On Her Own For Once, Sara Watkins Finds New Footing

Jul 2, 2016
Originally published on July 2, 2016 2:26 pm

NPR listeners first met fiddle player Sara Watkins in Nickel Creek — the trio of prodigies that brought a youthful spirit to a bluegrass world that reveres its elders. Once she started making solo albums, however, she figured out what maturity sounds like for her.

Gary Paczosa engineered the pair of Nickel Creek albums that put the band on the map, both of which were produced by Alison Krauss. Paczosa remembers Krauss remarking on Watkins's place in the Nickel Creek dynamic, which matched her with her friend Chris Thile and brother Sean Watkins.

"She was definitely with her big brother and with Chris Thile," he says, "and they were best friends, and that it would be a really tough situation to be with teenage boys, you know?"

Watkins stayed the path with her bandmates until they'd all reached their mid-20s.

"When you're in a tight community like that — I think that's one of the reasons people go away to college," Watkins says. "You know, you get to leave behind this high-school thing where everyone knows everything about you, and you can start over in a way and decide who you wanna be and try things out."

One thing she decided she wanted to be was a serious songwriter. With Nickel Creek, she'd mostly just dabbled.

"I was writing little things, trying out ideas, for a few years when I was a teenager," Watkins says. "I remember just kinda running them by friends. Sometimes it was Chris and Sean, just like on the airplane, just have them read through something. They'd be like, 'I really like this or this. I don't understand what you're talking about, though. What is that?' I was being very vague. I couldn't really put my finger on what I wanted to say, or I didn't know how to say it in a way that didn't seem super corny. I was learning."

She kept learning through her two previous solo albums. Young in All the Wrong Ways marks the first time she's written or co-written every track. Watkins says she also worked on expressing more through her singing.

"I realized I'm not a particularly meek person," Watkins says. "I'm a sentimental person for sure. I appreciate the history of musicians and tradition. I think that comes from growing up in a traditional music, where what lasts, what's time-tested, is really where you identify the quality. But I'm also just living today, and I really want what's happening in my life right now, I want to dig into that enough that I have stuff to say about it."

Since she started playing professionally, Watkins has always had some sort of backup: a band, a label, a manager. But she had none of that when she decided to record this time. So she called on some old friends, including Gabe Witcher, her Nickel Creek bandmate, who now plays in Punch Brothers alongside Chris Thile. She and Witcher grew up going to bluegrass festivals together and competing against each other in fiddle contests. (Witcher always beat her, she says — but they've always stayed friends.)

Gary Paczosa says he's tried to keep an eye out for Watkins. When she and I visited Minutia Studio, where Paczosa has been recording her music since she was 17, he told her so himself: "It's been a thrilling thing for a lot of people just to see you completely open up and find yourself, after you already had done this great thing in this band, but then on your own to really take it somewhere else."

For Watkins, it's been fun to do. But, fun or not, she's had to work at owning the role of frontwoman.

"When it's your show, it's you for two hours," Watkins says. "I think in the past, I have felt reluctant or greedy or selfish if I indulged in that too much, if I even acknowledge that that's what's happening."

Sara Watkins no longer feels the need to apologize for standing on her own.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sara Watkins became a name fiddle player a generation ago playing in a bluegrass trio of teenagers which did not include BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. They call themselves Nickel Creek. Sara Watkins began to make solo albums as she grew older with a more mature sound and has just released her third. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN drove Sara Watkins back to a studio where she worked with her original band and recorded part of her new album. It's called "Young In All The Wrong Ways."

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Sara Watkins is a California native. She's never lived in Nashville, but she's spent enough time recording here to memorize a neighborhood or two.

SARA WATKINS: Turn right at the stop sign. It's just this first place on the left, just past the fire hydrant. You could pull into that driveway or just park on the street here.

HIGHT: This is Minutia Studio.

WATKINS: I was 17 or 18 when I first started coming here. It was a while ago (laughter).

HIGHT: Watkins just turned 35.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

WATKINS: Hello, Gary?

HIGHT: Gary Paczosa engineered the pair of Nickel Creek albums that put the band on the map.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REASONS WHY")

NICKEL CREEK: (Singing) Standing on a darkened stage, stumbling through the lines. Others have excuses, I have my reasons why.

HIGHT: Both albums were produced by Alison Krauss. Paczosa remembers her remarking on Watkins' place in the group dynamic.

GARY PACZOSA: Alison spotted quickly that she was definitely with her big brother and with Chris Thile and they were best friends and that it was - would be a really tough situation to be with teenage boys, you know?

HIGHT: Watkins stayed the path with her bandmates until they'd all reached their mid 20s.

WATKINS: You know, sometimes when you're with family, everything that you do that's a little bit different is noticed. And when you're in a tight community like that, I think that's, you know, one of the reasons people go away to college. You know, you get to leave behind this high school thing where everyone knows all this everything about you and you can you can start over, in a way, and decide who you want to be.

HIGHT: One thing she decided she wanted to be was a serious songwriter. With Nickel Creek, she'd mostly just dabbled.

WATKINS: I was writing little things, trying out ideas for a few years when I was a teenager. And I remember just kind of running them by friends. Sometimes it was Chris and Sean, just having them, like, read through something and they'd be like, I really like this or this. I don't understand what you're talking about, though. I couldn't really put my finger on what I wanted to say or I didn't know how to say it in a way that didn't seem super corny or I just - I didn't - I was learning.

HIGHT: She kept learning through two previous solo albums. "Young In All The Wrong Ways" marks the first time she's written or co-written every track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVE ME")

WATKINS: (Singing) Every steps been shown to you, like all those years of school. What they said is what you say. What they saw is what you see. You like a clear-drawn line, partitioned and defined so you can rest and know everything's as it should be.

HIGHT: Watkins also wanted to express more through her vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVE ME")

WATKINS: (Singing) But I want you to move me, want you to move me. I want you to move me, want you to move me. But you just keep the peace.

I'm not a particularly meek person or like - I'm a sentimental person for sure. I appreciate history and the history of, like, you know, musicians and tradition. I think that comes from growing up in traditional music where what lasts. what's time tested is really where you identify the quality. But I'm also living today and I really want what's happening in my life right now to be - I want to dig into that enough that I have stuff to say about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG IN ALL THE WRONG WAYS")

WATKINS: (Singing) Young in all the wrong ways. Young in all the wrong ways. Take this pen, it's clear to see. Honey, it's all the same. Cracks in the windows, broken chairs, no one to blame. There was a time for me to hold on. There was a time for trust. But I'm not just gonna sit here in the dust.

HIGHT: Ever since she started playing professionally, Watkins has had some sort of backup, a band, a label, a manager, but she had none of that when she decided to record this time, so she called on some old friends.

WATKINS: Gabe Witcher, who produced it, he is in the Punch Brothers with Chris Thile, my old Nickel Creek bandmate. I've known Gabe since I was 8 years old because we grew up going to bluegrass festivals together. We'd play football on Saturday mornings and we'd compete against each other in fiddle contests. And he always beat me, but we've always been friends.

HIGHT: And friends like engineer Gary Paczosa have always kept an eye out for her.

PACZOSA: It's been a thrilling thing for a lot of people just to see you completely open up and find yourself, to really take it somewhere else, you know? It's been great to watch.

WATKINS: It's been fun to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGHT: Fun or not, she had to work at owning the role of frontwoman.

WATKINS: You're opening yourself up to playing this role as a host without apologizing for it. When it's your show, it's you for two hours, you know, and sometimes I think in the past I have felt reluctant or greedy or selfish if I indulged in that too much and if I even acknowledge that that's what's happening.

HIGHT: Sara Watkins no longer feels the need to apologize for standing on her own. For NPR News in Nashville, I'm Jewly Hight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE LAST TIME")

WATKINS: (Singing) It isn't me. It's my attention that you're missing. It ain't my voice but all the sweet things that I say. I'm not your only honey bee. Who are you kidding? Sing your sad songs to the rest. Let them believe they get your best. It's time that we both... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.