Singer, songwriter, fiddle player Sara Watkins was only eight when she, her brother Sean, and Chris Thile started Nickel Creek. The Grammy Award–winning acoustic trio spent nearly two decades winning fans with their innovative, genre-bending style before calling an indefinite hiatus a couple of years ago. Now Sara has struck out on her own. And while she had been thinking for some time about doing a solo recording project, the notion has finally become reality: We spoke with her as she prepared to release her first solo album, Sara Watkins, produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
Sara Watkins joined Garrison Keillor, Fred Newman and the Guy’s All Star Shoe Band during the summer of 2010 on A Prairie Home Companion’s 25-city cross country Summer Love tour. Get the CD of highlights >>>
'Let It Be Me'
Who were your early musical influences and what did you learn from them or by listening to them?
When I was little, my parents listened to a lot of folk music, some classical, early rock and roll and 80’s country music. I’d listen to lyrics, and would act out, in my imagination, the story of a song as it played.
The music that really sunk in at that time were things like Linda Rondstat’s Greatest Hits (vol 1), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and early George Straight, and I’m still a sucker for a good groove with a little recklessness thrown in there, it makes me want to move! Another record that has stuck with me from that time was Trio. That’s how I came to love harmony. Even as a little kid, their singing of those songs made me stop and listen.
How is recording and touring solo different from your time with Nickel Creek?
I was a little intimidated at first at the task of taking on everything by myself, but I also knew this was the right time. I’d been playing shows in LA whenever I could and sort of began exercising new musical muscles and, thanks to some terrific opportunities (not the least of which was 19 years in a Nickel Creek), I wasn’t as uncomfortable heading up charge to a solo career as I’d thought I would be.
Listen to NICKEL CREEK 'Reasons Why':
Can you tell us a bit about your solo CD?
A lot of the songs on this record were developed and written in the context of the LA gigs I play with my brother Sean in The Watkins Family Hour. When Nickel Creek was between tours, and since we stopped touring all together in 2007, the Family Hour has been our training ground for original material, an excuse to learn covers and through the show we got to meet many new musicians who have, consequently, become a big part of the way, and the reason, I sing these songs. In the week recording in LA, I got to have those guys who have been part of the Family Hour around and record with me. They did such a good job and having their support and contribution to the record meant the world to me. In Nashville, there was a whole other batch of friends who helped out, folks I’d gotten to know mostly through the bluegrass scene over the years. Everyone on this record has been very special to me. It was a real honor to have all the all their contributions.
John Paul Jones, best known for his work with the group Led Zeppelin, produced your self-titled solo CD. Melding the worlds of Rock and bluegrass has been very successful of late with Alison Krauss & Robert Plant being the best known example. What was the recording process like trying to blend his rock background with your bluegrass sound while creating this amazing CD?
I never felt that there was any melding of styles. His production input was sometimes very clear and specific, but more often sort of translucent. Many times when arrangements were being discussed, he’d hold off on sharing his opinions until the band discussion had come to an end, then, if not resolved, he’d chime in. Or if he thought we didn’t all share the same vision he’d guide us in a little. His musicianship is so big, I trust him completely, but if I ever strongly disagreed, he would reconsider his opinion and make sure I was happy with the outcome. He wanted me to love the record.
What can you tell us about the song “My Friend”? You have said that more than 5 of your friends have asked if the song is about them … will this be a Carly Simon like “You’re So Vain” where people will be guessing who the song is about for years to come or does the “friend” know now they are the subject of the song?
Ha! I wrote it as a prayer for one particular friend who was going through a rough time, and since then have secretly sung it with other friends or family in mind, I’ve also sung it as a prayer for myself many times.
You also wrote the song “Where Will You Be?” for the new CD. Can you tell us a bit about how this song came to be?
I wrote this one from a skeptical heart as sort of a challenge to what I saw as inevitable ending to a relationship.
The Sara Watkins CD is about half cover songs and half originals. When choosing a song to cover such as “Pony” by Tom Waits, what is it that you are looking for in a song? Do you look for something different in a song when you are recording an album versus when you look for a song for your concert set?
Covers are just fun to learn! I get so tired of my limited material that all sounds so much (to me, at least) like me. At the end of the day, I’m a huge fan of a good song, and there is so much out there. A lot of times I’ll learn a cover because I don’t already play anything else like it! I was recently really into learning Buddy Holly songs because I just wanted to make people dance! For a record, you want to pick something that means something special to you, and those are becoming more and more difficult for me to find. Not because there are fewer good songs out there, but I think, because as I’ve been writing more, I’ve become increasingly aware of how close you can feel to your own lyrics. So if I record someone else’s song, I just have to feel really close to it, almost like your friends who come to feel like family. That close.
In a time of dense Nickel Creek touring, I’d sung “Pony” as part of the encore. It probably sounds dramatic, but I was so tired from all the touring that I felt as haggard as the narrator in that song. So much so that it the lyrics felt personal to me. But I hadn’t thought of it for the record until John sat me down a few days before going in the studio and said “Okay, play me everything I haven’t heard yet.” I played “Pony” and now, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the record.
'Brokedown Palace' from Summer Love
What was the best part of the Summer Love concert tour with A Prairie Home Companion?
The duets! This last year I’ve become really excited about singing duets! And I love the Shoe Band. Great guys.
'Let It Be Me' from Live at the Hollywood Bowl >>>
How can fans follow you? Do you have a facebook page or a website to get the latest news?
Yes! I have a website www.sarawatkins.com,
I have a Facebook page but I’m most active on Twitter – twitter.com/SaraWatkins! Also, I’ve been enjoying making tour videos and hope to be posting footage of the Summer Love tour to my site every week or so!
Note: Sara has a new CD 'Brother Sister' from the Watkins Family Hour, a collaboration with her brother Sean, that you can get here >>>