Harmonic convergence

Growing up with Sarah Jarosz, from Rockygrass to supergroup I’m With Her

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I'm With Her, left to right: Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O'Donovan and Sara Watkins
Lindsey Byrnes

Sarah Jarosz always stood out in a crowd even when she was a tiny 12-year-old kid standing on the big stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. She delivered a blistering rendition of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as a side-of-stage tweener between the major acts.  

Amazed at her intensity, I tracked her down backstage and met her parents. She did not talk like a precocious child, another cute talented picker who would fade from the business with time. She sounded more like fiddler Marc O’Connor, mandolinist Chris Thile and other teenage phenoms I’ve interviewed. They know their path early on. 

“I always felt that to learn directly from my heroes was crucial,” Jarosz, now 28, says in a recent interview. 

She attended the Rockygrass Academy in Lyons — the adult part, not the kids’ camp. “Here was this little girl and (mandolin legend) Mike Marshall was my teacher. He never treated me like a kid. He treated me like a musician and I really appreciated it. Playing with people on that level prodded me to improve,” she says. 

Jarosz put out her first solo album before she graduated from high school and began touring as a solo artist. She won two Grammys in 2017 for Best Folk Album for Undercurrent, as well as Best American Roots Performance.  

She returns to Colorado to perform with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan in the band I’m With Her, July 27 at Rockygrass. I’m With Her also joins songwriting legend John Prine and the Colorado Symphony July 28 at Red Rocks. 

I saw Nickel Creek when Watkins, her brother Sean and friend Chris Thile were barely teenagers. They played Telluride’s Family Tent but it was obvious that these were future Grammy-winning performers trapped in children’s bodies. I didn’t see Aoife O’Donovan until she appeared in Colorado as a college student with Crooked Still. Deeply rooted in traditional folk, she is a great singer and a player pushing the envelope of acoustic music.  

The harmonic convergence of Jarosz, Watkins and O’Donovan organically occurred when they decided to do an impromptu workshop at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Beforehand the trio decided to practice a little in a bathroom because it had good acoustics. 

“The harmonies were there from the first time we sang together. The vocal blend was the thing that alerted us that it was special. The harmonies were very natural, intuitive and magical,”Jarosz says.  

The name I’m With Her was just a casual moniker that stuck because it suggests the collaborative chemistry they enjoy. Also, frankly, Jarosz, O’Donovan and Watkins sounded like a TV law firm. 

Courtesy of John Lehndorff John Lehndorff interviewing a 12-year-old Sarah Jarosz backstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Jarosz is now 28 and a Grammy winner.

I’m With Her is Jarosz’ first band experience. “With my solo projects I’ve always had bandmates, but this is the first time I had that camaraderie and someone to share the load with,” she says. 

Gathered around one mic, the three take turns being the “lead” singer, backup singers and backup band. Each is also spotlighted alone singing their own songs. As Jarosz explains it, this super group is all in service to the song, not the ego. 

“We decided to be our own band. It was good for us to develop as a trio with no backing. It really solidified us and I’ve learned a lot. I’m a better supporter onstage,” she says. Each member put aside their solo focus for this project. 

The result is the glorious debut album, 2018’s See You Around (Rounder) and ear-grabbing live appearances across the country and on public radio’s Live From Here. The tight, emotionally charged harmonies get applied to their original tunes and some stellar covers. Check out their versions of the Gillian Welch-penned “Hundred Miles,” Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” and the funky folk reimagining of Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” 

“To be in this band is very full circle for me,” Jarosz says. “A huge part of me becoming a musician was listening to Nickel Creek and Chris Thile’s mandolin. Crooked Still was a massive influence on me.”

The band, unfortunately, is an anomaly in bluegrass and folk, a successful group composed of women musicians who are accomplished singers and songwriters. As gifted multi-instrumentalists — violin, guitar, ukelele, banjo, mandolin and keyboards among them — each has heard the “you play pretty good for a girl” line. 

The upcoming Colorado shows give Jarosz pause to ponder. “We have devoted ourselves to this project for two years and taken it everywhere. These will be some of our last shows for a while,” she says. Afterwards, she, Watkins and O’Donovan return to their solo recording and performing careers. 

“It’s all about constant work. To keep creating, keep making music,” Jarosz says.

Jarosz says the trio has intentionally taken a slow, patient long view of the band. “Our hope for the band is that it will always exist and we’ll always come back to it.”    

ON THE BILL:  I’m With Her performs July 27 at the sold-out Rockygrass Festival and July 28 with John Prine and the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks. axs.com

KGNU will livestream Rockygrass at: afterfm.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/rocky.grass