Sara Watkins









In the three years that have passed since the release of Sara Watkins’ first solo album, a lot has changed – She has turned 30, made her radio presenting debut on Garrison Keillor’s ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, is now married and has toured extensively as a solo artist. But as I sat across the table from her at her London hotel, she explained that after 18 years as part of Nickel Creek, being in the studio and on the road alone, still feels a little alien at times. “Occasionally it feels more natural than others but I enjoy it. I think it’s helped to have been part of several different shows and the Watkins Family Hour has been very useful for helping me to be a little bit more forward with the audience and appear that I’m running things sometimes, even though Sean (Watkins) is leading the band. And when I toured with the Decemberists last year, their frontman, Colin Meloy, is so captivating from an audience perspective, he engages with them in a way that I hadn’t seen before. The same with Garrison (Keillor), he gives so much to his audience. They’re both so generous and I learnt so much about what I want to do and how I want to be with the crowd.”

It seems that she has not only begun to find her feet as a front-woman but also as a studio artist. Her second album, SUN MIDNIGHT SUN, shows her firmly in the driving seat, with the self-assurance to pay homage to her traditional roots but to also explore other directions and take a few risks along the way. The vision for this album began when Sara met the album’s producer, 25 year old, multi-instrumentalist, Blake Mills. “I met Blake through mutual friends at a Sunday night music party and he started coming down to the Family Hour and I just really liked it. I liked what he added to the songs we were playing and I liked the turn things took when he was added to the mix. So I asked him to produce some songs and we ended up doing the whole thing!” It seems that from the outset, Watkins knew she wanted to spread her wings with this album, but self-production was not an option for her as she felt it would be “a little boring” if everything on the album came from her; so the change in sound was somewhat of a conscious decision, she just needed someone to help her move the songs along. She continued, saying “I was aware that the change as going to happen, simply because so much time had passed and I’ve been playing with so many different people, the songs started to lean a certain way. I asked Blake to produce the album because I had in mind certain things that I wanted him to bring. Like he’s a really great guitarist with electro-acoustic, and he’s really creative with different tones in the studio, and versatile and I trusted his musicianship. I wanted his perspective, so bringing in this new ingredient, I knew it was going to shake things up quite a bit. So I wasn’t trying to be something I haven’t got to be yet, I was just trying to spice it up a little and see what happened.”

Apart from a change in producer, a new band was brought in. Keeping the core as herself, brother Sean and also Mills, the rest of the album was formed around them, bringing in the likes of Jackson Browne and Fiona Apple to add additional instruments and vocals. Although the album still has traditional folk instruments as its base, Sara has made wise and interesting choices with the covers that have been included on this outing. Willie Nelson’s I’m a Memory has a slightly more pop-style than the original, whilst the Everly Brothers’ You’re the One I Love, takes a dark and moody turn. “Choosing songs for an album starts with songs that I like or a lyric that stands out or perhaps I don’t have any songs with that groove, so I feel it would add something. When I started work on this album, I was listening to the Everly Brothers a lot, with the idea that we might find something. So I found You’re the One I Love and it seemed to me that it could very easily take on a more obsessive feel.” Taking on songs by two such well known and loved artists and altering the whole feel, might phase other musicians but Sara has an ability to know her limits and treat other people’s songs with the respect they deserve, whilst also putting her mark on them. “I do kind of get nervous about it but I try not to worry about it. When you’re singing older songs, you feel the other person is probably far enough away from it, but if it’s new, that’s different. But it’s generally flattering when someone covers your song, I would love for someone to cover one of my songs one day.”

Sara has not just relied on pulling songs from other peoples’ repertoires for her latest venture though, she is still keen to hone her own songwriting skills, which at times has proven to give a very personal insight into her life as a touring musician. “Be There was very literal, I was frustrated about being away from my husband for a long time, so I vented a bunch of the lyrics onto a page and then didn’t look at them for weeks. Then I tried to sort them out and make them work in song form. Then Take Up Your Spade came from wanting to write a song that was congregational. I’ve been part of A Prairie Home Companion in LA and they do a lot of hymns and they sing along as if they own them. So I wanted to write a song that could sound good with a group of people singing along. The idea came from something my Mum used to say when I’d had a particularly bad day. The next day she’d say ‘Good morning, it’s a new day without spot of wrinkle’. So I wanted a saying that would fit adulthood a little better, something to sing in the morning or to get you going. Inspiration can come from unexpected places and it’s best if I don’t really worry about it. One thing I try to avoid is lifting my head out of it enough to find myself thinking ‘that’s a good line’ or ‘I hope she likes that when she hears it’. If I get out of it, it seems to be to the detriment of the song. I can write pages and pages before I actually get to what I can write a song about. So what might be the seed for a song, might not be used at all, but the last line of what I write might become the basis of what people will eventually hear.”

Having started her performing life at such a young age, I couldn’t help but wonder how Sara maintains her interest and drive, more than two decades later. “I’m definitely still learning, but what I’m learning is maintenance. Growing up I learnt the technical side and fluid improvisation is still a goal but my taste in playing has changed over time, so there’s development there. I notice if I don’t play fiddle for a few days, I can get down. Also, if I’m struggling to write a song on the guitar, I find I just need to play fiddle and it breaks through. I think it’s because it’s my first instrument, so I feel more comfortable on it and expect more of myself. You do lose interest sometimes though, in a sense of feeling it or being moved by it. I’m really fortunate that I get to play with musicians who really inspire me, and so often I’d just rather listen to them. Playing with them is great but when I’m feeling particularly drained, I like to just sit at their feet. That’s part of the second verse of You and Me, when you hear someone play or talk, someone who has wisdom or is moving you in some way. You just want to curl up and listen and absorb everything, those are the moments that reinvigorate me.”

The time between now and the release of her next album looks as though it will be as interesting as the three years that passed between her first album and today. She has plans to tour even more extensively on the back of SUN MIDNIGHT SUN, than she did previously, being keen to cross the pond to Europe again next year and to include Scandinavia this time. “I try not to plan too far ahead but I want to go to places and think ‘I’ve never seen any of these people before’.” As well as that, there will be shows at home in America, along with her continued monthly residency at Largo in California with her brother, for their Watkins Family Hour shows. During our time together, Sara also suggested that further touring with Nickel Creek may not be off the table just yet. “I’m not in any hurry to join a band but it’s possible that we might do some touring as Nickel Creek in the future, but it’s possible that we might not too. It’s just going to be on a whim and if we all have time and it feels right. In the meantime we still see eachother often and play together, and that’s fun.”