Three of my favorite musicians in the world of folk, roots and Americana are all in a band together, and they’ve released one of my favorite albums of the year. I’m still in a blissful state of disbelief that the supergroup I’m With Her exists at all, and the fact that it’s headlining at the State Theatre is almost more than I can handle.
I’m close to counting down the hours until the moment that Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan walk out onto that stage and start playing songs from their “See You Around” record, released in February.
Watkins, 37, is a singer and fiddle player and one-third of Nickel Creek along with her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, and mandolin player and singer Chris Thile. The band has released six albums since 1993 and won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album in 2002 for “This Side.”
Singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, 35, is a member of the bands Crooked Still and Sometymes Why, and altogether, the two acts have released six studio albums, one live album and an EP. O’Donovan’s solo career has taken center stage the past few years, however, with the release of the gorgeous albums “Fossils” and “In the Magic Hour,” along with a pair of EPs and a live album.
Jarosz, 27, is a singer-songwriter who has released four albums since 2009. Last year, her album “Undercurrent” won a Grammy Award for best folk album, and the song “House of Mercy” won one for best American roots performance. Point being, these three women were already doing quite well for themselves, but then fate intervened.
The beginnings of I’m With Her (a name that pre-dates the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign) sparked in 2014 after an impromptu performance that summer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Within months, I’m With Her was off to the races and started releasing singles, including the two-song EP “Crossing Muddy Waters/Be My Husband” and a jaw-dropping live version of Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).”
In December 2015, the three women holed up in a Vermont farmhouse for a week and wrote the songs for “See You Around,” which was recorded in 2016 in England.
My current favorite song on “See You Around” is “Wild One” though it frequently changes.
A couple of days ago, I spoke on the telephone to Jarosz, who filled me in about the making of “See You Around” and the history of the band. Jarosz has lived in Manhattan’s Upper West Side since graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston a little over five years ago.
Q: With the exception of the cover of Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles,” all the songs on “See You Around” were written by the three of you. What did that process look like?
A: Each of us would bring in little seeds of ideas to the table and then kind of talk about what each seed meant. It’s great to co-write with Sara and Aoife because it’s an extremely open dialogue between the three of us. It was really easy to have soul-bearing conversations, to really get to the bottom of what each of these songs means. I appreciate that about co-writing, that doesn’t always happen when you’re writing by yourself. So that was great, especially when we were in Vermont. We just had a lot of time to really talk through the stories of the songs. Other times, two of us would go off and start an idea then we’d all come back, the three of us, later in the day and then write together.
Q: The songs don’t have lead vocalists in the traditional sense, more like “lead-ish” with heavy harmonies. Would you figure out on a case-by-case basis who would take lead on each song?
A: It depends on the song. A lot of times the person who would bring in the initial idea would wind up singing the lead-ish parts. But that wasn’t always the case either. “Pangaea” originally started out as an idea that Aoife and I started together and then she doesn’t sing on that song anymore. We would play around with the vocal blends and see what would work best for each song.
Q: Can you tell me how it came to be that you worked with producer Ethan Johns (Laura Marling, Paul McCartney, Ray LaMontagne, Ryan Adams) and recorded “See You Around” at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the village of Box, England?
A: We were kind of throwing around names of producers that we were interested in working with, and Ethan was the one that we initially agreed on from the beginning. Sara had met and worked with him briefly before, but Aoife and I had never met him. We had one FaceTime call with him, and that was the first time that we got to meet him and chat about flying over there and a little bit of what to expect.
Q: What was it like during those three weeks you spent there making the record?
A: It was very secluded, nothing else really around, and I think it was important for the recording process. Us being a brand new band and those songs having only existed for about a month, it was really mentally important for all of us to kind of be on neutral ground and away from all of our domains to be able to really just put out heads together and focus on the record.
Q: As the election draws closer, do you ever get political as a band? Asked another way, how are you all dealing with the current political climate?
A: I wouldn’t say there’s a moment when we’re overtly talking about it on stage, but, you know, I think it would be hard to be a human in this day and age and not be affected by everything that’s going on. So I think at the root of it all, we’re all witnessing and reading about what’s going on in the world and you know, you need to be affected by it, otherwise you’re just being too closed off. I think at the root of it all, it is affecting the way we perform or like the spirit behind what might be going into a performance or even into writing a song. But in terms of actually talking about it, that’s not something that we’ve done up to this point, which is not to say it wouldn’t be something down the road.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about being in a band with Sara and Aoife?
A: For me, up until the beginning of this band, I’ve only ever done tours under my own name and performed my solo stuff, so it comes at a really nice time in the trajectory of things to be in a band for the first time. Watkins calls it “doing life together” and I think we do life together well and we care about a lot of the same things and have similar priorities. When you’re around people every day, that stuff is important, and it just feels really great to feel like you’re part of a team, and we’re carrying the load together. I feel really grateful for it.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11.
WHERE: State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $30 to $45 reserved seating
TICKETS & INFO: statetheatreportland.com