Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan have co-founded beloved roots bands (Nickel Creek for Watkins, Crooked Still for O’Donovan) and have released nine solo albums among them. As is so common among world-class bluegrass musicians, these multiple-Grammy winners have also shared the stage and studio with scores of other artists.
But it was during an impromptu performance at the Telluride festival in 2014 that they realized that when they combined their talents, they had lightning in a bottle. The trio found that they harmonize beautifully together, and they share not only superb musicianship, but also a subtle avant-garde bent.
It took a little effort, but last year, the three busy artists carved out the time to gather in the studio. They took on the band name I’m With Her and, together, wrote 11 of the songs on their debut album See You Around. And then they recorded those originals, plus a beauty written by Gillian Welch (“Hundred Miles”), in Real World Studios (Bath, UK) with producer Ethan Johns, engineer Dom Monks and assistant Oli Jacobs.
Monks is well acquainted with all of the rooms and gear offered at Real World; he started his career there as an assistant to Peter Gabriel’s engineer, Richard Chappell. From that job, he was promoted to an engineering position on the commercial studio side of Real World’s business. A year and a half later, Monks was ready to move on to a new opportunity at Abbey Road when he started working with Johns.
“I was working with Ethan on one record as an assistant but ended up engineering on it,” Monks says. “He asked me to keep going and do a Ray LaMontagne record [Gossip in the Grain, 2008]. So I had to tell Abbey Road I wasn’t coming—luckily they forgave me. I’ve been making records with Ethan ever since. Sometimes I go off doing other things, sometimes he engineers himself, but it’s been almost 10 years now that I’ve been working with him.”
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The I’m With Her project was set up as a live session in Real World’s Wooden Room, where Johns and Monks elected to keep everything in the one room: musicians, amps, recording and mixing gear.
“You can use that Wooden Room as a live room along with the big control room with the wraparound SSL [XL 9000 K Series] console,” Monks explains. “We’ve done records like that, as well; you can set up cameras to see the musicians in the recording space. But we like being in there with the players. That’s how we made the Ray record, as well as the two Tom Jones records that we’ve done there. No heavy doors to go through. The players have only to turn around to listen to the playback.”
Real World offers a variety of recording platforms, but the production team elected to bring in Johns’ RADAR V rig. “It’s a heavy thing to lug around, but we decided it was the right thing for this project,” Monks says. “We also had the SSL AWS 900 console. That mainly operates as a monitor board.”
Some of the songs on See You Around were recorded with the three women gathered around one Neumann M49C microphone, which Monks put through a Pultec MB-1 mic preamp and then straight into RADAR.
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“For the songs that weren’t done with that one mic, they sat in a triangle facing each other,” Monks says. “I had three U47s on vocals, and the instrument mics would change depending on the song or the instrumentation. There was a U67 around, a couple of ELA M 251s—the American reissues. I also had a little lapel mic, a Countryman, inside of Sara Watkins’ ukulele. I will do literally anything to avoid DI’ing acoustic instruments.
“But the essential thing is, they were live takes, which has always been Ethan’s mode. Their facility with their instruments is breathtaking, really.”
Watkins, O’Donovan and Jarosz played nearly all of the instruments on the album, though Johns played some weissenborn and harmonium. “For the electric guitars, I think Ethan’s Vox AC4 amplifier was around,” Monks recalls. “He’s also got a Lyric amplifier, which is an old licensed version of a Magnatone. They got used. Sara Watkins played some of the electric guitar stuff. Ethan also had an Eastwood mando guitar that Sarah Jarosz played.
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“In terms of control, I put up a baffle behind each of them to control how much room sound was going into their vocal mics,” he continues. “The guitar amps would also tend to hide behind those screens, so we could run them a little louder. The room has very high ceilings and is very forgiving for this kind of music. The key, as in most lively spaces, is recording without headphones so the players can really hear the sound they are making in the space.”
Monks also mixed See You Around in the Wooden Room, in RADAR, as soon as tracking was finished. Playback was via a pair of Tannoy System 600s and AB’d on the studio’s main ATC 25As. “There wasn’t a vast amount of time to do it,” he says. “I think I did three or four mixes a day. Then they were flying off on tours or to solo projects.
“But it didn’t require a great deal of time either. We had spent a good amount of time playing out in the room and playing with headphones to find the sounds that we wanted to capture. It’s unusual for us to decide to reinvent something in the mix. More often, the effort goes into making sure what they were doing came across during the recording.
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“There’s not that many record producers out there who are also writers and accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and great engineers and mixers,” Monks continues. “So it puts us in a wonderful situation to get great sounds when you have someone who completely understands every aspect of the process. It can be agony putting yourself out there as an artist and committing, saying, ‘This is the take.’ Ethan is fantastic at guiding people through that. It’s probably what he’s best at: getting to the heart of who an artist is and what they’re trying to say, and doing it in a way that shows the beauty in such an honest way.
“It’s like taking a picture of someone and it’s incredibly real: You can see the lines on their face. You really see that person for who they are, and yet it’s still a beautiful photograph. Ethan, as a producer, gets artists out there genuinely as they are and as they sound.”