Interview: I’m With Her’s Aoife O’Donovan Explains the Trio’s Long Road to ‘See You Around’
People have called I'm With Her a supergroup, but Aoife O'Donovan doesn't think of her trio with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz that way.
"I think those girls are super," O'Donovan tells The Boot with a laugh, "but I think supergroup is a scary term because it implies we're late-career artists. We all see our careers as having a long way to go, so, to me, it feels silly to call ourselves that, but I take it as a compliment."
I'm With Her's debut disc, See You Around, dropped Friday (Feb. 16), but all three of the musicians that comprise the trio have extensive solo careers under their belts: Jarosz has roots in bluegrass and four solo albums to her name, the most recent of which, 2016's Undercurrent, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart and netted the singer two Grammy Awards. Watkins, a fiddler and ukulele player as well as a singer-songwriter, founded the bluegrass group Nickel Creek with her brother Sean Watkins and friend Chris Thile in 1989, and went on to have a successful solo career, too. For her part, O'Donovan fronts the string band Crooked Still.
"I think those girls are super, but I think supergroup is a scary term ..."
The bluegrass community is rife with impromptu onstage jam sessions between performers, so it's fitting that the three musicians first came together at a festival: 2014's Telluride Bluegrass Festival, specifically.
"All of us are very comfortable performing live," O'Donovan explains. "It was really beautiful to come around one microphone with Sara and Sarah and just make music together, to feel the swell of our voices and how locked in together we were."
In live shots, the trio is often pictured standing in a semi-circle, as connected to each other as they are to the audience. When it came time to record their debut disc, the band found themselves in a similar set-up in the studio. I'm With Her traveled to Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, located in a small British village near Bath, in order to record with producer Ethan Johns.
"That's where [Johns] likes to record," O'Donovan shares. "It's close to his house, and he has two small kids and can go home and sleep in his own bed every night."
She adds, "It was an interesting first 24 hours. When we showed up in England, he had the room set up for us in a way we were not aware we were going to be recording: We were sitting in a circle, with no headphones. I was terrified! I was like, 'Wait, what? There's no booth? I don't have my own zone? What if I mess up?' It forced us to give in and trust."
That trust produced a record that captures the intimacy of a live show, and showcases the close harmonies that have been a hallmark of the group since the outset of their work together.
"It was really beautiful to come around one microphone ... and just make music together, to feel the swell of our voices and how locked in together we were."
Though See You Around dropped on Friday, it was actually recorded two years prior, in January of 2016. The reasons for the delay are purely logistical: As they wrapped up recording the project, all three members of I'm With Her were looking to releasing solo projects.
"The timing was that we got everything done for I'm With Her in time to focus on our solo projects, while knowing we were going to come back from those cycles," O'Donovan explains. "The thing about having a record and sitting on it for that amount of time is that if you can still stand to listen to it two years later, that's saying something."
Lucky for Jarosz, O'Donovan and Watkins, they could.
"We recently did a couple of listening parties; we basically invited some friends, and some press, and basically just listened to the record, like you'd do with a film screening," O'Donovan shares. "I'd never done anything like that before, and seeing people's reactions was really cool."
Before they began to co-write, the trio played other people's songs, and See You Around provides a nod to those origins with its closing cover, "Hundred Miles" by Gillian Welch.
"Sara Watkins had gotten ahold of unreleased Gillian Welch tunes, and "Hundred Miles" was the song that spoke to all of us," O'Donovan recalls. "I just love that song so much. It's a song of travel, it's a song of farewell, it's a song of hello, and I think it's a great way to end the record."
"We hope this reaches you regardless of your gender identity or experience."
Along with Welch and a few other notable other musicians (such as Alison Krauss), female bluegrass artists are the minority in what is still very much a "boy's club" genre. To have a bluegrass record released by not one but three women who have been successful in the bluegrass community inevitably finds I'm With Her branded as a "feminist" band. (It's an association only strengthened by the fact that the group happens to share their name with Hilary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign slogan.)
"It wasn't a conscious decision to make a feminist record," O'Donovan says. "I definitely consider myself a feminist and am excited to be living in the 'age of the woman', so to speak. But what we were going for in the record was to tell a story, and however you interpret that is up to you.
"My hope is that people will see I'm With Her not as a band of women, but as a band -- as musicians," she adds. "We hope this reaches you regardless of your gender identity or experience."
See You Around is available via the trio's website.
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