March 8, 2018 at 12:01 PM
Folk supergroup I’m With Her became a band in a backward sort of way. Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins first came together in 2014 for an off-the-cuff performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado.
“It was the first time the three of us had sat down together to even mildly work up anything and it was a little happy awareness, ‘Oh, this is cool, this is special, this sounds great,’ ” Watkins says of their set, which mostly featured covers. “Throughout that day we found ourselves singing together a few more times and after that day we texted each other — it kinda felt like a first date sorta thing, where you check back in: ‘That was fun, right? We should do that again.’ ”
The next logical step would be to start writing songs, right? Instead, the three, who all knew one another casually before that first performance, went on a European tour in early 2015 and played a bunch of festivals doing covers of songs from Nina Simone, Jim Croce and more. (The trio’s name, by the way, predates Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.)
It wasn’t until that summer that they began writing original songs. And it would take until last month for them to release their debut album, “See You Around.”
“What has been really great to learn is not only do we enjoy singing together, but we enjoy working together and arranging together,” Watkins says. “And then to realize after doing a bunch of touring that we like to write together — that was the ring-on-the-finger kinda moment.”
The songs for the album, mostly written during a week-long stint in a Vermont farmhouse, came quickly, Watkins says, because of all the time they had spent arranging covers together.
“We found a rhythm and found a way to work quickly and densely,” she says. “We’re putting it together all at once, so at the end of writing a song, it feels pretty intact.”
“See You Around” is a hypnotic, soothing blend of three voices and multiple instruments, pulling from the women’s various jazz, bluegrass and folk backgrounds. (Producer Ethan Johns is the only other musician on the record.) All three play guitar, with Jarosz adding mandolin, O’Donovan laying down keyboard work and Watkins playing fiddle. At times, their voices seem to blur into one.
“We all have really different voices but even we sometimes, when we’ve been listening back to voice memo arrangements, we thought, ‘Wait, are you singing that part or am I?,’ ” Watkins says. “A lot of times the harmony parts sort of switch and weave around so the person who is singing the high harmony part might be taking lead or lower parts later on in the song, so we can lose track of what’s happening.”
Maybe that’s the secret to their success. Despite all three having healthy solo careers or bands (O’Donovan’s Crooked Still and Watkins’ Nickel Creek), I’m With Her has its own distinct sound.
“We’re not coming from identical backgrounds, so it keeps it really interesting for all of us,” Watkins says. “We all have our own special way of seeing things.”
9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Tue., 7 p.m., sold out.