Sara Watkins makes an emphatic impression, both through her music and in her musings. Here she is now, speaking on the phone prior to preparing for her set at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival while sharing her thoughts on her lengthy career, her life as a musician, and the profound joy she finds in plying her trade.
In fact, it seems strange that any explanation is in order. The songs on her tellingly titled new album, Young In All the Wrong Ways, reflect a sound that’s both intimate and endearing. The tender, yearning title track, the pretty yet pensive “Like New Year’s Day” and the steady, pleading “Move Me” (in which she tells a would-be paramour, “I want you to love me”) find her expressing herself with an unmistakable clarity of purpose. That assertive stance is especially evident on those songs that find her engaged in a country caress—the uptempo “One Last Time” and the spunky showstopper “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free” in particular. They offer proof that she’s attempting to find her footing in ways that mix both sass and sentiment.
While Young In All the Wrong Ways has been touted as a soul-baring experience, Watkins rolls back that premise. Despite its emphasis on relationships which have been tattered and torn, she says her life isn’t necessarily a source for these songs, at least not in every case anyway. “These songs are about one thing, a circumstance or interaction, a nugget of truth that seems very singular,” she explains. “I like singing about things I can apply through the years. They’re not necessarily about one person or one relationship. Most of these songs draw from different influences, but they take up the same space in my life.”
That seems logical, especially considering the fact that she’s been making music most of her life, beginning at the tender age of eight when she, her brother Sean and Chris Thile banded together in the bluegrass band known as Nickel Creek. She’s been at it ever since, shifting through a varied string of ensembles, among them WPA, Mutual Admiration Society and the Watkins Family Hour, most of which find her regrouping with her brother Sean. In truth, the two are inseparable, both as siblings and as musical collaborators, given the fact that she’s performed with him throughout her career. He’s contributed to her three solo outings and she’s loaned her efforts to the individual efforts he’s recorded as well.
“We both feel very willing to help out when we’re invited, but we sympathize with each other to a great degree,” she maintains. “Just because we’re siblings doesn’t mean we have to play on everything the other person does. Just because you’re in a band doesn’t have to play with those musicians forever. The Family Hour was a huge partnership, and after that tour it was nice to separate and dig into other people’s brains.”
Watkins claims the new album became something of a challenge to herself, a way of severing certain relationships—her management and her former record company included.
“Scary isn’t the word I would use,” she replies when asked if the circumstances were unsettling. “It was something I was going through that gave me a certain urgency. I was worried that I was going to get too comfortable with the way I played, or how I lived, or how I think. I was a little concerned that I would fall into a rut eventually and unintentionally, and then I’d look back in 10 years and realize that I hadn’t evolved at all. It was out of that concern that made me realize I don’t want to stay the same. I want to keep evolving. That isn’t comfortable, but it is necessary and it feels right to me.”
Consequently, she tackled the challenge head on. “If I feel uncomfortable with something, rather than letting myself be too overtaken or discouraged or having any other lame excuse, I chose to see this is a good thing. When things are challenging, you get to walk down a path you haven’t traversed yet. It definitely took a little effort, and it is a choice to move forward into the unknown. It’s not in my nature. I do like to be comfortable. But I also like to be busy and to challenge myself. You have to jump in the water to learn how to swim, and I like to do that.”
Likewise, writing an entire album was something new, a tack she hadn’t tried before. In the past she relied more on cover tunes to convey her feelings. This time, she opted to distill her personal experiences through those things she observed in others. It was, she admits, a bit like therapy.
“Writing these songs helped me organize my thoughts,” she reflects. “I don’t write songs because I know the answers or I’ve figured something out. Generally I’m trying to solve a puzzle in my life, and when I write, it helps me find my way through a scenario or a situation. These songs capture the process of trying to make sense of things. It’s quite therapeutic.”
In this case, the songs came naturally, the result of inspiration she found in situations that were near and dear. “These songs all came out together in a batch over the course of a year, year and a half,” she recalls. “I write from what I know in life. Even story songs have something biographical in them that gets me started. All these songs come from a similar place, how I was processing life for that year and a half. The relationship things on the record aren’t necessarily about my romantic relationships. Even though I laid out these stories in the framework of a romantic relationship, really they’re just a way to tell stories.”
Ultimately then, for all the uncertainty and entanglements, Watkins finds little to complain about. She finds her current set of circumstances practically ideal.
“I feel great about life,” she declares. “I feel like I’m taking on challenges and working a lot, playing a lot, practicing a lot and applying myself, and that feels really good. Sometimes you lose track of some of the simple niceties of the job. It’s a job like any other job. I get to play with some great bands. I get to go to great places, and it pays really well. I feel very lucky to be so attached to this thing I’ve gotten to do my whole life. The best way to express myself is by being a musician. I have no other skills.”