Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek had several goals in mind while making her self-titled solo debut, but ending up with a record unlike any of Nickel Creek’s wasn’t one of them.
“That was just inevitable,” says the singer-fiddler, who lives 100 miles south of L.A., in Carlsbad. “I’m only one-third of the band, so there was no way this was gonna sound like that.”
Watkins, 27, formed Nickel Creek with her guitarist brother Sean and mandolin whiz Chris Thile before the three were old enough to drink, drive or tour without a tutor. In 2007, after a nearly 20-year run during which the group moved from the tightly knit bluegrass scene to the wider roots-music world, they decided to take an open-ended break in order to pursue other endeavors. (Last year Thile released the first studio set by his arty string-band outfit, Punch Brothers, while Sean recently formed Fiction Family with Jon Foreman of San Diego’s Switchfoot.)
Like her bandmates, each of whom has several solo discs to his name, Watkins recorded on her own during the Nickel Creek years. Yet her output never cohered in a way that suggested an album — it all felt “a little schizo,” she says. Putting her day job on hiatus, though, allowed “me to refocus on what I wanted”: a record that properly showcased her unique synthesis of bluegrass, country, folk, soul and pop. “All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t want this to be a little side project,” Watkins says, “so I dedicated myself to it and put all my energy toward it.”
The result was worth the wait: Split almost evenly between original songs and smartly selected covers, Sara Watkins (released last month on Nonesuch) is a low-key stunner that “strikes a nice balance of what people would expect and what they wouldn’t see coming,” as Sean Watkins puts it. Opener “All This Time” and “My Friend” are delicate acoustic ballads; Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time” has an old-timey barn-dance swing; the instrumentals “Jefferson” and “Freiderick” offer plenty of hot licks; and a version of “Too Much” by the great Texas songwriter David Garza slinks along on a killer R&B bass line.
Despite the multitude of styles — not to mention guest appearances by such A-list L.A. sessioners as Benmont Tench, Pete Thomas, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Jon Brion and Greg Leisz (all veterans of the Watkins Family Hour, Sean and Sara’s semiregular Largo gig) — the music never feels crowded or showoff-y, which was precisely what Watkins and producer John Paul Jones were after. “I wanted it to be about her voice,” says the Led Zeppelin bassist, who toured with Nickel Creek in 2004 as part of Mutual Admiration Society, their collaboration with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket. “We got a lot of heavy talent on the record, but I was careful not to have that take away from the main attraction.”
Though Watkins admits it still blows her mind that Jones agreed to produce her, she actually didn’t have much choice in the matter: In 2006, following Nickel Creek’s performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival in England, Jones appeared in the band’s dressing room and told Watkins that if she ever made a solo record and didn’t have him produce it, he’d never speak to her again. “I believe that clinched it,” Jones says with a chuckle.
In their earliest conversations about the album, “there was a lot of politeness and tiptoeing around,” Watkins says. “Even if one of us wasn’t stoked on something, we’d be like, ‘No, that could be cool!’” Soon, Watkins felt she had to address the issue. “I said to him, ‘Look, I know you’re really awesome and nice, but let’s just talk straight,’ and from then on it was awesome.”
Now that she’s captured the Sara Watkins sound, the singer says her big challenge — the big challenge confronting everyone in the record industry right now — is “trying to find people and convince them that you’re worthy of being liked.” She’s confident that Nickel Creek fans will dig Sara Watkins — not least because Thile and Sean both play on it — but it’s also important to her that the album travels beyond that core. “I want to connect with people who didn’t even know about Nickel Creek,” she says. “And a lot of that is word of mouth — people passing stuff around and hearing about the live show.”
To keep costs down, Watkins is acting as her own tour manager on the road, which means “I’m on my phone all the time answering e-mails about departure times and hotels and car rentals and band members. But it’s great — I’m learning so much.”
Sara Watkins: Band member. Solo act. Future family-vacation planner? “I’ll be like, ‘Come on, kids!’” she laughs. “‘Didn’t you get your itinerary? It’s in your tour book!’”
Sara Watkins performs at Largo at the Coronet on Thursday, May 14.