Songwriter Interviews

Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek

by Leslie Michele Derrough

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When your band has records produced by the likes of Alison Krauss and Eric Valentine hitting #1 on the bluegrass chart, you feel like you've won the lottery. When your first solo album is produced by the legendary Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones, you pinch yourself to make sure it's real. When another legend, in this case Jackson Browne, plays on some of your songs and invites you to open for him, it's proof there is genuine talent in what you have to say and how you are saying it.

After being an integral part of the folk trio Nickel Creek since 1989, vocalist and fiddle player Sara Watkins took a step out on her own and recorded her eponymous debut album in 2009, featuring eight original compositions alongside some personal favorites like John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days." With her 2012 follow-up, Sun Midnight Sun, the maturity of her music had developed into the soul-searching woman going forth into the future while retaining the memories of her past.

At home in Los Angeles before beginning the recording process on her next solo album, Watkins talked about the inspirations behind some of her songs and how her creative juices got flowing.
Leslie Michele Derrough (Songfacts): Why did this type of music – the bluegrass, the Americana and the folk – attract you the most over everything else?

Sara Watkins: Well, when I was a kid I didn't know about everything else. My world of music was largely based around the guitar and mandolin and banjo. My family listened to classical music and Celtic music, and also the music that my parents grew up with, their generation.

But my main exposure and the thing that made the biggest influence on me was every Saturday night from the time I was about two till I was eight, we would go to see this bluegrass band play at a pizza parlor. There was a casual nature to the music, because it's usually a pretty small scene and everyone knows everybody. The band would get people from the audience to come up and play and sing one of their songs. It was just this very fluid, social experience. We got to know the band and it just seemed really normal to me. It was just part of life at that time. I was hanging out with these people, you know, my parents' friends and other families that were around and seeing the band play. And I loved it.

Songfacts: When you were listening to this music that your parents were going to see live, did it make you want to explore the music deeper than what you were seeing on the stage?

Watkins: This was all through my childhood so it wasn't like an awakening when I was 14 or something. It was the foundation of my musical world. There was a good scene in Southern California at the time, but I remember the first song that got to me, the first song that I ever sang on stage, was "Long Black Veil." Bluegrass Etc., which was the band that we would go see, they recorded it and I heard it on a tape of theirs when we were driving around and I really liked it.

"Long Black Veil" is a song most associated with Johnny Cash, although it was written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin in the late 1950s. Others who have recorded it include Lefty Frizzell, Dave Matthews Band, Marianne Faithfull, The Band, and Nick Cave.
Then one day during one of the breaks, I asked John Moore, the lead singer, to sing "Long Black Veil." I requested it and he said he'd do it if I sang it. I said, "I only know the chorus," so he said, "Well, come up and sing the chorus."

So I did. I was four years old, and after that he would get me up to sing songs that I learned in Kindergarten and little basic songs. Eventually I started taking violin lessons and fiddle lessons.

Songfacts: When did you first feel the pull to write your own songs?

Watkins: I felt like I should want to write songs when I was a teenager because all my friends were doing it, my bandmates were doing it. So I would write lyrics but I knew they weren't very good, they were very vague. I could recognize some moments in these little poems that I felt like they accomplished what I was going for, but I didn't actually start writing songs until I was in my early 20s.

Songfacts: What triggered you?

Watkins: The thing that triggered it was I was on tour with Nickel Creek and also with our friend Glen Phillips, who is a great songwriter. He spent many years as lead singer and songwriter of Toad the Wet Sprocket. He's had a long career of solo projects too and written so many beautiful songs. He's a songwriter that I have always looked up to.

So we were on tour together and he suggested this songwriting game that I'm sure you've heard of where basically you'll pick a title and everybody has to write a song by that title. And there's a deadline. So if you pick a goofy enough title it takes the whole pressure off of writing a good song and all that you have to do is write a song. You have to write a couple verses and a chorus. If there's a bridge, bonus. But usually you just have to write a song. We did it every day - this was like a weeklong tour, but every night before we went to bed we would pick a title and the next day at soundcheck we had to perform our songs for everybody else, but eventually it was by the end of the day that we needed to play our song.

There were some super, super goofy titles and some reasonable ones and it freed me up because all of a sudden I didn't have to write a great song. I just had to write a song and it was an assignment. Even these other people that I was with who were great songwriters, they wrote goofy songs. It just took a lot of the pressure off and kind of uncorked me a little.

But I realized the reason I didn't really want to write songs is because I didn't have anything that I felt was worth saying. I was a teenager and not very profound. We all have things to say but I didn't want to say them in the form of a song. I really started writing more when I was around 23 or 24, but particularly my mid-20s. I think I just started living life in a different way where I felt like I all of a sudden had a perspective that was unique to me and was exploring. That's when I started writing. So I've been writing for about eight years.

Songfacts: What is your creative process like today?

Watkins: Usually a song for me will start one of two ways. It could start by a turn of phrase that I come upon, either hearing somebody else or just sort of putting it together in my own little brain, something that is interesting or could have some possibilities, something that I take notice of. I write down a lot of things that I hear people say or phrases from books that just make me stop and think. Sometimes I don't touch them and other times I'll continue thinking on those lines and it might turn into something.

The other option for me, the other way that it tends to happen, is if I feel I have something to say or I'm trying to solve a puzzle within myself. I'll just start writing in prose, just pages and pages and pages, like journaling. Sometimes by the end of that I'll get to a completely different place and a lot of times there will be something in there that ends up being the seed of what will turn into a song. It very rarely starts with music.

Songfacts: When that starts to happen, which instrument do you pick up?

Watkins: Whatever is closest, ukulele, guitar or fiddle. Fiddle is the instrument I identify with most so sometimes that is the thing that can help me with a breakthrough because I just feel like I have fewer limitations on fiddle. I've been playing it a lot longer than guitar so I feel more at ease with getting it out.

Songfacts: What was the first Nickel Creek album that you contributed one of your songs to?

Watkins: I didn't write anything on Nickel Creek records until the third one, Why Should The Fire Die? "Anthony," which was about a few people that I know, was my song, but we co-wrote on that record for the first time, which was really helpful.

On that record, most of my contributions weren't necessarily adding verses and things. It was mostly just in the conversation of what we were trying to say and when something doesn't make sense, identifying that and figuring out how to solve the puzzle.

To me, songwriting is very much like a puzzle to be solved. There is generally a way to do it, generally a way to solve it. Once you have enough pieces in place, it seems very reasonable that you should be able to finish and make it what you want rather than just stop at 85 percent and not really bring it home all the way.

Songfacts: There is another song on that same record, the instrumental "Scotch & Chocolate." How did that song form?

A hub of inspiration for the folk community in the '60s and '70s, the region near Mulholland Drive outside of Los Angeles once claimed members of The Byrds, The Doors, The Mamas & the Papas, the Eagles and Joni Mitchell.
Watkins: That one started when we were all living together and writing in Los Angeles in Laurel Canyon. We rented a house, as you do when you are writing a record in Los Angeles, and we were just hibernating, basically, and trying to write and learning about that. I think I started playing something that caught Chris's ear and he went, "That should be a song. That should be a tune." So then we just started working on it. That was really fun.

Songfacts: Why did you think it didn't need words?

Watkins: That song didn't come from an emotion. I think it's more of an energy, possibly, than an emotion. Obviously there's an excitement about that instrumental that's really fun to play. It's kind of intense but it's happy. It's upbeat, which is a common feeling to come from a fiddle tune, a fiddle instrumental. It wasn't really like I was thinking all these words and these stories and trying to express it. It was just something we were messing around with.

Songfacts: On the following release, A Dotted Line, the character in "Destination" has a lot of confidence and it comes out in your voice.

Watkins: Thank You. That was an idea I had for a long time. When we were starting to figure out what the Nickel Creek record would be, we each brought some little song starts that had been floating around for a while and that was one that I had tried to figure out for quite a while. I had the melody and the chords, I had the verses worked out, and the choruses actually, and I had written several different lyric options for the song, different ways it could have gone, and it wasn't satisfying. But I knew the attitude I wanted to have behind it.

That song, musically, was always coming from a place of dissatisfaction of where you are, just realizing that you need to be somewhere else and not knowing how to get there. I started it from a perspective of feeling like I was endlessly on tour and not knowing how to have a functional life. Different points in that lyric were more about relationships that my friends were going through, hard times. But eventually I found my own angle into it, a relationship that I had that needed to... well, it was just time to move on, and the frustration of feeling like you might have wasted time somehow before moving on. That's where that song comes from.

Songfacts: On your first solo album, what was the inspiration behind your song "My Friend"?

Watkins: That was one that was originally written for a specific friend of mine and over the years, I find it's many people in mind, including myself. But it's sort of a prayer for someone who is going through a hard time and not really knowing how to help that person.

Songfacts: You covered John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days," which is still pretty popular with your fans. What appealed to you about that particular song, enough to put it on your first solo album?

Bluegrass legend John Hartford recorded over 30 albums before his death in 2001. Born in New York yet raised in Missouri, his first taste of recognition came when Glen Campbell recorded his song "Gentle On My Mind," which won four Grammy Awards in 1968. He also appeared on the Byrds' Sweethearts Of The Rodeo album and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Watkins: You know, the first record is half originals and half covers. I sing other people's songs that are very important to me and it's a big part of the tradition of folk music, honoring these great people and other contemporaries that do great things. Also, it's really fun to sing other people's songs. It's nice to sing someone else's perspective.

Sometimes I get tired of my own perspective. Just singing everything that comes from me is blah [Laughs]. It's nice to take on somebody else's lyrics and either identify with them in your own way or just enjoy the songs.

I love John Hartford. I'm a big fan of his and that song caught my ear for practical purposes at first because I was starting to do solo shows with just my ukulele and my fiddle and I really loved the idea of being able to play a song with just my fiddle and sing it. Hartford did that all the time, and I was listening to a bunch of Hartford at the time and was like, Oh my gosh, I could do this. And it was so much fun to sing. I really loved it and it's been one of those songs that has just stayed with me. I do it on most of my shows. I really love it and it's really fun to get the audience involved in it. It's got kind of a wild feeling to it that I really love.

Songfacts: On your second album, you close it out with "Take Up Your Spade." What can you tell us about that song?

The Transatlantic Sessions is a series of television episodes funded by the BBC and RTE bringing together folk, bluegrass and country musicians to perform the music of Ireland, Scotland, England and the US, each filmed in a different location. In recent years it has branched out into special performances and mini-tours. In her 2010 blog, Sara called her set of rehearsals, "heavenly." She also participated in 2015.
Watkins: That's one that I started writing when I was on tour with the Transatlantic Sessions in Glasgow. There's this wonderful congregational feel to their shows, and I really love a congregation. I think some people might not know they like to sing because a lot of people don't grow up singing hymns. People used to go to church and sing together and I think that's one of the most meaningful parts of church for a lot of people. And I really, really love singing with people. I love a group of people that's enjoying the same thing and singing together - that's very special to me.

I wrote "Take Up Your Spade" in a way hoping that it might be a kind of congregational song, hoping that a group of people will sing it. It's not necessarily a religious song, it's just the style. That was the idea behind the pattern of that.

I've always loved farming and gardening analogies to life. I used to work with my Grandma in her garden and there'd be these berry bushes and weeding things and everything had an analogy to life: keeping your garden clean, keeping the weeds out of your life, all of these things that I keep remembering every time I am out in my yard.

I love these images because as people have lived off the land you relate to intangible things through the tangibles, and I was sort of drawing on those things when I was thinking of the lyrics.

Songfacts: The song "Impossible" you wrote with your brother Sean and Blake Mills.

Watkins: Yes, the lyrics are mine but when you're recording, there's all kinds of contributions that happen and I forget who actually ends up being on that. But the song was pretty much in place before we started recording, and then working with them really brought it home. I wrote it to be optimistic, but many people hear it as sounding sad.

Songfacts: What can you tell us about the song "You and Me"?

Watkins: "You and Me" was inspired by moments when I look back on my life and see the different phases, and gatherings of months and years - remembering the important relationships of those times and remember who those people were and who I was.

Songfacts: Who are your three Wise Men of songwriting – the three songwriters who inspire you the most?

Watkins: Oh wow, I don't know who they would be but I really love the way that Jackson Browne develops a lyric and a concept. I'm really into Jackson Browne and Joe Henry at the moment.

Songfacts: You've toured and recorded with Jackson Browne.

Watkins: I have. He's been a part of our monthly show that we do in Los Angeles called The Watkins Family Hour and he's been a recurring guest for probably over a decade now. He's just been very generous with his time and I really love his curious excitement. He wants to learn things, he wants to play with people, he is always willing to play the songs he has played a million times.

When he took me on tour and I opened for him, he introduced me every night onstage and he sang on a couple of my songs and let me play with his band. I was by the side of the stage nearly every show, mostly because I didn't know what song was coming next and I didn't know if I had to play on it, so I can honestly say like maybe five shows I wasn't next to the stage.

But I was sitting on the ground listening to these lyrics every night and there are so many songs that I just kept hearing new things in till the end of the tour. I really enjoyed sitting with his music for 10 or 15 weeks and being into some of those lyrics the way that I used to when I was a kid, really spending the time. It's really satisfying to hear good lyrics.

Songfacts: What do you have planned for the summer? I know you are working on a new record.

Watkins: I am, yeah. I'm working on a new record. I started a song a couple of weeks ago that we decided I should try to finish. But I am a little stuck on it at the moment so I've set it down for a second. Got to find my new way in.

It's kind of a story song and the thing is, I have to write the story and then I have to figure out how to sing about it. Usually what I do when I'm writing story songs is I find myself looking for the rhyme or the next line without really figuring out what the story is. Like, What am I trying to say? Story songs are really good reminders to have a plan, have a map, know what you have to say rather than trying to say something for the sake of saying it. Make sure you have something worth saying and know what that is and you can identify it before you start out.

That being said, I'm sure there are a lot of people that start writing and they figure it out as they go. But for me on this song, I need to stop and figure out what I am trying to say. I know there is something I am trying to say, I just need to identify it a little bit and then figure out how to make it rhyme and work in the rhythm. So that is where I am with that. But the record is fully written and this is just sort of an extra.

Songfacts: Are you doing any touring over the summer?

Watkins: The Watkins Family Hour, which is that monthly residence I was telling you about that we've done for 12 years, we finally made a record of all cover songs and we're going to go out on tour across the country with that starting in July and the record comes out July 20. Then I'm going out also with my band that is called I'm With Her, which is a band with me, Aofie O'Donovan - another great songwriter - and Sarah Jarosz, who is also wonderful. We are a trio and we're going to be doing a handful of dates. It's going to be a busy year. I'm excited. And we're going to do some writing in July.

June 17, 2015
Get more at sarawatkins.com
Photo 1 by Aaron Redfield

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