Nickel Creek: Celebrating the Now

Music Features Nickel Creek
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Never mind the Grammy Awards, the accolades and being young, gifted and at her creative peak. There was a moment during the recording of 2005’s Why Must The Fire Die when Sara Watkins found herself questioning everything. It wasn’t that things were so bad, just that the fiddler/vocalist and her Nickel Creek bandmates—mandolinist/vocalist/sometime Punch Brother Chris Thile and her brother, guitarist/vocalist Sean Watkins—were exhausted.

“It was a long time coming,” she recalls on a Saturday morning in a Nashville rehearsal hall where Nickel Creek is gearing up for their 25th anniversary tour. “We were so tired… We were spent, creatively and physically. We’d toured and toured and had done all the work [that goes into supporting a record] pretty intensely, and the recording process was going on and on.

“I remember thinking, ‘How long can we do this?’ I just didn’t know where it was going to come from, because we’d over-farmed the creative ground.”

Watkins offers no drama, nor is there the flat recounting to her tone, so often the disaffection of survivors looking back. Perhaps compassion for her younger self, or maybe the love for her bandmates, tempers the exhaustion in hindsight.

Regardless, it was the state of Nickel Creek. Having taken the music business by storm with their eclectic approach to post-bluegrass acoustica, the wunderkinds realized they were tapped out. So, they did the unthinkable: in spite of momentum, money and conventional wisdom, they stopped.

It wasn’t a matter of bravery or frustration. They reached the crossroads, and rather than harvest what was built, they stopped because it was the right thing to do. As Watkins explains, “Having grown up in the world of Nickel Creek, we were a little pack; we were young and really busy, so we didn’t have time to live or experience.”

“And,” she continues, addressing the reality of the musicians going their separate ways, “the nature of who we are, we didn’t think about a record or anything. When you’re friends…and you play…you kinda know you’ll play together again. You have that.”

At just 32, it’s hard to imagine Sara Watkins in any band for 25 years, let alone one cited by TIME in 2001 as “One of Five Musical Innovators of the Millennium.” Indeed, it’s almost as hard to believe it’s been nine years since their last studio album or seven years since the winsome trio walked offstage at the last date of their “Farewell for Now” tour.

Over the last decade, Thile and the Watkins siblings floated like milkweed. Between the Punch Brothers and various collaborations for Thile—including The Goat Rodeo Sessions with classical violinist Yo-Yo Ma, acclaimed progressive bassist Edgar Meyer and superstar fiddler Stuart Duncan—and the Watkins’ solo projects, as well as what became the wildly eclectic Watkins Family Hour every month at Los Angeles’ tastemaker haven Luna and the supergroup Works Progress Administration featuring Glen Phillips, Luka Bulla, Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz, Pete Thomas and Davey Farragher, it seemed that they had each found plenty of creative outlets for their talents.

“I am not sure you ever understand the impact you are making when you are in the middle of it,” says Jon Peats, the band’s long-time manager. “But looking back, they opened a lot of doors for progressive acoustic music.

“[When they called it quits], I really wasn’t sure a reunion would ever happen. I hoped that it would, because they are so special together. I think as you get older, you realize these things are rare, precious and unique.”

But life has a way of moving on. Like high-school reunions, it’s easy to remember and idealize, but you’re already somewhere else. Still, the Watkins and Thile had been playing together since Sara was eight—and the three were linked almost at the cellular level.

So drinks and laughter turned to memories and maybe. They played a little, marveled at the magic the only manager they’ve ever had points out. The notion of a few shows to celebrate 25 years came up, and then the “could it happen?” and overlaying of very busy schedules began.

“I was very surprised,” Peats, who also manages the Black Keys, Eric Church and producer Jay Joyce as the head of Q Prime South, says. “Sara called me, and when she said they were talking about some tour dates around their 25th anniversary, I couldn’t believe it.

“Not the fact that they wanted to do some dates, but that it had been 25 years since they started! We talked about it, and we thought, ‘What would really be cool would be to have some new music to go with the tour.’ They decided to get together and try to write some, and like old friends, fell right into the old groove.”

They more than fell into the old groove. Having spent all that time apart, growing as musicians, as people, the three came back together stronger than ever.

Sara Watkins, whose solo debut was produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and who shared recording sessions and stages with Tift Merritt, John Mayer, Fiona Apple, the Decemberists and toured as an opening act and supplement musician for Jackson Browne, marvels at how easy picking up where the friends left off was.

“We thought it’d be some celebratory shows,” she says of the mustard seed that led to A Dotted Line. “But in talking about that, we started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had some music…’

“So we got together to try and write—and after four or five days, we knew we could make a whole record! It came together so quickly. Then we started talking to people [at labels], and we were off.”

Nickel Creek, from their self-titled Alison Krauss-produced third album, quickly established themselves as an act that blurred lines and moved between oeuvres the way people walk through rooms: seamlessly and without thinking. Now the blur is so integrated, the various songs—from the warmly strummed “Rest of My Life” through the almost gospel “21st of May,” the surging truculence of the chop ’n’ stop “Destination,” near-pop acoustic of “Love of Mine,” or the herky-jerky take on Mother Mother’s “Hayloft”—flow without any notion of what it is or how the elements fit together.

“That’s what we’d hoped would happen,” Sara Watkins agrees. “Ideally, you don’t want to have a song or a record that feels like all these ingredients are chopped up and thrown together. You want—the ideal—your influences to be digested and taken in, processed in a way that makes sense.

“The stronger we have become as individuals, it contributes to us being a stronger band,” she continues. “We didn’t know that going in, though…We were afraid we’d be strong as individuals, and that would make coming together harder. But we also had the advantage of fairly common goals: what we want out of a song or arrangement.”

The writing process literally tumbled together. The three collaborated on the music, talked about what each song would be. Then the one who was to sing the song would go off and finish the lyrics on their own.

Sean Watkins had completed “21st of May.” Thile arrived with “You Don’t Know What’s Going On” almost finished. For Sara Watkins, “Destination” was a song she’d worked and re-worked without finding the place to make it what she wanted.

“I had this verse and a chorus,” she begins, of the song about recognizing time wasted, the inertia that sets in and the drive to move on. “I had lyrics for it—and knew [the song], but never played it because I wasn’t super-excited about it.

“Trying to get this frustrated feeling out, that not being where you want to be—and I’d re-worked that lyrics a few different times: through the angles of other people’s eyes. [But] it ended up coming up much more personal than I’d ever planned.”

There’s a pause. “Life does that to you: nine years had gone past. That’s a lot of life… And I can say we all really grew, and lived. Part of the strength of Nickel Creek is we know each others’ strengths.

“[When we got back together to play] we were really excited to see how we have grown. Sean’s singing and guitar playing has grown so much over the years, and Chris’ singing, the way he’s expanded what he does…It’s exciting [for us] to make music.”

As Peats says of the time apart, “They all have done their own things for a while. They have explored the world as individuals; they appreciate what they accomplished together. The songs reflect these experiences and have really matured.

“I think musically, they have let their hair down a bit. The songs jump with celebration to me.”

It’s hard to argue with the quirky “Hayloft,” a song Thile’s brother Daniel had played him when the pair were out driving. Though the mandolinist enjoyed it, no one he was playing with really latched onto it. If it’s The Bird & The Bee meets Brit punk songstress Lene Lovich—polemic to Nickel Creek’s theoretic wheelhouse—the Watkins both jumped at the unlikely choice.

“Topically, it suits us. It’s kind of an old-timey idea, the lyric and what it’s saying. We’d never heard of Mother Mother, but part of the fun of doing covers is you end up thinking about the song differently! You see how somebody else put it together, then you get to think about what you could do with it.”

That same expansion of what’s there is what drew Watkins to Sam Phillips’ shimmering ache “Where Is Love Now,” previously recorded by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The raw waiting and hoping in the wake of the hopeless had made its way to the Watkins through a board tape handed over by Largo’s owner Mark Flanagan—who had insisted “even if only 17 people show up” the Watkins take what became a monthly residency known as the Watkins’ Family Hour at the club—over a decade ago.

“Sam Phillips hadn’t recorded it, and we’d done it in the Nickel Creek days, but never got around to recording it, either,” Sara says. “I’d intended to put it on one of my solo records, but that didn’t happen.”

Instead, it closes A Dotted Line with the notion—beyond the pain of unrequited feelings—of love’s irrepressibility. Like a dandelion growing up through concrete, love (even love denied) will not be quashed. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The heart wants what it wants.”

“That lyric is so sad and so lonesome, it would’ve been hard to perform under the time constraints,” Watkins says. “Some people like to discover in the studio, but for a song like this, I was glad to be able to know it.”

When Watkins talks about speed in the studio, she’s not kidding. Working with Eric Valentine, who not only produced Why Should the Fire Die but Queens of the Stone Age, Good Charlotte, Slash, Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth and the All-American Rejects, Line was 13 days start-to-finish.

“Most of it happened in 11 days, while we were tracking,” Watkins remembers. “Since Sean and I live in LA, we could go in and add fiddle layers and things that weren’t central to the tracks and the energy. But it was very fast; I don’t think Eric has made a record that fast, either…and he’s very good at stepping back and taking a look at all of it, that longview. With us, that’s a good thing.”

Watkins cites the unlikely producer’s gift at—beyond getting big rock and pop tracks—recognizing the sonic gift their various mandolins, guitars and fiddles provide. “He knows our instruments and how they sound, that makes a huge difference.”

A Dotted Line is a warm record, bright and aggressive without throttling. The few plucked notes on “Christmas Eve” have massive presence without being overly big, holding up Sean Watkins’ confused and hurt vocal. As his sister’s fiddle threads and laces through the chords, the trio finds harmony on the chorus—and the expansion of the music suggests a resolve within the emotions, but not one of resignation. Rather this song, like “You Don’t Know,” play to the way love can stumble and falter, but also tentatively try to mend and reconnect.

“I have been blessed to work some amazingly talented people in my life,” Peats says, assessing Nickel Creek’s evolution. “These three got me started…They all have moved from being super-talented kids to some of the most caring and passionate adults I know.”

And so it begins. Nickel Creek is taking the time to not just celebrate what was, but to consider how their gifts have grown and their lives expanded. Never “cute kids,” always musicians capable of hanging with Jon Brion, Mark O’Connor, Byron Berline (who wrote the song they took their name from), Jack White, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, as well as taking acoustic/roots-based music to Lollapalooza, ACL and Bonnaroo.

“The first time we performed officially together as a band or played any of the new material was on The Tonight Show,” Watkins marvels. “And everything else we did [for promo] in New York the week [Dotted Line] came out.

“We were standing in our band formation—and it was surreal in some ways. But it was so natural in others. It’s like a celebration in certain ways of growing up…more than the past, we’re making something now that builds on each others’ ideas.

“Working up stuff for the shows, we’re relearning old material—and trying new things with it. We want people to leave the shows happy, so we’ve got a lot of songs to learn! A lot of songs will be on the table, everything from the album, and every night will be different.

“It’s nice to know we’re not just reliving…That’s a good feeling. Becoming stronger as individuals, we became stronger as a band.”

Still, with all three having other commitments, Nickel Creek knows to savor what is for now. Though music fans are thrilled to have them back, the three are not looking at this reunion from the vantage point of long-range planning.

“Back in the day, when we’d do interviews,” Watkins allows, “someone would ask us, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ We never had a very good answer. To us, it was like ‘We have a record out right now.’ That—beyond we always had a weakness for fun—was all we needed. If you’re in the right now, that’s what matters.”