One way of looking at I’m With Her is that it’s a feminist folk supergroup. But ask Sara Watkins—the former Nickel Creek fiddler who’s one third of the band, along with Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan—and she might suggest that it’s more of a songwriting workshop on wheels.
Most of the time, when people with preexisting careers get together they’re bringing finished or nearly finished songs to the table. But the three multi-instrumentalists in I’m With Her prefer to share the writing more equally—and the results, as can be heard on the group’s luminous debut, See You Around, are all the stronger for it.
“Generally, it’s a pretty even level of contribution from all of us,” Watkins explains, reached at home in Los Angeles. “If we’re not starting from scratch, we’ll generally start with a theme that comes from one of us, or a tune, and maybe we’ll have an idea of a chorus or a rhyme or a hook or a chord progression. So we’ll start with the common ground of that idea, assuming everybody is excited about it, and then build it up from there.”
This method, she contends, extracts the best from each individual musician through what sounds like a combination of emotional support and editorial rigour.
“One thing that I like about the cowriting process is that it often requires you to explain yourself in a way that benefits a lyric,” Watkins says. “When you have to explain yourself to your cowriters and say ‘You know, what I’m actually trying to say is this,’ in plainspoken English without worrying about rhyme or rhythm, a lot of times you can get to the heart of the matter in a way that I might not, were I just writing by myself.”
It’s not a difficult path to navigate, she adds, but it does take more effort than the group’s remarkable harmony singing. That they had a sonic connection was obvious to all three performers the very first time they set foot together on-stage. (A year and a half, the members of I’m With Her like to point out, before Hillary Clinton adopted their name as the slogan for her 2016 presidential run.)
“One of the things that attracted us to each other is that we all liked how it felt when we sang together,” Watkins says. “You know, there’s a certain little gleam of joy when you sing with people and you get a nice blend going—and that happened right away for us.”
That celebratory sparkle might be one reason why Watkins, Jarosz, and O’Donovan plan to continue as I’m With Her, even as their solo careers burgeon. (Jarosz won two Grammy Awards for her 2016 release Undercurrent; O’Donovan continues to work with her progressive bluegrass band Crooked Still; and Watkins and her guitar-playing brother Sean organize regular Watkins Family Hour sessions with a host of Los Angeles luminaries.) But there might also be something to the notion that resilience is not only one of their shared lyrical themes, but a powerful motivating force.
“It’s a goal, anyway, for anything alive—to keep on being alive,” Watkins says thoughtfully, noting that other observers have generally identified travel as a more prominent motif in the trio’s songs. “A lot of our resilience is set in the metaphor of moving on, or trying to make your life a better place, physical moving and walking. But I think you’ve identified the core of it, which is perseverance. And I think that’s something that everyone struggles with at some point in their life—the need to remind themselves that they want to and need to keep going, and the need to work harder to try and make life what you want it to be.”
I’m With Her plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (September 30).