the world could lead to some mind games and power struggles among the tightest of friends. But Watkins, as feisty as she is outspoken, even took exception to what she considered “kind of a ridiculous question” (meant to be tongue in cheek) in which the three were asked to address the best and worst parts of this seemingly 24/7 existence with each other in the studio and on tour.

O’Donovan and Jarosz just laughed it off.

“I’ll say the worst part first,” O’Donovan volunteered. “The worst part is the damage done to my wallet every time we walk into a vintage clothing store. … That’s definitely the worst part. But it’s also the best part, so there you go.”

Added Jarosz: “Yeah, also during the recording process, there was a lot of soup [served at mealtime], which I feel like … I saw like two times a day. By the end, we were like, OK.”

Still hungry for more, they’ve all been willing participants in a series of successful collaborations over the years. Yet Watkins also was upfront about those experiences not always being ideal.

“I feel like it’s hard to work together well with some people, which makes it even more special when you do find people you work together well with,” Watkins said. “This band is more fun than most bands that I’m in. I wouldn’t say most bands I’m in. But it’s a special combination of people and, you know, not every … it’s not always easy to travel with people. It’s not always easy to collaborate and negotiate (laughs) with people. And so sometimes it’s just a bad fit, like in any kind of relationship, working or friendship, it’s not always possible, I think.

“But I think there’s just a lot to be said for having the similar rhythm of life and a similar rhythm of expectation of standard and creative standard and logistical standards,” she added, pointing out the advantages of O’Donovan’s willingness to share her Diamond Medallion rewards when flying Delta.

With friends like that, who needs Priceline? Planes, trains, and automobiles just might keep taking this power-folking trio wherever — and how far — they want to go.

“I see no end date in sight,” O’Donovan said when asked about I’m With Her’s shelf life. “I think we’re all really excited to continue to pursue our solo careers and other projects that we have and other collaborations and other bands that … I think that this band, I certainly hope it continues for as long as it can.”

Watkins, not only agreed, saying, “I think we’re all on the same page,” but seems to have developed her own set of guidelines that other musicians can follow to establish a group dynamic that works.

“We all grew up in musical environments that encouraged collaboration, and so that was valuable, that was something to try and be — a good collaborator, a great harmony singer, a great accompanist,” she said of this trio. “That’s something to aspire to, not just soloing and not just taking the lead. We all grew up in cultures that encouraged that and emphasize that even. So I think that definitely is a good place to start if you’re gonna be in a band.”

The line forms behind I’m With Her. Who’s ready to follow their lead?

Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas