I’m With Her is the folk-Americana troika of Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins. Their alliance may be new to fans versed only in the impressive song catalogs each has compiled on their own and through extensive collaborations with other artists. Then again, their three-and-a-half year old partnership is just now yielding a debut album after a few digital-only singles. That means I’m With Her is probably news to pretty much everyone.
The connections made through the 12 songs on “See You Around” (11 originals capped by a previously unreleased gem by Gillian Welch), however, are both sisterly and scholarly. Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio by producer Ethan Johns (whose client list includes Paul McCartney, Ryan Adams and Crowded House), O’Donovan, Jarosz and Watkins keep the music open and uncluttered. Vocals and songwriting credits are shared, antique flavored harmonies abound and the instrumentation is maintained by the three alone. Watkins plays fiddle and ukulele, Jarosz handles banjo and mandolin, O’Donovan works with piano and synth. All three add guitar. The result is music with a remarkable lightness — a strong contrast to the darker melancholy that colors the lyrics.
There are numerous references to flight and distance throughout “See You Around.” On “Wild One,” the three sound positively ghostly with a subtle siren call sung against a lone guitar pattern. “Do not crossover,” the vocals warn. “The other side is a wild one.” Similar funereal harmonies begin “Pangaea” with Watkins’ fiddle melody sounding like a distant cry from the sea. “Try your best to connect with me,” O’Donovan whispers, “but the ocean is wider than you think.”
The skies clear for “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” where the singing curls up next to a summery electric guitar line that dictates the tune’s relaxed, almost lazy pace. But as soon as the tune’s three minute run concludes, the vacation mood vanishes. The boards then go back over the windows for “Overland” and its sense of ragged displacement amid a stray, rustic banjo riff that ushers its protagonist Westward. Ditto for the pervading loss overseen by O’Donovan on “Crescent City” (“They were the right words but they were always the ones unspoken”) and “Close it Down,” where Jarosz pilots lullaby-like harmonies while Watkins again colors the soundscape with an old world fiddle accent.
Actually, it’s the Welch tune “Hundred Miles” that closes down “See You Around.” Here, the imagery of distance is as obtuse as it is obvious against the three stark voices and distant, rusted colors of banjo, fiddle and harmonium-like synth. “It’s a hundred miles to get back to you,” the voices of I’m With Her suggest as the album begins to fade from view. “Been a hundred years. Maybe two.”