You could say that Sara Watkins’ solo debut has been a lifetime in the making. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter and fiddle player spent nearly two decades—all of her teenage and young adult life—as one-third of Nickel Creek, the Grammy Award–winning acoustic trio that used contemporary bluegrass as a starting point for its no-genre-barred sound. Along the way, she’s hinted at her desire to do a project of her own and even organized some exploratory sessions in Los Angeles about six years ago. Now, with Nickel Creek on indefinite hiatus, she is releasing her self-titled solo disc, recorded in Los Angeles and Nashville and produced by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. It features an impressively wide range of backing players and old friends, including itinerant alt-country duo Gillian Welch and Dave Rawling, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas; fellow travelers from the bluegrass world like Tim O’Brien, Chris Eldridge, Ronnie McCoury and Rayna Gellert; and her Nickel Creek bandmates.
“Listening back to the finished record,” Watkins says, “it felt very natural. It is authentically me. I know that has so much to do with the process, with the years that I had been playing with all these guys, with the relationships I’ve made. I come from bluegrass and I wanted that to be part of the record. On the other hand, I’ve spent most of my life playing things that were not bluegrass, but maybe related to it, so all of the instrumentation and all of these players mean something to me. There are a lot of Nashville musicians on the record that I grew up performing with and players from L.A. who are musical heroes of mine. Even though not all of the songs on the album are my songs, it’s still really personal because I lived with this material for so long and I’ve played a lot of this music with the performers who are on it.”
Watkins’ debut has an air of easygoing virtuosity. She displays her skill as a multi-instrumentalist, playing the guitar and ukulele as well as the fiddle, and proves herself to be just as versatile, and breathtakingly mature, as a vocalist. Watkins segues gracefully from the lighthearted country and western swing of Jimmie Rodger’s “Any Old Time,” to the world-weariness and spiritual yearning of Norman Blake’s “Lord Won’t You Help Me,” to the romantic wistfulness of Jon Brion’s “Same Mistake.” Though she still considers herself a neophyte as a songwriter, her own work is as evocative as any of the material she’s chosen to cover. Her wordless fiddle tunes are exuberant, foot-stomping pieces, while the songs for which she wrote both music and lyrics have a heart-meltingly lovelorn quality. There’s honesty and empathy on tracks like the sweetly soulful “My Friend,” the brooding “Bygones,” and the rueful album closer, “Where Will You Be.” Watkins is newly, and very happily, married, but she knows how to channel the plaintive emotions of classic country and timeless pop in her own work.
“In terms of song selection.” Watkins explains, “I didn’t have a goal of making this a country record or a folk record. I didn’t want to avoid anything—except faking it. This was a chance to make a record that doesn’t represent anyone else but me. That’s a totally new thing and kind of felt selfish at first, but I’m starting to embrace it a lot more. I love being part of a team and I love bands so much, but I’m also learning to really enjoy figuring out what I specifically add to a band. In all these different situations, in sessions and playing with other friends, what exactly is it? How do I express what my musicianship is? It’s been really fun learning about that, developing it, trying to refine it.”
In 1989, Watkins, barely out of her childhood, started playing in a nascent version of Nickel Creek at the seemingly unlikely venue of That Pizza Place in Carlsbad, California, along with her guitarist brother Sean and mandolinist friend Chris Thile (and chaperoned, of course, by her bluegrass-playing parents). The prodigious young trio built a reputation in bluegrass, folk, and country circles, then catapulted to mainstream prominence in 2000 after releasing an album produced by Alison Krauss. When not on the road or in the studio with Nickel Creek, Watkins guest-starred as fiddler and/or harmony vocalist on albums by Bela Fleck, the Chieftains, Ben Lee, Dan Wilson, Richard Thompson, and Ray La Montagne, among others. In addition, Watkins and brother Sean established an informal get-up-and-jam residency called the Watkins Family Hour at L.A. club Largo, “an uber-cool but cozy music and comedy club in Hollywood,” as Sean has put it.
Watkins brings the spirit of the long-running Watkins Family Hour to her debut. It was there, in fact, that she developed and fine-tuned the repertoire for the album: “I had lived with a lot of this material for a while. It was tested and tweaked through the years playing at Largo. Songs would come and go; these are the songs that have stuck. Some are newer than others—’Lord Won’t You Help Me’ was a deliberate choice for the record. Some I had done for years, like Jon’s ‘Same Mistakes.’ ‘Too Much’ is a David Garza song, and I always loved it.”
John Paul Jones, who’d briefly toured during 2004 with Nickel Creek and Toad the Wet Sprocket lead singer Glenn Phillips in an ad hoc group called Mutual Admiration Society, had long encouraged Watkins to make a record of her own, offering his services well before she was ready to hit the studio. As Watkins recalls, laughing, “A couple of years ago we saw John Paul Jones at the Cambridge folk festival. He came up after our performance and said that if I didn’t let him produce my record he would never speak to me again. I was thrilled that he was that excited about it. He actually stayed with it and kept in touch. At that point, in Cambridge, I believe we had already talked about winding down the Nickel Creek touring, so it was a really convenient time and it helped me stay focused. It was a perfect moment to start transferring over the creative energy.”
Jones kept a familial atmosphere, and maintained an unobtrusive presence, in the studio, says Watkins: “I think he was allowing the band to be a band and play for each other, rather than have us play through a song, then look to see if that’s what he was or wasn’t looking for. Eventually, John would give us his feedback and directions to guide us in. I think that has a lot to do with the sound of the record being band-oriented, especially considering there were a lot of different musicians coming in.” Cutting John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Day” was especially inspired—with Rawlings playing “caveman drums,” Welch strapping on an electric guitar, and Watkins revving up everyone with her fiddle playing. The compellingly straightforward arrangements she and Jones devised allow Watkins’ personality to come through, illustrating both her sensitivity and her strength. These sessions had been a long time coming, but it’s clear that Watkins has only just begun.