“We like to joke that when you’re touring in a band with all women, you tend to have less deli meat [backstage],” Aoife O’Donovan says of her collaboration with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. “The fact that we’re all women is not really a huge part of it necessarily for me. It’s just really nice to be on tour with your friends.”
The trio’s name “I’m With Her” probably sounds familiar, though the folk-circuit peers who first sang together at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival adopted it after an early tour—more than a year before Hillary Clinton used the same tag as a slogan for her 2016 presidential campaign.
“There are way worse associations that one could have had,” O’Donovan says of the moniker. “It’s for feelings of camaraderie and the sense that we’re all in this together. … If there are people who see the name I’m With Her and they’re immediately turned off, I’m sorry for them and hope they give it a chance.”
Rightly so, those who dismiss the band based on its name are losing out, depriving themselves of the sweet harmonic synergy of a supergroup that blends Americana, bluegrass and both traditional and contemporary folk.
After growing up around Irish music, Newton native O’Donovan, 35, co-founded the progressive string band Crooked Still and recorded with artists from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas. Watkins, 37, launched bluegrass-pop pioneers Nickel Creek with her brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile and toured with folk-rockers the Decemberists. And the 27-year-old Jarosz—who graduated from New England Conservatory in 2013, exactly a decade after O’Donovan—became a Grammy-winning solo artist.
But when the three singers rehearsed backstage for their impromptu debut at Telluride, O’Donovan says, “It was definitely a pinch-me moment. We knew that we had to continue it.”
I’m With Her plays the Green River Festival at Greenfield Community College on July 15.
Part of that connection was instinctual. “It just felt great to have that immediate ease of a blend and ease of filling [space] without saying who was going to do what,” she says. “Everybody falls into their natural roles. And that’s really special.”
The chemistry continued through the recording of their February debut See You Around, and a new tour is bookended by dates at North Truro’s Payomet Performing Arts Center on July 6 and 16 and includes a July 8 stop at Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and a July 15 set at Greenfield’s Green River Festival.
Far from a festival song swap, See You Around presents a winsome set of tunes with shared writing credits, plus a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles.” “We were wary of having it be just another project where everybody sings a song and everybody else backs up the other person,” O’Donovan says.
In addition to their traded vocals and guitars, Watkins plays fiddle and ukulele, Jarosz mixes mandolin and banjo, and O’Donovan adds keyboards to the album, as does co-producer Ethan Johns. That multi-instrumental weave makes the trio sound full in a live setting, whether huddled around a single microphone or separately amplified to accommodate electric guitars.
Songs on See You Around revolve around themes of travel and loneliness, which O’Donovan says was unintentional if understandable: “It’s kind of moving on and moving past stuff, physically traveling and emotionally traveling, and it makes sense when you look at how we spend our lives.”
In fact, after writing in Los Angeles and Vermont, the group flew to England to record at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, where on the first day they spotted Gabriel walking through the house with Sting. “I love making records in isolation,” O’Donovan says. “We were virtually sequestered in an old farmhouse with very little outside influence. … The first weekend we were, ‘We have to get out of here,’ and we took the train to London, which was really fun. But we’d come back and hunker down and get work done.”
Music was always a social experience for the daughter of Brian O’Donovan, producer/host of A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH radio. “When I was a kid, I would never want to go to bed when my parents were having music parties,” she says. “I used to love the romantic idea of staying up all night and singing songs.” ◆
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