Thursday, May 3, 2012

Interview with Sara Watkins

photo by Aaron Redfield
My interview originally appeared at

During "The Foothills," a quick instrumental that opens Sara Watkins' forthcoming album, "Sun Midnight Sun," the feisty fiddle work seems to be Irish-influenced.

The one-time Nickel Creek member wouldn't necessarily label it that way though.

"A lot of the decorations that people associate with Celtic music just happen for me all the time; I always throw 'em in," said Watkins, 30, in a recent phone interview.

The Americana-steeped release, due in stores May 8 on Nonesuch Records, found the North County musician taking more of a low-key approach than for her 2009 self-titled debut.

"It's totally different from my first one, but I wasn't trying to surprise myself. Everything that happened was a natural result from the collaboration with (producer) Blake Mills and myself."

Guest singers Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and keyboardist Benmont Tench all previously participated in the Watkins Family Hour, a long-running concert series she does with guitarist/vocalist brother Sean at Largo in Los Angeles.

Those shows have been "absolutely crucial for me, in terms of getting to play with other people, keeping things moving and throwing wrenches in all kinds of works in really great ways. It's a privilege to have that residency every month."

The siblings join former Nickel Creek partner Chris Thile and his band, the Punch Brothers, on the roster of talent appearing at Largo's third annual LA Bluegrass Situation. The series ---- May 3 to 5 at the La Cienega Boulevard venue and May 6 at Coldwater Canyon Park ---- also features musical performances by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, John C. Reilly and Ed Helms.

Despite having written the bulk of new material on two solo albums, Watkins still sometimes doubts her abilities.

"I'm not sure that I'll ever be confident in writing," she said. "Instrumentals are one thing, but with vocals ---- I feel lucky if I can catch one. I can't really beckon them. I'm still at the mercy of whatever the circumstances are that bring me to write a song."

There are plenty of captivating moments among the seven originals and three covers on "Sun." Subtle violin and acoustic guitar shade the gentle "Lock and Key," which revolves around a disintegrating relationship.

Watkins said the "old-timey" tune concerns "somebody I fell out of favor with for no reason," while the folky, campfire singalong vibe of "You and Me" is about "how we're sometimes different people, depending on who we're with. The first record, everything was about romantic coupling, and this one, I was glad I got away from it, ever so slightly."

Elsewhere, "Take Up Your Spade" was inspired by Watkins' concert tour of Scotland a few years ago with "a bunch of ridiculously great musicians and a festival there called Celtic Connections."

"I wanted it to be a congregational song; I didn't want it to be gospel, per se. What I really like is the curtain call of singers on the record. All the individual voices come out in different parts. It's not this mass of indecipherable voices."

Apple appears on a fast, tension-filled take on the Everly Brothers B-side "You're the One I Love." Watkins wanted to sing something with her "for a long time. I asked if she was interested, she was game and it was awesome."

Browne adds harmonies to three tracks, including Willie Nelson's "I'm a Memory," where Watkins' elegant violin work meshes gorgeously with a galloping rhythm.

"Sean showed the song to me, we learned it for the Family Hour and pretty much ripped off (Willie's) version. For the album, we rearranged it a lot."

Then there's "When It Pleases You," a caustic retort to a selfish lover by Dan Wilson (Dixie Chicks, Adele). Watkins spent much of last year touring with the Decemberists and appears on their new live album (she can also be heard on 2012 releases by Lyle Lovett and Kris Kristofferson).

"What I really took away from (the Decemberists) experience was this whole other level of showmanship."

Upcoming tour dates feature Sara and Sean Watkins, plus a bassist.

"We're going to be resourceful onstage, passing the instruments around and creatively pulling off the record onstage."

Tour dates:
May 3 Los Angeles, CA The Watkins Family Hour at Largo
May 27 Cumberland, MD Delfest
May 31 York, PA Strand-Capitol PAC
June 1 Washington, DC 9:30 Club
June 2 Elmer, NJ Appel Farms Arts and Music Festival
June 3 Hunter Mountain, NY Mountain Jam Festival
June 5 Pittsburgh, PA Three Rivers Arts Festival
June 6 Cincinnati, OH Taft Theatre
June 7 Indianapolis, IN The Vogue
June 10 Athens, GA The Melting Point
June 11 Chattanooga, TN Track 29
June 13 Asheville, NC The Orange Peel
June 14 Carrboro, NC Cat’s Cradle
June 15 Richmond, VA Friday Cheers
June 16 New York, NY City Winery
June 17 Croton on Hudson, NY Clearwater Festival
July 29 Newport, RI Newport Folk Festival

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