h

I’m With Her's debut album is the perfect collaboration

I’m With Her are customarily introduced as one of the highest-profile all-female groups in bluegrass. 

But according to vocalist Sara Watkins, looking at I’m With Her as an all-female band would be no more to-the-point than looking at the Beatles as an all-male band.

2018’s See You Around was the first full-length album to combine Watkins’ talents with those of Sarah Jarosz, an accomplished solo artist, and Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still. Watkins, who also plays fiddle with the progressive bluegrass three-piece Nickel Creek, speaks with an unpracticed earnestness that is rare among performers who have spent time in the media spotlight.

“I hope that people are able to have a moment with [See You Around], that they can spend some time listening to it and that it might draw them in and touch them in some way,” says Watkins. “There are some moments where you can actually hear us smiling as we’re singing it, which is something that happens nearly every night while we’re onstage as well… The dynamics captured are not often found on records these days. I would like that to be noticed, I think. I have my favourite moments on the album, but I want listeners to love it for their own reasons.”

I’m With Her is, in effect, a supergroup, and it’s easy to wonder whether putting three frontwomen together in one studio could generate friction. Watkins says that the bluegrass community’s emphasis on collaboration ensured that the trio were prepared for the give-and-take of working together.

“It could make things harder,” says Watkins. “But, in this particular band, we all come from a tradition where collaboration is a huge value, and the most respected musicians are often the ones who are getting the least accolades, who are low-profile: just killing it, but without a lot of flash. There’s part of every musician who wants to be that person. When you’re in a band, you get to try your hand at that. You get to try and be the most supportive person that you can.

“These songs are all co-written in a way that the lyrics don’t feel pieced-together. They feel like one story to us. We are writing shared experiences in a way that there are very few bits of these songs where I could tell you who actually came up with the idea. We have real shared ownership over these songs, which I think makes it really easy to feel affectionate toward these songs each night. I feel like I’m playing someone else’s song as much as my own.”

Jackson Browne has been a particular source of inspiration, says Watkins, not just because of his technical skill, but because of his openness to learning and the consideration with which he treats his crew. These vital skills can only be picked up through experience, she says.

“It’s something you have to learn,” Watkins explains. “Great collaborators are quick to adapt, good listeners, accept criticism well and want to support what’s going on, but they’re willing to step up and take the lead when necessary… I’ve found it’s really good for me to put myself in as many different situations as possible, so that I can stay sharp and figure out how I can contribute. I stay nimble.”

Watkins is gearing up for her first trip to Australia, where I’m With Her will appear at Bluesfest in April, performing a mixture of tracks from See You Around, plus material from the trio’s respective solo records and some of the band’s favourite cover songs.

Watkins enjoys connecting with her fanbase, something about which she is characteristically unassuming.

“People have been joining in and singing along, and that’s really sweet,” says Watkins. “It means people have taken your song to heart enough to know it and to want to sing it back at you. It’s an intimate feeling that’s really special. It seems like a corny thing to say, but it really is sweet.”

I’m With Her will play Bluesfest when it goes down from Thursday April 18 to Monday April 22. They’ll also take to the Melbourne Recital Centre on Thursday April 18. Tickets via the festival and venue websites respectively.