When Aoife O’Donovan sits down to talk with me about the upcoming album See You Around, it’s clear that she’s here as one-third of the folk sensation I’m With Her (reviewed here). An unusual synchrony permeates the band, evidenced not only by perfect three-part harmonies but also by the mutual admiration of three friends who, as Sara Watkins says, simply “like to do life together.”
FRUK: There aren’t many groups where three strong individuals come together and sort of share the spotlight together. How does it work with you three?
AO: Yeah, I think one of the cool things about I’m With Her is that we have all spent the last several years focusing on our solo acts. We were all working on releases to solo albums. I was working on The Magic Hour, Sarah Jarosz was working on Undercurrent, and Watkins was about to start work on Young in All the Wrong Ways. We came together and left behind the idea that one of us would be the leader. It’s really special to be able to step into a project and have complete equal ownership with two other people involved. We’re a band, not just three individuals each sharing the spotlight with other people singing back up.
FRUK: How does songwriting work for the songs you perform as a trio? Does one person specialize in the lyrics, another in composition, another on instrumentation?
AO: We’ve only written the songs on the album, as well as Little Lies (see below), which came out over the summer. Someone will come to the table with the idea or the start of something and then hand it over.
FRUK: Total trust.
AO: Exactly, that’s the thing that there has been total trust. If someone has an idea that doesn’t fly, it’s easy to just try it and if it doesn’t work, just move on. There’s no extreme attachment to ideas that haven’t been fully fleshed out which is great. It helps to have three people who are all instrumentalist, lyricists, and keen arrangers. One of the first things we did when we started the band was arranging songs that we liked. There are two questions: how will we write this and then how will we play this? Should we have three-part harmony on this one? What you’ll hear on See You Around is that there’s a range. There’s one song that I don’t sing on at all, “Pangea.” It’s funny because, at the start of that, I might have floated the initial idea, but in the end, it didn’t work out for me to sing on it. I think that’s so cool. There’s never a three-part harmony on “I-89.”
FRUK: Each of your signatures is just woven together gorgeously, has there been an evolution of an I’m with Her signature rather than a solo signature?
AO: Yes, I think so. Some people have assumed part of a song is a Jarosz signature, when it’s actually a Watkins thing. It’s better when people can’t tell. There’s definitely a sound that we’re trying to create, but it’s evolving as we’re still in the beginning of the band. It’s exciting to feel that we’re in the beginning because I feel that this band will have a long life, and it’s exciting to work on the next record.
FRUK: See You Around was recorded in a secluded farmhouse in Vermont. Where would you want to record the next record?
AO: Like an all-expenses-paid trip?
AO: Can I say Bali? Somewhere tropical.
FRUK: Do you think that would change the sound of your music?
AO: Sure, I think that does change the sound of your music. If you’re holed up in December writing, that’s going to sound different than if you’re on a tropical island.
FRUK: I think for the sake of creativity; we need to know what I’m With Her would sound like after a retreat in Bali. What have you learned from performing and writing with each other?
AO: I’ve learned so much from writing with Sara and Sarah. I think that it is important to be flexible and confident. When you’re in a band with two other front people, sometimes the insecurity is to feel that you messed something up. To know that each of us is bringing something to the table. It’s important to always be listening. If they miss something, just have the ease to have their back and have the whole band exist as one organism.
FRUK: That makes so much sense listening to the album: my first thought was that you all are excellent listeners. That’s some serious singing, but also some superb listening.
AO: That’s a cool observation because that’s what I always advise when I’m teaching, that’s my number one first piece of advice. Always be a good listener, on the edge of your seat anticipating what’s going to come next and that you can fit into it. I think that’s especially true when you’re doing three-part harmony.
FRUK: What adjectives would you use to describe the ambience you hope to impart to listeners. Imagine someone listening to your music on a train, or at a dinner party, what do you hope they hear on the album?
AO: When I’m listening to this album, I’d hope people are experiencing a sort of cosy ambience, but it’s also reflective. The record is very focused and intimate, but it also has this dark seriousness.
FRUK: Forward sounding and backwards reflecting album at the same time.
AO: Yeah, there’s a lot of hope on the album, juxtaposed with some melancholy and then there’s a little bit of sass and some silliness and some lightheartedness. I think it takes you on a journey. Sonically, the fact that there’s an immediacy to how the vocals were recorded comes through on the album. It sounds like someone is right in the room next to you. That’s something that I want people to get as they’re listening whether live or on headphones.
FRUK: How have your fan bases and the demographics of folk music shifted?
AO: There’s obviously some overlap, but we definitely have a further reach as a group of three. On this tour, we’re playing venues that I would never play on my own, for example. We’re sold out, and I think a part of that is that it’s the combination of the three of us that are getting people out the door. As to the demographics, I think Spotify has been a great way for us to connect with new audiences who might not find us otherwise.
We just did a song on a TV show called Godless, a new series on Netflix. I’m With Her recorded a song “Don’t Forget the Girls of La Belle” that T Bone Burnett wrote. It just aired.
FRUK: That’s cool, is there a dream TV show you would like to be in the background for?
AO: Let’s see, I just watched all of Stranger Things, but I don’t think that we would go quite far enough back for that.
FRUK: I don’t know—I think Wynona Rider would be a total fan of I’m with Her!
Are there any other covers that you have enjoyed, particularly ones at the boundaries of folk music? Your cover of Adele’s “Send My Love” is just so fun. What else is on the horizon?
AO: We’re actually trying to think of another current cover to do. We’ve talked about a Killers cover, or maybe Jim Croce or Bob Dylan. One of my favourite moments with this band was performing Sarah Jarosz’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” that we recorded on an episode of Prairie Home Companion a couple of years ago. That was really fun. There’s just something really special about singing with Sarah and Sara. Sometimes our voices rise and fall at exactly the same moment. It’s chill-inducing.
FRUK: See You Around was recorded in Bath, what was that like?
AO: We came to Box, England, which is the tiniest town in the world. We were there for all of January, holed up in this house, recording with Ethan at Real World Studios in this gorgeous Victorian room. We recorded in a way that none of us had experienced before which is not to be in total isolation but instead three vocal microphones in a row in a room. Ethan and Dom, the engineer, were in the room with us, so it creates this heightened environment for creating music. Usually, when you’re in the studio, you’re on your own in a booth. You have your own vibe with the lighting and temperature the way you like it, and you’re just in your own zone. This was so not that. We were a band, doing this live—right now—playing and singing at the same time. What you hear is what you get at a live show. It’s so cool to then get on stage and just sing all around one microphone. That’s how we played the show when we toured with the Punch Brothers. It will be very different when we go out on tour in a couple of weeks because we’ll have the whole set up with pedal boards and microphones. It’ll be exciting to see a louder live show and help us sonically connect to a bigger crowd.
FRUK: What’s the biggest artistic leap on the album?
AO: “Game to Lose” feels like the biggest leap on the album. Just the way the harmonies are stacked.
FRUK: It sounds like you’re playing one chord on the piano
AO: Exactly. And sometimes when we’re playing it live, it’s so percussive. The way the vocals are, it’s almost like a drum or a bell. I’m really into how “Wild One” came out; I think that’s a haunting moment on the album, and also “Waitsfield.” That middle moment on the album I really love.
FRUK: It has a great arc.
AO: Yeah, and then, of course, we have the closure which is Gillian Welch’s song that was an unreleased unrecorded song. Gillian had given Sara Watkins some old demos that they were going through with some ideas. When we were first getting together in Phoenix, several years ago in 2014, we worked up a few songs. We recorded “Muddy Waters” which was our first recording. We took band photos and decided we were going to be a band, and we were waiting in the lobby of the hotel, and Sara Watkins pulled up her computer and played us that song “A Hundred Miles”, and we thought, that’s a great song. We played that song live in 2015 and then when we went to the studio we attempted to record it the way we had played it live, and it didn’t work. We rethought our approach, and Ethan Johns played the pedalboard on the intro to that. He opens it up and makes way for us on that. It’s such a beautiful contribution from him; he was a great producer to work with.
I’M WITH HER UK 2018 TOUR DATES:
Jan 28 Glasgow, UK (Celtic Connections) Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (and Rory Butler)
Jan 30 London, UK @ Bush Hall
May 11 Belfast, UK @ Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival
May 12 Dublin, Ireland @ Whelan’s
May 14 Gateshead, UK @ Sage Two
May 15 Manchester, UK @ Band On The Wall
May 16 Bristol, UK @ The Station
May 17 London, UK @ Union Chapel
This interview has been edited and condensed.