By Brian F. Johnson
Musicians might have life-long ties to their band mates, but as soon as summer festival season hits and they find themselves “at camp,” they tend to jump from band to band like a cheap radio searching for a signal. Just like summer romance though, seldom do those pairings last after the tents have been folded and put away.
But for one group of women, 2014’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival sparked a relationship that has not only continued, but is starting to grow a life of its own.
Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still and the Goat Rodeo Sessions had all been paired up for a workshop at the famed festival, and they all went into it thinking it would be just another summer musical fling. But something in that grouping seemed to click beyond any of their initial expectations.
“We had gotten together for this workshop that we were all on, and it was really fun,” said Sara Watkins in a recent interview with The Marquee. “It worked out well enough that we were asked to do a night set that evening and so we worked out a little 20-minute set of each other’s songs that we could all play on. We’ve all known each other and been good friends for a long time, and you know how it is in the scene that people are always like ‘We should do this, you know, actually do stuff together,’ but often the time isn’t allowing. So we’ve all said those things before, but this time it really just felt a little different. The next day there was a little follow up text going around between the three of us, just gauging the temperature of interest between all three of us. We were all kind of like ‘I’m into this, are you into it? Are you sure?’”
As it turned out, all three of the musicians were down and while they parted ways at the end of the festival weekend, they reconvened in the fall to work up more songs for the project that they were loosely calling I’m With Her.
Not only did they work out some material together — mostly covers of their favorite artists — Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan also started to look at the project as a fun diversion and worthy endeavor in its own right. “It was all about the timing and the chemistry — the things that are so often out of our hands,” said Watkins. “We’re each between records this year, so we’ve been recording solo records and that’s given us the time off the road to play in and explore this project. So the timing was just perfect.”
Over a three-day period last fall, the trio lived together at O’Donovan’s home in Brooklyn, working out songs, and on the last day they hit the studio to record a 2-song 7” that would give people some sort of taste about what the collaboration was going to sound like. Officially released this May, the vinyl features the John Hiatt tune “Crossing Muddy Waters” as well as an a cappella version of Andy Stroud’s “Be My Husband.”
But long before that recording was put to vinyl, the trio was making other plans, and in late January they set out on a European and U.K. tour that would go on to really solidify the group. “We did Switzerland and Barcelona and then spent the rest of the time in the U.K.,” said Watkins. “It was like camp with just the three of us in a station wagon. Aoife drove and we did everything together. We enjoyed it so much. Our friendship, combined with the mutual appreciation for what each other brings to the table is what is making this really fun.”
Watkins also said that in addition to being friends and compatible musicians, the women are all at a point in their lives and careers where they’re ideal partners for one another. “It’s been a while since we’ve been in this position of starting a band of equals,” she explained. “We’re at a point in life though where we know how to be better teammates, we know how to be better leaders and I think when you’ve done something for a little while you get a grip on what really matters and all of those things help you be a better band mate.”
In late-June, early-July I’m With Her — which had only just recently accepted their temporary moniker as their official name — reconvened to, as Watkins put it, “shack up again for four or five days” and rehearse new material for their summer shows. She said that the group still plans on doing a lot of material by other songwriters, but that they will also be incorporating some solo work by each member.
I’m With Her still doesn’t have any official plans to record an album, but Watkins said that the intent is certainly there and that they’re simply waiting until their sound is solidified. “One of the reasons we didn’t record more in New York in the fall is that I don’t think it would have been that great,” Watkins said. “You learn how to sing together. You learn how to play together. It’s not just something that happens when you put a couple people together in a room — not very often anyway. But we’re going to tour a lot this summer and we’ll have the chance to write and dig in and discover and figure out how to make the sound that this band is going to make.”
I’m With Her
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