Ever since George Clooney lip-synched his way through Dan Tyminski’s version of “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou, Bluegrass and American Roots music has enjoyed a mini-renaissance, with venerable old lions like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, and current artists like Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Norman Blake and the Old Crow Medicine Show being exposed to a far wider audience.
Riding the crest of that wave was Nickel Creek. A young trio which wedded strong instrumental and vocal technique and bluegrass sensibilities to modern pop music (their short career included covers of songs by Pavement and Britney Spears, a tour with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket in a “supergroup” called Mutual Admiration Society, and a tour opening for Fiona Apple and serving as her backup band). Nickel Creek went on indefinite hiatus a few years ago, leaving one of its members, fiddle player Sara Watkins, without a regular gig. Sara has now returned with her eponymous debut solo album, produced by John Paul Jones and featuring a veritable who’s who of the roots/folk/bluegrass scene. All of this is to say, if you enjoy roots music and bluegrass, and have not yet heard Sara Watkins, you should most definitely check her out.
Sara was kind enough to speak with us about her solo record on May 29. In addition to educating me on the existence of something called a Hardanger Fiddle, she spoke about her songwriting process, her other projects, the differences between being a member of Nickel Creek and a solo artist, and showed what I consider to be a remarkable degree of humility with respect to her own talent.
I want to focus on the solo record, which is great by the way, but I also want to touch on the WPA, Mutual Admiration and everything else you’ve been up to. So I think the best place to start is the Watkins Family Hour. For those that don’t know, talk a little about what that is and how it got started.
The Watkins Family Hour is a residency that my brother (Sean Watkins, also ex-Nickel Creek) and I have in Los Angeles at this club called Largo. It’s been going for about 6 or 7 years now. We used to do it once a month, Nickel Creek for a long time was touring three weeks and then we would get a week off, and in that week off we would do this show in LA, Sean and I, and our friend Gabe was with us at first. There’s been sort of a rotating cast of people who have sort of “squatted” with us there. It’s been a really important part of my life for that whole time. A lot of people will come and sit in, we’ll have special guests. The last two years the band has consistently been Sean and I, Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz, and most recently Sebastian Steinberg has been playing bass and Don Heffington has been playing drums. It’s really really fun. It gives us a great outlet and a super friendly crowd to play for, and a no pressure place to experiment with songs, and also just a reason to work stuff out and to put songs together.
Yeah, and it seems like the WPA came out of that, and some other things you have done.
How did the eponymous album come to pass? What made 2009 the right time for you to do a solo record?
Well actually, we did it in 2008. A lot of things sort of worked together to make this the right timing, I had gone in the studio and recorded 10 or 12 songs about five years ago, and didn’t quite know what to do with the recordings. It was a great engineer and really great musicians on it, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be another side project to Nickel Creek or if I would just put out a little EP or how it would go. Then like three years ago or so, we started talking about putting Nickel Creek on the shelf, and it seemed logical that, now that I’m not doing a side project I want to really put my effort towards something that I’m going to be proud of and that I can really stand behind. The timing sort of fell in my lap that way. Then, we were playing the Cambridge Folk Festival and John Paul Jones came up after the show, who we’ve known for several years. He said that he wanted to produce my solo record, and I don’t think I had even spoken to him about my goals in that regard. I kind of thought he was just being excited and sweet. But he ended up keeping in tough on it and talking about what kind of record do you want to make? I sent him songs to listen to and the plans just kept going from there. We recorded it last spring.
John Paul Jones is this legendary figure. When I found out that he produced your record and saw him perform with you on Jimmy Fallon’s show — I also saw both of you at the Mutual Admiration Society show at the Bowery Ballroom, however long ago that was — (Note: it was 8/14/04, and the whole concert is on Archive.org. I encourage you to check it out.)
— it was an amazing concert. Anyway, I was very excited to see that he was involved. What is he like as a producer? Also, if you would, tell me something about John Paul Jones that people would not expect.
Well, most people know him as this legendary bass player, member of Zeppelin, and people know him for his arrangements and his session work on other people’s records, and he’s produced a bunch of rock stuff, but apart from Zep, my main interaction with him has been hanging out at bluegrass festivals. And we did that sort of odd tour with him, I guess it was six years ago, or five years ago. But I didn’t really get to know him until the process of this record. I guess actually not the process of this record, but leading up to it. Seeing him at different bluegrass festivals. You know? He would play mandolin and old time fiddle, and he loves American roots music. He’s a great musician. I think he carries this great understanding with him of what makes music good, and he’s super fun loving when it comes to just enjoying the heart of music and…we worked really hard, about 10 hours a day for four weeks, and had a really great time. I’ve not had so much fun in the studio before. It was really satisfying and we felt like we were making a good record.
It’s a beautiful-sounding record and I want to talk about that. The general recording quality is beautiful. It’s a great record to listen to; it feels very intimately recorded.
Thanks. Dave Sinko did the engineering, and John had used him before. John produced another American strong band called Uncle Earl, and Dave Sinko engineered that as well. He travels around and does live sound for a lot of great musicians, and he was just a sweetheart to have in the studio. Really good at what he does.
Purely as an aside, the only other interview I have done for Popdose to this point is Bela Fleck, and Dave Sinko also engineered Bela’s African album that was the subject of that interview. So at this point, I’m only talking to people who work with Dave Sinko.[laughs] It’s a good policy! You know it’s gonna sound good.
I want to start with the covers and then go to your originals. I’m sure you picked cover material for your record by singing songs at the Watkins Family Hour and on the road. How many times would you sing something like “Long Hot Summer Day” (by John Hartford) or the Jimmie Rodgers tune (“Any Old Time”), or the Jon Brion tune (“Same Mistakes”), before you decided “This is something I want to put on my record. This is my version of the song”?
A lot of these songs…I wasn’t thinking songs for the record. I sort of had everything in terms of cover songs before trying to put this record together, which made it a lot easier to choose because, it’s just low pressure. What happened instead was just, playing the Family Hour shows on such a regular basis, certain cover songs stick around and certain songs don’t you know? And some of them are just kind of a novelty thing you throw in because you need a change of pace, or because you’ve always wanted to learn that Morrissey song or whatever. So you learn it and it’s fun, and it either sticks or it doesn’t. These are all the songs that have stuck, over the years. There are others as well, but we chose original songs and tried to shape the record around that in terms of what wee needed and what else we wanted to say. It was really fun actually. I don’t remember it being a super-difficult decision, in terms of the covers. I sent John probably 20 songs, I think it was fairly unanimous. He definitely had some choices that surprised me. Like “Pony” (by Tom Waits) was one of the last chosen. John came out and we were just about to go into the studio, it was probably a week out. We sat down and John said “OK, play me whatever I haven’t heard yet. What else do you have?” I had sent him pretty much everything. Pony was one of the songs I played for him just then, and he said, without hesitation “Well, that has to go on there.” And I love “Pony,” but I wasn’t sure it was going to stand out to him as something that had to be on the record, but it ended up being one of my favorite tracks on there.
It’s definitely one of mine. It’s a really neat version of a great song. I want to call out “Long Hot Summer Day” as well. I think people who know you through Nickel Creek, have always associated you with this sort of jewel-clear vocal timbre when you sing. To hear you get up into the break of your voice is really cool. Really arresting, actually. To hear a little bit of blues in your voice is really a good thing, I think.
Thank you. It’s been super fun. That’s another thing about performing outside the realm of Nickel Creek, and the songs that Nickel Creek does, or did. I think I started to limit myself based on my perception of what I should do in that band. So when we started doing Family Hour and I started taking more of an initiative to really exercise myself outside of the band, I really enjoyed variety. And felt like I started to grow in a different direction. That’s been really fun.
It’s noticeable actually, and that is a good transition into your original compositions. The whole record through, for someone who knows Nickel Creek music, there’s a lot less flashy instrumental “strutting” sort of passages on your record. Nickel Creek was known as this very “progressive bluegrass,” heavy instrumental group. You obviously have the chops, you’re an amazing musician. Was that a conscious choice? Did you want to step back from that?
It wasn’t. I didn’t really have many conscious choices. I’m not a super-flashy instrumentalist, I don’t feel like. I play just tasteful along with the best of them, not that flashy isn’t tasteful. I just feel like that isn’t a strong point.
I didn’t mean to imply you don’t play tastefully. I have always been very impressed with your playing.
Thank you. I didn’t mean it that way, that came out badly. That’s just not really something I feel compelled to say, in terms of just fingers flying instrumentals. That’s fun, but I feel like a lot of people do it way better than I do. That’s one reason I never did a fiddle record. Because there are so many better fiddle players that do solo records, and so many fiddle players much better than I am who DO NOT do solo records. So I never felt like that was something that I needed to do. Of all people, I don’t need to do that. So I kind of waited until I had some thing that I needed to say or wanted to say that was unique to me, so that was what I tried to do. My only goal was to try and make sure that I was staying honest to what I wanted to say and not really guess what other people wanted to hear from me, or guess what I would hope to say in a year’s time. That’s just the worst, because what if you guess wrong? That’s no fun.
That’s an interesting thing to say, and something every musician probably has some experience with. If you play and you practice and you care, and you develop technique, you get to a point where you feel pretty facile, but there’s always going to be someone who plays rings around you. It’s interesting to hear you talk about that, because all throughout the bluegrass and progressive fiddle world there are all sorts of amazing fiddle instrumentalists, but I don’t think your fans would have scoffed if you had put out a fiddle record. I for one would have loved to have heard it.
Well, thank you. Maybe someday. Another thing I was thinking during the process of the record was whenever I felt myself kind of second-guessing, thinking “I’m kind of headed in this direction maybe I’ll just hint at this in the hopes that in a year when this thing comes out, I’ll have guessed right.” It’s a ridiculous thought, but every time I found myself leaning that way I kind of thought “You know what? I can make that record in a year, then. If I want to say that.” I tried to stay conscious of where I am and what I wanted to play and sing at the time.
That makes sense. I read another interview that you did and you said you didn’t know a lot of other material, other than Nickel Creek for most of your life. I found that really interesting, because my own musical education was based so totally on learning other people’s music, and I think a lot of people are like that.
Well, I listened to a TON of stuff, and we would play other people’s material at sound check, and we would sing bluegrass songs, so I did know some songs, but it was limited for sure, to a certain genre, and a certain group of players. I definitely spent a lot more time in the last four or five years listening to songs and figuring what I like about them, and taking risks in terms of singing songs that I could absolutely fail at and it was probably a really bad idea to do it. But I learn, and really enjoy certain aspects of that, and learning about songwriting, and what I like about certain songwriters. I think because of that and because I have gotten a little bit out of a certain conservative…just a fear of going too far. I definitely underplay things a little bit, and I feel like in the last years that I have gotten over that and tried to overdo things a little, so I could have some contrast. That’s been really fun. I’ve been enjoying experimenting a lot more with music and different art.
I wanted to hear a bit about your songwriting process. When you started to write your own music, would you sit by yourself and write or would you write collaboratively? Would you start with melody, would you start with chords and rhythm and work backwards? Would you start with lyrics?
I’ve tried writing lyrics for quite a while. I remember sitting on so many plane rides and writing in notebooks. I remember just writing super vague lines, going from analogy to analogy, and it not making any kind of sense. I would show them to Sean or Chris or other friends who write and them saying “That’s very interesting…I have no idea what you are saying. It’s nice. There’s words there, and they sort of rhyme, but I have no idea what you are saying.” I couldn’t believe they didn’t get it, that it wasn’t this particularly clear message, that they didn’t understand what I was going for…the common thread through all these analogies. So, my songwriting consisted of that for a long time. Now I find that when I look at the songs that I’ve written that I actually end up singing for people, they tend to be songs that have come out with some kind of melody at its root. Very few of my songs start with just lyrics on a page. I end up getting really introspective, and it’s boring, it’s limited. My rhyme scheme is limited. A lot of the songs, like “All this Time” or “Will We Go” or “Where Will You Be,” I’ll have an instrument in my hand, and a thought or a main theme or line through a song will come out, and I’ll work on it from there. It might take a while to finish the song but I feel like i have an idea of what it is going to sound like. That seems to be how the songs I’m happiest about come out.
How about the fiddle tunes. How are you inspired to write a fiddle tune, and when do you know a fiddle tune is done? The two on the record (“Jefferson” and “Friedrick”) — what are the significance of the titles?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. When is a fiddle tune done? Jefferson was written when I was borrowing an instrument called a Hardanger Fiddle ( and ) which is a Scandinavian instrument very similar to our fiddle, except it’s a whole step higher in pitch and has these five sympathetic strings which run the length of the instrument from the bridge, or maybe the tailpiece actually, all the way up, underneath the fingerboard and they have their own little pegs at the scroll, so there are nine pegs. They are sympathetic strings.
Really? Like a harp guitar?
Maybe, I’m not quite sure how a harp guitar works, but it does have these sympathetic strings and all they do is ring, you never play them.
I had no idea that such an instrument existed — that’s really interesting.
It’s a really interesting instrument and it is gaining a lot of popularity in American folk music. It’s my understanding that it was an instrument originally made to be played solo, for dances, because the ringing, if you play with other people, gets covered up and that’s kind of the purpose of the instrument. So anyway, I was borrowing one. There’s only one that I know of in San Diego County, and I was borrowing it from the House of Sweden. I was just kind of messing around with it, and this tune came out. This sort of crooked melody. I worked with it for a little bit, I had this little tape recorder, and I kept finding little things that I liked in it. I called it Jefferson after a street near where I live, which has a beautiful view. I love to go there. Also, it had an oldish sounding name.
“Friedrick” I wrote because I wanted to play more in the key of F, so I started messing around in F and that melody came out. I messed around with it for quite a while. Then I didn’t play it, because it didn’t sound complete. I just wasn’t super happy with it. Until I brought it up to Sean, and said “Can you tell me what’s wrong with this, ’cause it’s just not right.” He needed up helping me with some reharmonizations, some better chord changes, and he helped me bring some parts around. Sean’s main thing is you have to be able to whistle a melody, or sing it. There’s got to be a purpose to all the notes. He’s really good at that, and making sure the melody dictates the chords and that it’s clear. We got to write it together, actually.
Tell us a bit about the WPA, and anything else that is in the offing that you want to let people know about.
The WPA is a band, called the Works Progress Administration, and there are eight members — four singers, of which I am one, but I only sing a song or two. It’s really fun. It’s made up of a lot of the people I have gotten to know through Largo, (The full WPA lineup: Sean Watkins [guitar, vox], Sara Watkins [fiddle, vox], Glen Phillips [guitar, vox], Luke Bulla [fiddle, vox], Benmont Tench [piano, organ], Greg Leisz [“multi-instrumentalist”], Pete Thomas [drums], and Davey Faragher [bass].) It’s really fun. We made this record last year, we’re hoping to have it come out in the fall. I know they will be out touring in different forms. My record is definitely going to be my priority, but whenever I can join them for shows I hope to do that.
Popdose is a general pop-culture website, covering music, TV, film, and books; is there anything you have read or listened to recently that you want to give a plug to, something that’s interested you?
I’m reading a book on the Carter Family called Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? John Paul Jones turned me on to it. Great book, about their parents, and the story through their band’s career. Right now they’ are on the radio in Mexico, Sarah is out in California. It’s really interesting to read about the industry ant the time, and their contemporaries. There’s a lot more to them and their story, and how much they worked to get where they were. I’ve been enjoying that a lot.
Thanks so much for taking the time, Sara. I wish you all the luck with the record.
Thank you. I really appreciate the interview.