“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.”
Those were the words of mandolinist Chris Thile at a Kennedy Center concert in 2016. He was describing I’m With Her, the Grammy-award winning roots music trio composed of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sara Watkins. These three women bring together lyrical songwriting, sterling instrumental chops, and ethereal harmonies to make beautiful — some would say heavenly — music. The group of singer-songwriters came together in 2014 and have been steadily building a catalog of mesmerizing songs and a loyal following. Yes, that loyal fan base includes me, as they were also involved in my first and only case of celebrity stalking, but that’s another story. I first saw the group live in 2015. Having seen each of them with earlier bands and in solo appearances, I knew that they could forge a distinct and memorable musical partnership.
I was not disappointed.
There’s so much to highlight here. Nina Simone’s acapella Be My Husband was one of the first songs of the band that captured my attention, especially the weaving of sound between the unison and three-part harmony vocals. John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters is a 2015 recording that showcases the bluegrass and roots origins of their work, especially with Jarosz’s clawhammer banjo, played off against Watkins fiddle in support of O’Donovan’s beautiful lead vocal. On Thile’s Live From Here radio show, they go full-on bluegrass with a medley of Toy Heart / Marry Me / Jerusalem. Sarah Jarosz has a great time with Dolly Parton’s He’s Gonna Marry Me, and Watkins’s shivering vocal and the band’s round in Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan is, simply put, bone-chilling. The tune Little Lies comes from the band’s 2017 EP. It is a good display of the interplay of instruments and voices that makes the band so appealing.
This is a band that isn’t afraid to go out on a limb. Anyone playing Joni Mitchell is taking a chance of looking pale by comparison, but in their live version of Carey, they nail it and have fun in the process. (Check out the harmonies at the 2:25 mark, and then the great unison line at the end.
Call My Name was awarded the Grammy for 2020’s Best American Roots Song, and their performance at the awards show is a great example of the beautiful harmonies that are integral to their work. Their website notes that the sonic textures and urgent beat result in “a song both stark and luminous, perfectly capturing the potent tension within even the most loving relationship.”
If you want to go all the way down the rabbit hole, look at the music videos on their web site, check out their full NPR Tiny Desk Concert, or their one hour and 20 minute set at Boston’s House of Blues. You won’t be disappointed.
Tour dates are all up in the air with the coronavirus outbreak, so I won’t even try and highlight where they will be appearing. For now, we’ll have to be content with the work that’s already posted online and in their CDs.
Over the next three weeks, I’ll look at each artist individually. But for now, enjoy I’m With Her.
More to come…