Using music to move people — and herself
Sara Watkins has been in the public eye since she was playing bluegrass tunes in Southern California pizza parlors with her brother Sean and their friend Chris Thile. She has carved out a successful solo career, collaborated with Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan in I’m With Her, Glen Phillips, Luke Bulla and Greg Leisz in Works Progress Administration, and with Sean and a rotating cast of characters in the Watkins Family Hour. She’s crazy talented, and delightfully down to earth. She talked about pinching herself on the Cayamo cruise when she looked up on stage and saw Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, or singing backup on tour with Jackson Browne.
2017 - Pre-Concert Talk
People have been listening to Sara Watkins make music for almost 30 years.
It’s been a wonderful life for the fiddle prodigy, who began playing bluegrass in Nickel Creek as an 8-year-old in 1989 and released her third solo album, “Young in All the Wrong Ways, last summer. Along the way, Watkins learned many lessons, including the need to make sure she wasn’t living life on cruise control.
“One of the feelings that I had going into the writing (of these songs) was that I was accidentally terrified of finding myself in some place that I didn’t want to be simply because I didn’t make the effort to identify what I was by default choosing,” says Watkins, who visits Live at the Ludlow Garage Thursday.
“That was terrifying to me. I think it’s impossible to have complete control over our lives, but I didn’t want to find myself in a rut someday that I didn’t mean to bury myself in. It was just waking up to a new level that put the fire under my (butt) and made me want to get moving.”
Fans shouldn’t mistake Watkins’ passion for dissatisfaction. It’s almost the opposite. She appreciates what she has and has accomplished, so she’s being proactive to preserve it. She even has a phrase for it.
“I hope to have ‘course corrections’ every five to 10 years because life changes. It goes faster and faster,” she says. “I don’t want to have the same opinions I had five years ago, I don’t want to relate to the world the same way I did 10 years ago.
“I’m a very sentimental person, a very nostalgic person. Even so, I don’t think that is the right way to take on the future.”
Watkins faced her future by writing or co-writing every song on the album (a first for her) and calling on fellow fiddler Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers to produce it. Two tunes in particular – “One Last Time” and “Move Me” – sound very personal, but as she says, aren’t necessarily autobiographical.
“A lot of these issues are placed in the situation of might be seen as romance. It helps them to be relatable, that’s a situation that easily adapted,” Watkins says. “That’s what should happen at (this age). It’s not always easy, it can be very tumultuous, but it was the only option that I was willing to take.”
That option has paid off with arguably the best of her three solo albums. It has also provided another entry point into her music for both longtime fans and new responders.
“It’s great to have people come up and say, ‘I saw you open for John Prine,’ or ‘I saw you play with the Decemberists.’ It’s a great reminder of ‘Yeah, I did that,’ ” Watkins laughs. “It’s wonderful (those experiences) stuck with people and they came to see this show. This tour, more than ever, it feels like people have been coming out for the first time having never seen Nickel Creek or a full show of mine.”
That’s what happens when people hear something universally personal in your music. You move them.
2012 - Album Release Interview
There’s a temptation to marvel at the list of musicians that Sara Watkins has played with during her career and come to the conclusion that she is a lucky woman.
But it’s possible that approach is a bit backward; maybe it’s the higher-profile folks who are lucky to play with her. Better yet, let’s just say that fans are the luckiest of all.
The fiddle player first gained prominence as a teenager in the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. After opening for Dawes and Jackson Browne here earlier this year, Watkins will have more time to showcase songs from her “Sun Midnight Sun” album, her self-titled first solo album and any number of tunes that she has worked up for the Watkins Family Hour, the monthly shows that Sara and her brother Sean have hosted in Los Angeles since 2002 that feature a rotating cast of friends.
The event is aptly named.
“I think it was the nature of the music that I was playing and the musical culture that I grew up in that encouraged collaboration so much that you end playing with a really diverse group of people,” Watkins says. “And you can end up with a really diverse group of memories simply because of the collaborations that have happened.”
One of the more interesting collaborations took place on the Cayamo singer-songwriter cruise in February when Watkins was part of a quartet that welcomed people aboard the boat. She was joined by Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson and Jim Lauderdale.
“I can tell you exactly what I was thinking when I was there: I was thinking ‘What the hell am I doing with a guitar in my hands?’ ” she laughs. “That’s what I was thinking with those three guys and me. That’s when I drug my brother along to be my guitar shield.”
Nice gesture, but Watkins wasn’t there by accident. She might have been the most visible player during the weeklong event. She played solo; she played with WPA, the collaborative that includes brother Sean, former Toad the Wet Sprocket leader Glen Phillips and guitar/steel guitar master Greg Leisz; she joined Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt.
“The moment of realization can happen at any time, regardless of whether you’re playing with someone who is well known, but depending on the music that is happening,” Watkins says. “You find these special moments when everyone just hits on the right thing at the right time and gets to share a great … a beautiful musical moment. It’s amazing no matter what.”
Although the collaborations are more visible on stage, Watkins takes the same approach in the studio. After former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones produced her first solo album, she turned to Blake Mills, the L.A. guitarist who has worked with Fiona Apple (who sings on “Sun”) and Lucinda Williams this time around.
“That’s the reason I wanted to have a producer on this record because I wanted to hear somebody else’s thoughts on these songs,” Watkins says. “I was kind of tired of my perspective, and I think that’s the case for a lot of people.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got these songs and I can make a record,’ but I’d really love to hear where they could go. I wanted to have a … band feel. I love that; I don’t think I want to hide away in the closet and make something that’s just me. I can and I will, but I just love to play off of other people.”
Watkins also loves to play songs written by other people, if the tunes are good. She wrote seven of the 10 songs on “Sun,” but the covers – Dan Wilson’s “When It Pleases You,” Willie Nelson’s “I’m a Memory,” and Boudleaux and Felice Bryant’s “You’re the One I Love” – show Watkins’ facility for finding gems.
“I learned these songs while looking for songs for the Watkins Family Hour,” she says. “I have been fortunate enough to listen to music with the ear of ‘Can I cover this?’ I had to cover so many songs for the Family Hour and early on in Nickel Creek before I was writing.
“Part of the reason I love singing cover songs is that I love getting out of my own head. I love singing from somebody else’s perspective and singing songs that I never would have written.”
Whether she wrote them or not, the songs that Watkins is singing and playing these days are strong. And this week, she gets to play twice as many of them.