Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz first played together in a bathroom at a bluegrass festival a few years ago, and immediately realised the musical harmony they created was something special. Soon after they formed a group, adopted the name I’m With Her, playing shows and eventually finding time to write songs.
Then something strange happened. Purely by coincidence the band name became the slogan for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Overnight they were a hashtag. For a project that had barely begun to suddenly be associated with something so politically significant must have been surreal. The band themselves appear to be quick to distance themselves from the connection, but at the same time it would have been easy enough for them to record under a different name. ‘I’m With Her’ now reads like a declaration of unity and I’ll See You Around proves how strong you can be when you work together.
Working with Ethan Johns as their coproducer the album contains eleven originals, including the instrumental Waitsfield and one unreleased Gillian Welch song, Hundred Miles. To the untrained ear the three voices blend so well that every song feels like output of a true band, rather than three egos sparring for the spotlight.
Opener See You Around is one of the more direct melodies on the album, showcasing the stunning musical talent of this trio who throughout the record play a varying combination of violin, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, piano and guitar. Unfortunately one of the lines about a ‘wine stained glass’ sounds like they’re singing ‘Weinstein’ which is a little distracting but doesn’t diminish the greatness of the song. On Game to Lose if it wasn’t for that line about ‘chasing a lover’ I’d almost think it a secret tribute to Hillary, since the lyrics describe the struggle to find your way when the going gets tough. Really though there’s no political agenda anywhere on this album, surely disappointing to some listeners but probably a relief to others.
Ain’t That Fine really is the finest thing on here – a song about celebrating the life you have made for yourself, no matter how normal it is. Some folks have it better but we’ve got it good. It’s also about growing up and learning to love the one you’re with. Pangaea tells the story of loneliness, a woman abandoned and its somber mood and stark folk arrangement mirrors this theme. Similarly the slow lament of Wild One could be about escaping where you come from or maybe just about things dying. The sensual dance of Ryland (Under the Apple Tree) is as welcome as a blissful breeze on a boiling hot day.
I was lucky enough to see the band live earlier this year at Celtic Connections festival and one of the highlights was the dizzying instrumental Waitsfield. At the end they collapsed into laughter, as they do on this recorded version too. Sometimes folk music can be a little too restrained and polite so it’s a joy to hear such talented instrumentalists cutting loose and showing off a little.
Overland is a story of travelling West on a train, bound for a new life – creating in my head a romantic vision of America’s past, maybe during the gold rush. Life was hard but the prospect of a better future kept you moving forward. Clinging to hope is sometimes all that gets you through, maybe more so nowadays than ever. Plus a sweet song like this could keep anyone from despair.
The closer is a version of an unreleased Gillian Welch track, perhaps an acknowledgment of the debt they owe her for the revival of this type of traditional folk, bluegrass and Americana music. Honouring her musical inspiration feels like a fitting way to finish.
A collaborative side project like this does suffer a little from a lack of an overarching cohesive concept, but musically I’m With Her never fail to sound sublime. I’ll See You Around contains enough joy to fill up any empty soul.