Three Voices and the Truth

A trio of music’s brightest—Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O’Donovan—find perfect harmony together

Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

From left: I'm With Her's Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O'Donovan in Los Angeles.

On a mid-November day, Sara Watkins is pushing her infant daughter in a stroller near her home in Los Angeles. Across the country in New York City, Aoife O’Donovan has been home from the hospital for less than forty-eight hours with her newborn girl. And a few miles away on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Sarah Jarosz, who at twenty-six is several years younger than her bandmates, wants no part of child rearing for now.

But while only two of them are actual new mothers, I’m With Her is the brainchild of all three. Individually, each member of the trio is one of Americana music’s most respected artists, with three Grammys and more than a dozen nominations among them. A singer-songwriter and fiddle player, Watkins was a founding member of the progressive bluegrass pioneers Nickel Creek, while O’Donovan plays guitar and is the cofounder and lead singer of the acoustic group Crooked Still; each of them has also gone on to successful solo careers. A child prodigy mandolin player, Jarosz has released four acclaimed albums under her own name. All of which makes I’m With Her’s forthcoming full-length debut, See You Around, one of roots music’s most hotly anticipated releases.

The three had long crossed paths on the touring circuit, but they hadn’t played together onstage until an impromptu performance during the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They worked up a couple of songs in a backstage bathroom at the Sheridan Opera House and quickly sensed an unusual symbiosis. “There was some magical energy,” O’Donovan says. “From the beginning it felt like there was equal ownership. It wasn’t someone leading it and everyone else following along, which is really rare.”

Wanting to keep exploring that shared musical landscape, they performed a series of shows in 2015, which led to a short writing stint later that year in Los Angeles, and then an eight-day powwow at a farmhouse in rural Vermont. Following a morning run or yoga session, they would write new material together, expanding on the first line of a story, a wisp of a melody, or just a random thought. After lunch—kimchi soup and bread baked by O’Donovan were favorites—they’d work at refining songs until the evening, before finally decompressing in a hot tub while sipping on a Heady Topper, a coveted double IPA that’s almost impossible to find outside Vermont. “It’s the magic sauce,” quips O’Donovan.

Whatever the secret, the results are mesmerizing, with shimmering harmonies that coo ethereally on the tender ballad “Wild One” and crackle with playful dynamics on the roof-raising “Game to Lose” and “Overland,” a rollicking ode to cross-country rail travel. And though each musician is known for prowess on a particular instrument, See You Around finds them sampling from a smorgasbord of new gear. On the slow-burning highlight “I-89,” Watkins plays a slithery descending bass line while O’Donovan peels off squeals of electric guitar and Jarosz picks at an oddly tuned banjo. They recorded the album in England with the producer Ethan Johns (who’s worked with Paul McCartney and Ryan Adams), playing live and singing around one microphone. “Sometimes it’s hard to love a song when it’s only you, but when you have bandmates it’s easier,” Watkins says. “I can’t think of one thing on the record where I wished we had done something different.”

Bluegrass is defined by unique collaborations and artists often reinterpreting older classics. But the desire to work up fresh songs was always at the forefront for See You Around. “We want to be perceived as a band, not as a supergroup doing other people’s material,” Jarosz says.

“When we toured, all we did was covers,” adds Watkins. “We got all of that out because we learned things about what we want to do and what we want to sound like before we actually started writing songs.”

The chemistry between them is striking, so much so that See You Around feels a lot more like a kickoff than a one-off. “Writing together was really seamless,” Watkins says. “We’ve all been in collaborations where it doesn’t work out, so when it does, it’s like, whoa.”