Interview: Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek Releases Her First Solo Record
Sara Watkins / Photo by Jeremy Cowart
It's not often that an accomplished Grammy-winning musician waits two decades to release a solo album, but in the case of Sara Watkins, the timing has worked out perfectly. Watkins has been performing professionally since the age of eight, and in the years since, people the world over have fallen in love with her emotive voice and adept fiddle playing. In addition to the 18 years she spent in the band Nickel Creek with brother Sean Watkins and Chris Thile, LA residents may also know her work from one of the best shows in town—the Watkins Family Hour evenings at Largo at the Coronet.
When Nickel Creek went on hiatus in 2007, Watkins crossed paths with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, who told her he wanted to be the one to produce her first solo record. The result of this effort is Watkins' self-titled solo debut, which combines original songs and instrumentals with inspired covers. Her voice absolutely shines throughout this disc, and her most brilliant moments are those when she is somehow able to convey a sense of hopeful melancholy. LAist spoke with Watkins last week to learn about the new album, where she likes to shop for clothes in LA, and her gig at Largo this Thursday night.
LAist: "All This Time" is such a great way to kick off the album and the lyrics are so unexpected and tender. How has your songwriting process evolved over the last few years, especially when it comes to lyrics?
Sara Watkins: When I first started writing, it was all very cryptic—analogy after analogy—and it didn't really convey anything specific. I'd run lyrics by a few friends and they'd tell me, "That's awesome, but I have no idea what you're talking about!" Over the years, I've been trying to be more specific and clear about what I'm saying—to a degree. I want to be able to extend an idea over several verses, but not be so clear that you get it all out in two verses and a chorus.
Sara Watkins - "All This Time"
Is it true that you do most of your songwriting on ukulele?
Yeah, I wrote most of the original songs on the album on ukulele, though I did write "All This Time" on fiddle as I was plucking out this descending chord pattern. And I did "Bygones" on the fiddle as well. One thing that's nice about the ukulele is that it’s less intimidating. It's kind of a fun little toy to just sit around in a corner and noodle with. I happen upon different little chord structures or groupings that I wouldn't necessarily come across on guitar, so it kind of puts me in a different space.
When LAist interviewed your brother a few months ago, he mentioned that when he and Jon Foreman created the band Fiction Family, they set some ground rules. Did you set any rules for yourself when you embarked on this solo project?
No, I didn't. Leading up to the record, my main concern was making decisions I felt honestly represented who I am right now as a musician. I didn't want to come to a point where I had to throw all of my weight into something I didn't necessarily have a lot of conviction behind in terms of song choices or style or the general direction. But as soon as I started talking to John Paul Jones about the production, I realized I had nothing to worry about.
Sara Watkins / Photo by Jeremy Cowart
He was unlike any producer I'd ever worked with and I enjoyed every second of the process! He wanted everything to revolve around the songs and my voice, and he helped me perform better. This was also a totally different process and production style for me, where you're bringing in all these musicians rather than the band being the musicians.
In the past, you've said that anything can happen once you get into the studio and start working, and that there are always surprises. What was the biggest pleasant surprise you encountered during your recording sessions?
I was actually surprised by how naturally everything went down. We just loaded in the first day—a friend brought a ton of instruments for us to play with, such as extra little keyboards and guitars and toys—and we were off and running. It just felt like we hit a rhythm really fast.
There were a couple things that happened that we didn't really plan for. For instance, there was a rhythm section that we had intended on using on the second track, "Long Hot Summer Days," but at the last minute they couldn't make it. So we had to figure out who else could play drums, bass and electric guitar. We had Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings playing on "Lord Won't You Help Me" where she played drums and he played electric, and so we just thought, "What if John played bass, and then we switched things around on this one so that Dave played drums and Gillian played electric guitar?" It ended up being one of my favorite tracks on the record because it wasn't strategized that way from the beginning.
Was it hard figuring out who was going to play on which song?
There was a little bit of a discussion, but I don't remember it being super hard. Mostly, there were a few things we wanted to avoid. For instance, I knew that I wanted to keep Sean and Chris off of the same songs, because that's what I'm used to. It would have been a very easy decision, but I thought it would be more interesting to make different combinations happen. So that worked out really well.
A lot of the songs sort of grew up through the Watkins Family Hour, so it made a lot of sense to include many of our friends. I was really glad to have a lot of those guys on the songs—like Greg Leisz on "Same Mistakes" and Jon Brion on "Too Much," which is a song that our mutual friend [David Garza] wrote.
You have so many great covers in your Watkins Family Hour shows. Was it a difficult decision to choose the ones that ended up on the album?
It was kinda tough, though I don't necessarily think every song I like to sing is appropriate to record for one reason or another. So some of them were a little bit hard, but in narrowing it down, we figured out which original songs of mine we wanted to do, and then we packed appropriate covers around them. There were certain songs we knew we wanted in there for sure, and then we tried to fine tune it after that to find the right balance. I think there was one other song, a Carter Family song, we meant to record, but it just didn't work out.
I love that you can't pigeonhole the album when it comes to genre. You could conceivably have songs on the pop, adult contemporary, country and Christian charts all at the same time...
I'm having a hard time describing it, too! I don't really think there's a point to stripping it down too much—what the ingredients are when it comes to any artist. It's like trying to describe your friend using one word or genre, or if you were to look at someone and say, "She's the classic mom from that area of town." (laughs)
Sara Watkins - "Long Hot Summer Days"
In songs like John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days," you often don't change the pronouns. For instance, if in the original song, a guy is singing about his girl, you usually sing it just the way he wrote it. What's your decision-making process like when it comes to that?
I try to figure out which option is less distracting. If I'm covering a song that's super well-known and it's sung from a guy's perspective, it'll often be more distracting for me to change the gender. In the case of John Hartford, I didn't feel like a change needed to happen.
Sara Watkins / Photo by Jeremy Cowart
What led you to decide to release your solo album on vinyl in addition to the other formats?
It's just a different experience. I know that not everybody's going to want to sit down in front of a record player and listen to it, but for many people, I think there's an attachment to the experience. When I listen to records, I feel like I'm participating with the band. Tangibility seems to add so much, because nowadays there's so much that we experience in a very instant—and somewhat less satisfying—way.
A couple minutes ago, you talked about the difference between recording with Nickel Creek and recording your solo album. As you're touring in support of the solo album now, is it kind of a strange feeling being center stage the whole time compared with a Nickel Creek show or a Watkins Family Hour?
Yeah, I've only been doing the headlining tour for a few weeks now and it's totally different figuring out the set list and everything. Each crowd is totally different, so there's a whole lot of catering to each show. It's all very unique night to night. But by and large, the shows have been super-fun and by the end of the night it feels like we're all experiencing this thing together. It's been a really great learning experience.
Right now we're driving in a minivan going from Madison, Wisconsin, to Chicago and then we're headed to the West Coast. It's just me, Sean and bass player Sebastian Steinberg plus our tour manager.
Can you give us any scoop regarding your Thursday night show at Largo on May 14?
It's going to include a lot of the guys from the record. Benmont Tench, Sean, Sebastian and Greg Leisz are going to be there, plus I think Jon Brion's going to be around as well.
How has the Watkins Family Hour changed since your first show?
It's changed a whole lot. The Family Hour started because we were often playing during Jon Brion's Friday night shows. Flanny [Largo owner Mark Flanagan] told us that he wanted us to do a monthly show whenever Nickel Creek wasn't on tour. We hadn't really organized a show like that before. Sean and I had done a set here and there as a duo, but not our own show and definitely not on a regular basis. So we called our friend Gabe Witcher to play fiddle with us, and the three of us played a few shows. Then we started having special guests—Tift Merritt and Glen Phillips and other Largo artists—stop by, and that turned into us having special guests nearly every show.
At the beginning, we were doing largely bluegrass and country songs that had no home in a Nickel Creek set. It was a really great little outlet and it began as a very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. Then as Nickel Creek started winding down, we started focusing on the show a whole lot more and working on the arrangements. The Family Hour turned into a weekly thing and it got a little more refined, but still fun!
Sara Watkins / Photo by Jeremy Cowart
Oh yeah. My first experience playing at Largo was the first night we went there to see Glen Phillips, and we played a bunch of Toad the Wet Sprocket songs with him. That was just a thrill because we've always been huge Toad fans, and we got a good taste of what that place had to offer—it's such a wonderful audience, too. The Largo audience is super-willing to go many places with you that a lot of audiences wouldn't.
There was also a great moment when Jackson Browne came down for the first time and we played "These Days."
There was another time more recently, just before we made this record, when John Paul Jones was in town and we did a Watkins Family Hour show. A bunch of Largo guys came down after doing a session, and there was this huge, crazy list of people on stage. I got overwhelmed for a second, and I just remember standing up at the microphone and hitting the palm of my hand to my forehead because I couldn't figure out what song to do next!
What is it about Largo that makes is so special, and what do you like about its new location?
There's just so much joy in getting to perform with so many of my favorite musicians while having a friendly audience that's excited to be there. It just feels priceless and I love how the "no taping and no video" policy keeps everything in the moment. It really helps me appreciate things while they're there, because there's no going back to the tape to remember what happened. I think that's a rare thing these days.
When it comes to the Little Room at the new Largo, it's so intimate—sort of like the old Largo—when it comes to the distance. You're as close to the people in the front row as you are to the guys standing next to you on stage. And when it comes to the main stage, there are just so many new options. It's just a little easier and a little more comfortable for the musicians, because you can meet backstage and figure out what's going on. You have a lot more flexibility.
I think the change to the new venue has been really good, because it kept things from stalling out. It kept Largo propelling forward and made the regular musicians adapt and not stay in their little comfort zones.
I've seen you wear some really cute clothes during Watkins Family Hours over the years. What are some of your favorite clothing shops in Los Angeles?
Oh man, let's see. I got these really rad red boots at Buffalo Exchange and that's my favorite item at the moment. There are a couple places I like—I just got a nice dress over at Squaresville. I find things here and there and often go for vintage stuff. I don't really know what to do with most fancy LA clothes. (laughs)
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Sara!