When Sarah Jarosz, Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) O’Donovan and Sara Watkins bring their relatively new band I’m With Her to Burlington’s Flynn Center Monday, the show will be a homecoming of sorts for the standout roots musicians, who wrote much of the material for their stellar debut album while hunkered down in a farmhouse in Warren.
“See You Around,” released in February, is a stunning and gorgeously stripped-down album of 11 original songs and one cover (of Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles”), which delivers proof positive that with I’m With Her, the sum is indeed greater than its impressive parts.
Produced by Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, Paul McCartney) at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in a tiny English village near Bath, the songs “tell various stories but share one commonality — sheer beauty,” according to PopMatters.
“Whether it involves the words, the instrumentation or the voices in perfect harmony, the album is filled with some of the sweetest sounds you’ll hear all year.”
All highly accomplished and beloved roots artists in their own right, the now tightknit trio came together for a storied, off-the-cuff performance at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The stellar results inspired the musicians to start a trio, I’m With Her — which adopted the name before it became associated with Hillary Clinton’s presidential run — which fast become known for its distinctive renditions of cover songs.
O’Donovan, 35, is a New York City-based singer and guitarist from Massachusetts, who made a name for herself in the progressive bluegrass group Crooked Still before launching a solo career. Jarosz, 27, is a Texas-born New York City-based singer and multi-instrumentalist who has fast become one of the most compelling performers in roots music. And Watkins, 37, is a Los Angeles-based singer and fiddle player best known as a member of the multi-platinum selling trio Nickel Creek.
We caught up with Watkins on Monday, during a tour stop in Columbus, Ohio. Following are some excerpts from the interview.
Q: How was the experience of writing much of your album in the farmhouse in Warren?
A: I think it was really important for us to be there and to live there together. I live on the West Coast, and Jarosz and Aoife live in New York. And it was just very crucial for us to hunker down and focus, and dig into our lives and what was important for each of us at that time. And those things came out in the songwriting.
Q: I understand you became big fans of Heady Topper.
A: Yes (laughs). I believe Jarosz and Aoife were well familiar with it. I had not become familiar with it. But there was a little store about a 10-minute walk from the house that we went to twice to get our allotment. And that was a nice little treat at the end of the day, for sure.
Q: The songs “I-89” and “Waitsfield” are standout songs, and certainly seem to be references to Vermont locales.
A: Yes, you’re right. The one excursion in our writing time was to Waitsfield. I believe we got some tacos … on the way out of town. And “I-89” … we got stuck on the road to the farmhouse, because we did not have snow tires and the road was icy. And we lost service. And Google took us on a route that was not advised without snow tires. And one of your nice residents helped us make a many-point turn (laughs), and guided us to the highway since we had no service. And we avoided sliding off of the mountain, thanks to his kindness. And then took I-89.
Q: Any other songs with Vermont connections?
A: I think those are the two main ones. But, certainly, the beautiful locale in early December made its way into a lot of our songs in one way or another.
Q: How did you end up recording the album at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, and what was that experience like?
A: We recorded there because our producer Ethan Johns loves it. Much like we were hunkered down at the house in Warren, Vermont, we hunkered down at this studio in a tiny town called Box, England. We lived there on the campus where the studio was, and ate all our meals there. And it felt similarly hibernative, if that’s a word (laughs). We were working, we were focused, and I think that’s a common theme for the making of this album: a little bit of isolation, and focus. And we really got down to what our goals were for the album, and for this band.
Q: What were your goals for the album?
A: Our goals were sonic, largely, and … we wanted the album to sound like we do. We didn’t want there to be a ton of extra sounds that were later, then overdubbed — although there was some overdubbing on the album, the vast majority of it was just performed at the studio. And that’s something that Ethan Johns really specializes in. He’s incredibly good at capturing dynamics and performances, and I think we’re all really, really pleased with the outcome.
Q: What’s it been like playing and touring together as a group?
A: We love being a band. It’s a real treat. We’ve all been part of various collaborations, to different extents, and certainly all toured for our own projects. And I think we really enjoy getting to share the highs and lows with each other, and be part of a team.
Q: Any thoughts about Vermont, in general, and about performing here in Burlington?
A: I love Burlington. I’m very much looking forward to coming back, and … being in the northeast in the fall is really special to me. I love getting a taste of autumn, and a little pre-holiday spirit in. And I’m looking forward to taking these songs back to — in what is in many ways — their home.