A time of growth for Sara Watkins
Eighteen years into a musical career that’s included multiple Grammy nominations and wins usually isn’t the time for an explosion of growth.
But that’s exactly what singer and fiddler Sara Watkins has experienced since her critically acclaimed “new-grass” trio, Nickel Creek, took a break after its last tour in 2007.
“That’s what the hiatus was for,” Watkins said recently in a phone interview during some down time from touring. “We (the Nickel Creek band members) felt like we weren’t growing anymore as musicians. In the meantime, I’m such a better musician because I’ve taken the things I’ve learned from touring and growing up in that band and I’m now trying my sea legs on my own. It’s been a really invaluable experience.”
West Virginia fans of Watkins’ music will get a first-hand look at that growth July 30 when the musician opens with her backing band for Ricky Skaggs. The Clay Center concert wraps up almost a year of non-stop touring behind the debut album.
Shortly after, Watkins begins another journey of musical growth with the Prairie Home Companion Tour with Garrison Keillor, which starts in mid-August.
“It’s going to be a totally different show than I’m used to putting on,” she said. “I’m kind of cramming right now to get ready for it.”
The tour is just one of many divergent projects that has Watkins excited about the direction of her career.
While her Nickel Creek band mates have participated in multiple musical projects, including solo albums of their own — some wildly divergent from the Nickel Creek sound — Watkins has kept just as busy exploring new projects and sounds.
In 2008, word spread that Watkins was forming a super group of sorts called Works Progress Administration, consisting of her brother Sean Watkins on guitar, Glen Phillips from Toad the Wet Sprocket, Benmont Tench, a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Greg Leisz, who’s appeared on virtually everything, Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s longtime drummer, and Davey Faragher, a bassist with Cracker.
Additionally, she’s also performed with drummer Questlove of the Roots and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also produced her solo debut.
In fact, a lot of Watkins’ growth, she said, stems from the 2009 release of her solo-debut, “Sara Watkins,” a breathless collection of subdued folk. Despite not considering songwriting one of her strong musical skills, Watkins wrote or co-wrote the majority of the songs.
Another album’s worth of material is also in the works, with recording tentatively scheduled to begin this winter. A few songs have already been sketched out, and Watkins said the new collection figures to be much more energetic.
“I don’t plan on doing a rock record or anything,” she said, laughing. “(But) a lot of the tempos (from the last record) I really wish were a lot faster, so that’s going to change. (The debut record is) a lot more down tempo than the way we do it live and the way the songs naturally come out now. Honestly, I’m still figuring out my process.”
And for those folks wondering when Nickel Creek will get back together, don’t hold your breath that it’ll happen anytime soon.
“We’re open to it, but we’re not going to push it. We talk and hang out and love playing together when we’re in the same place,” she said. “But when (the reunion) happens it will be a big enough thing that we’ll have to put a lot of things on hold.”
For now, the three musicians are proud of what they did as a group and would rather move on rather than push themselves into something for any reason other than wanting to do creatively.
And that creative itch, right now, is leading them elsewhere.
The Nickel Creek crew is through round one of their solo albums and Watkins expects at least one more solo release from herself, her brother, Sean, and mandolinist Chris Thile. And she couldn’t be happier with that arrangement.
But when they do get back together, expect things to pick up right where the band left off.
“One night we found ourselves on stage with each other,” Watkins said, “and we were doing a song we’d jammed on over the years and we started singing harmony together and it was so fun. I love that there are things that are very go-to and comfortable. We know how to do it well.”