Catching Up With... Sara Watkins

Music Features Sara Watkins
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Catching Up With... Sara Watkins

After nearly two decades of being one-third of Nickel Creek, Sara Watkins is ready to make music on her own terms. Teaming up with former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones as producer, the 27-year-old is searching for hope within the chords of her guitar, fiddle and ukulele on her new, self-titled debut album, out now.

Paste caught up with Watkins while she was awaiting the release of her album and relaxing at her home in California before her current U.S tour.

: Tell me about your new album. Are you excited?
Sara Watkins: I am excited. I kinda feel like it's already out since I've been talking to so many people about it. I'm really excited and I'm ready, I'm getting the itch to get back on tour.

Paste: Are you going on tour soon?
Watkins: I'm going to be in New York for the [album] release and then I'll be opening for the Old Crow Medicine Show for a few dates and then I'll be in the East Coast, and then the Midwest, and then over to the West Coast.

Paste: Wow, you are going to be everywhere.
Watkins: Yeah, I'll be here and there and I'm hoping to be working for most of this year.

Paste: And where are you now?
Watkins: Right now, I'm home, in Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego.

Paste: Why was now the time to record your solo album? It just felt right?

Paste: Did you have a vision going in to record this album, of what you wanted it to be, during the pre-recording process?
Watkins: We did have a vision along the way; we knew what we wanted to avoid. A few things changed along the way, but we had a pretty good idea. Okay, let me give you the lowdown. He approached me at their show at the Cambridge fold festival in England about producing my record and he said, "If you don't let me produce your record, I'll never speak to you again." Pretty awesome. I wasn't quite sure if he was super serious about it or if he was just enthusiastic and then he would eventually wisen up and decide he didn't want to hear it. We kept in touch. We both see eye to eye and we were super serious about this and then we started sending songs back and forth like demos, extensive live versions of things I've been playing and we talked about narrowing down the song choices, talked about instrumentation, what we wanted to have for each song and who we would have play those instruments. We did the first week in Los Angeles and the rest we did in Nashville.

: When you chose the songs, how did you decide which ones would be covers and which ones would be yours?
Watkins: It's about half originals and half covers. I had been doing several of those songs, several of those covers, for a couple of years. When we started listening to them, I was pretty attached and John liked them a lot as well. So a lot of them were pretty easy decisions. "This one is great, probably not this one. This one is great, probably not this one." It was very easy doing the bulk of that and towards the end, there were a couple of additions. I wrote "Bygones" just before going to the studio. I remember it being a very smooth process.

: "Freiderick" is a solo instrumental with no vocals and it's so different from the other tracks on the album. Why did you choose it?
Watkins: I wrote it a little while ago with my brother [Sean Watkins]. I like it, it's a fun little tune and we wanted to have a few instrumentals in there.

Paste: It seemed that you and John were very connected while working together. Both of you knew what you wanted. Your album sounds a little melancholy. Is this what you were going for?
Watkins: We didn't really have the goal of making the record melancholy. I actually think of  the record as fairly hopeful. I like how the record is adaptable though, to fit the mood. But the main goal is just to have a collection of songs that fit well together and which John and I are both fans of, and we actually love all of these songs. We just wanted to make them sound great and concise, make a united record.

: Did you have any particular collaborations in this album? Guest musicians that you enjoyed working with?
Watkins: There are a lot of talented musicians in this album, but we tried to make it all blend  together. I know that when we were recording, we wanted everything to blend together,  instead of a record with all of these special guests. There are special guests that I admire and that I am grateful to have in my recording and I think they all do a tremendous job.

Paste: What are your future plans? Are you planning to get back together with Nickel Creek and record another album? Another solo album?
Watkins: This is gonna take my full attention. This is gonna be my main effort and I'm going to put my whole energy into my solo career. The way we left Nickel Creek is pretty much how we conducted the band; we wanted to record and tour for as long as it was fun but as soon as we felt like we had done what we needed to do together, we decided to go on hiatus and if we ever make a record and tour again, it would just be because the three of us happen to feel like doing it. But we have no plans to do that. I  think that each of us is very happy right now with the freedom that we enjoy to do other projects.

Paste: You were working with Nickel Creek since you were very young. How did that  experience help you with this record?
Watkins: Everything! I couldn't have done this without Nickel Creek. Nickel Creek was my whole musical outlet. I mean, it was 99.9% of my musical life up until now. It was completely wonderful to grow up and experience larger-than-life issues. I could not have made this record without those 18 and a half years in that band. It's a really long time. I think it's gonna make working with this album so much easier, just because of my experience with us touring and being around for such a long time. It's very comfortable. I'm very glad that it's not just out of the blue, never recorded, never toured, and then trying to pull it off. I think I would have a nervous breakdown. Most of my life, my childhood was spent in a band. I feel like I'm ready.