Interview: Sarah Jarosz (I’m With Her)

I’m With Her is a group consisting of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins. All three are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists and have their own solo careers. After an impromptu performance together at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2014, they realised they had something special. Sharing many awards between them, including three Grammys, they have released nine solo albums to date and co-founded two influential bands (Nickel Creek and Crooked Still). As I’m With Her, they have previously released a single and EP and their much anticipated first album ‘See You Around is due out on 16th February. The album was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath and co-produced by Ethan Johns with the band. I’m With Her were in the UK for a short visit showcasing the forthcoming album and they will be returning to the UK in May for a full tour.  AUK’s Keith Clifford sat down with Sarah Jarosz to discuss the new album and all things I’m With Her.

The album has got a very warm and intimate feel about it and I understand that you recorded in a room together, more like a live performance, which is not what a lot of artists do these days. Was it a conscious decision to do that?
Yeah, it was. The live capturing, live feel of it was a big part of what Ethan Johns brought to the table and was a big part of why we wanted to work with him in the first place because he seems to have a keen sense of how to capture that energy. I think that was important to us, being a new band, to capture that energy about how exciting it is to be making music together. We were literally in one room together, it’s called the Wood Room, in Real World Studios outside of Bath in a little village called Box. We lived there for three weeks, ate every meal together and recorded in this room, with no headphones which for me was an extremely different recording experience than I’d ever done before. In the past recording was very isolating, kind of closed off in a little room with headphones. Sometimes you’re just doing your part or overdubbing the rest, so this was a really cool experience to just be facing each other in a small little circle and recording pretty much all live.

How did the decision come about to record the album in England and did that make the recording process different that you weren’t able to go home or go out to a usual restaurant or something you’d normally do to unwind at the end of a session?
It really was just because we wanted to work with Ethan and he has a family and wanted to work close to home. I think it was really important for us to not be in any of our respective homes. Anytime you do that when you’re working on something it brings a greater sense of focus to the work because as you were saying you can’t go out or see your friends or make plans with people and especially in Box, there’s practically a gas station and a pub in that town, it’s teeny tiny. So pretty much all we did every day was have breakfast together, record, have lunch together, record, have dinner together. It was really like living together, so there was a keen sense of focus every day for three weeks.

I guess that ultimately that only brought you closer together as a group? When I’ve seen you play together, from the looks and smiles and the jokes you throw each other, it’s clear that it’s not just the music but that you get on well as individuals and even if you weren’t playing music you would hang around together.
Yep, absolutely. I think that’s been something since the beginning of this band. We have purposefully put ourselves into situations where we are living together. One of the things we got excited about early on is that we noticed that we operate on a similar time schedule. When we were writing in Vermont for the record, we were waking up, having breakfast together, working pretty much all day and then stopping and saying ok, let’s have dinner, let’s hang out and I think that bonding time has been really important to making this feel like a solidified band and not just three solo artists doing a side project.

As three separate solo artists coming together to record, is it difficult working with your peers and writing collaboratively?
I wouldn’t say difficult at all. Part of why we’re so psyched about this band is that it’s been pretty   seamless in terms of discovering that we sing really well together, discovering then that we have a nice palette of instruments and then discovering that we work up other people’s songs really well together and then from there the writing process came really organically to us. I think that’s a testament to our willingness from the beginning to be really patient and slow with this process of making a band. That goes back to what I was saying that yes, we do all have solo careers but from the beginning we never wanted this to be a ‘oh it’s a supergroup or a side project that will go out for a month and that’s it’. We saw the potential of it really being a band and that’s part of the reason we wanted to give the band its own name and not just have our own names because it gives it more of an identity as its own thing.

You touched on the fact that you are all vocalists and multi-instrumentalists, so how do you decide who will sing each song and who will play what instruments? Does it evolve as you work out the track?
It kind of depends song to song. I’d say generally, nine times out of ten one of us will bring a snippet of an idea, a verse or a chorus or a riff, some little seed of an idea and more often than not, we’ll play it, talk about it, then one idea would lead to another conversation about any number of things and then that conversation would lead back into finishing the song. I guess if I were to bring in the first seed of an idea, it’s probably likely that I might wind up singing the so-called lead part on it but that’s wasn’t always the case. There were many times on the record when someone would have an idea and someone else would wind up singing it. It’s actually fun to listen back to the record and we’ve all talked about this. It’s not really even clear, oh that’s this person and that’s this person. It feels like just all of us as a unit and I’m really proud of the record because of that. It feels really unified in that way in terms of the actual writing.

When you all first sat down and sang together, could you hear yourselves just how good your harmonies were blended together?
Yeah, we did. I think that was the first thing we noticed of any of the aspects of being a musician playing with someone else, to a point where when we were writing together I would go home afterwards and listen to the voice memos on my phone and not then be able to tell who it was listening to ourselves. I’d be like, is that me or is that Aoife or is that Watkins, so I think that was kind of a sign that like, ok, this was pretty cool.

So was it just a happy happenstance that you wanted to sit down and play together or did you have an inkling that you would blend so well together?
We’ve all known each other for so long in different musical situations and had sung together. Well, actually I don’t know if I’d ever sung with Watkins before. I’d played with her but I’m not sure if we’d ever actually sung together. I guess in jams and stuff but not in an actual performance setting. Aoife and I had definitely sung a duet together, so I always knew that was a special connection that I felt with Aoife musically and I knew that Aoife and Sara had done some touring together. It was the Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2014 that it just ended up being the three of us singing together and I remember the moment. It was one of those special, magical moments that you can’t really plan for and we all noticed it and it prodded us to want to make it a band.

You mentioned about working up other people’s songs and you’ve performed and recorded various covers. Last night you played Adele’s ‘Send My Love (To Your New Lover)’ and you have a Gillian Welch cover on the new album. Do you choose a song because you like it or because you think you can turn it and make it in your own style?
I think it’s both. Most of the time it’s because you really like a song and want to play it but sometimes there’s songs that you hear and it might not even be your favourite thing but you hear it and you’re like, I can hear that in this other way being really cool and you feel you can bring something original to it. With the Adele song, I was finishing recording my last record, Undercurrent and it was maybe one of the last days in the studio when the Adele record came out and Gary Paczosa who I work with has two young daughters who I’ve been really close to my whole life and kind of watched grow up. I remember we were having a dance party with them, listening to that record and that song came on and I was about to go write with Aoife and Sara the next week and that song came on and I loved the song, but it was almost more like this would be so fun to do with Aoife and Sara. I just heard the harmonies and I heard it being broken down to just the bare bones of what the song is because it’s a big production on the record and I think I mentioned it when we were driving up to Vermont to write. Nothing really happened immediately and then like a year later, like this last summer, we were on tour and it kind of came up again and we worked it up and it’s been a blast.

On the album and live, there seems to be a collective sigh of relief when you finish the track ‘Waitsfield’  Was that a particularly tricky track and you’re overjoyed to get through it or what was that about?
I wouldn’t say it’s tricky. The spirit behind that song is it’s kind of silly in a way. I don’t think it was written to be smart or technically impressive or any of those reasons that one might compose something. I think that the spirit was we were halfway through the writing process and kind of had a bunch of melancholy songs or whatever and we were kind of like, well we also have this instrumental side of our musicianship that we want to show and it can kind of be this lift, this moment. So I think in the studio, the sigh at the end was because that was the first or second take that we’d done and we’d been working on the arrangement, really woodshedding it that day and the days leading up to it and it was kind of like we were having trouble making it all the way through without being like, should that change or should this part go into here and just figuring out the arrangement for it. The sigh and laughter at the end I think is a combination of making it all the way through without having those changes or someone messing up a part, which wasn’t really happening, I feel it was more arrangement based but the sighs we like, we did it. I think Sara even says at the end, “we did it guys”.  Also, that was one of the songs we did around one mike in the studio. Most of the recording, we had three separate mikes and we were facing each other but that one was actually just around one mike, so we were standing really close together and Ethan was sitting really close too and I think the laughter is just the silly nature of the song.

You mentioned that you did not want this to be seen as just a side project, so is I’m With Her something that you are looking to continue long term and your solo careers maybe take a back seat?
This definitely is all of our focus right now. None of us are pursuing our own records or anything and this is what will be taking up the majority of our time for the foreseeable year at least, hopefully a little longer. We’re all involved in so many different musical collaborations, including our own projects, I think it’s inevitable that that will continue to happen after this record and we’ll probably go our own ways and do other things for sure. I think this has become really important and special to all of us, so I think we’ll see what happens over the course of this next year with the touring and hopefully, it can be something that can exist for a long, long time. I think we all have a special place in our hearts for it.

You all come from different parts of America but have come together with a love of the same music. Do you listen to a lot of music when you’re touring?
Yeah, we do but we love a lot of different music. When I was young and first getting into this music, I was pretty much exclusively listening to Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien and Nickel Creek but I’ve also always listened to lots of different things. Right now, the only thing I’m listening to is Billy Joel and Bob Dylan and like late Bob Dylan. I don’t think any of us sit around and exclusively listen to folk music. We share a love of a lot of different things. When we were writing the record, we were really into the Vampire Weekend record, so it’s varied. I’m kind of in a phase where I’m dipping back a little but It’s always changing. For me, I am personally not a playlists listener. I know that’s a big thing nowadays for people to listen to a playlist. The way I listen to music is, I’ll get into one song and then just go down a rabbit hole with that artist and listen to just a record. I still really like listening to music that way and getting excited about it that way and not just listening to individual songs.

Finally, what’s your favourite track on the album or does it change?
It changes. See You Around, I really love. Sonically I love the arc of how that turned out on the recording. Sometimes in the past, I’ll write a song and love the song and then for whatever reason the way that it winds up getting recorded just doesn’t capture the energy or the feeling of why I loved it when I finished writing it. I guess in general I love this record so much because I feel like it really was successful in capturing the energy behind these songs and behind us becoming a band together. So I guess See You Around has kind of been my favourite but it’s always changing, and I still love I-89, that’s a really fun one and Close It Down. I think maybe those three right now but I think it’s going to change.

See You Around is released on February 16th on Rounder Records

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