Though Sara Watkins will always be primarily associated with Nickel Creek, the Grammy Award-winning trio she formed in 1989 with her brother Sean Watkins and mandolinist Chris Thile, it is her concurrent solo career that holds her focus these days. In July 2016, Watkins released Young In All The Wrong Ways, her third solo release and first release for New West Records.
The past year also found her receiving the award for Instrumentalist of the Year at the Americana Music Honors and Awards. Currently, the fiddler, vocalist, and guitarist is touring in support of her new album, which will bring her to Workplay on Monday, January 30. Recently, while driving through her hometown of Los Angeles, Watkins gave us some insight on the creation of Young In All The Wrong Ways.
Weld: Let’s start off by talking about the story behind the album’s title. Where did that come from?
Sara Watkins: It came to me when I was writing lyrics. I needed to describe who I was back then, and the phrase “young in all the wrong ways” just kind of came to me. It was the first song of the batch that was written, and it seemed like a good start to the record. It encapsulated a lot of the content on the album so it became the title.
Weld: How did the album’s material come together?
Watkins: The songs on the album were written in about a 14-month period. It started in a period of transition in my life. I feel like every five or 10 years something changes in our lives — a birth, a death, maybe you move to a different city or fall in or out of love — any of these things that alter our view of the world and life. I think that those changes are important. I found myself in a transitional time that unearthed some things that I needed to reconsider and examine. Songwriting helps me process those kinds of things.
Weld: Though you’re perhaps best known as a fiddler, you are certainly a multi-instrumentalist. Which instruments did you contribute to the album?
Watkins: I played some fiddle and a little guitar, but mostly I was singing. I wrote these songs on guitar and played them for the guys in the studio and they took them so much further in their interpretation of it. Most of the album was recorded in about 12 days in Los Angeles.
Weld: Do songs still evolve even after you’ve written them, demoed them, and taken them into the recording studio?
Watkins: Absolutely. A lot of the recording process is discovering and fine-tuning everything. For me, I didn’t perform these songs with a band prior to going into the studio. I deliberately waited, largely because I didn’t want audiences to hear these songs, and I didn’t want them on YouTube. I wanted them fresh in people’s ears when they heard it on the album.
Also, I really wanted these songs to benefit from the group of players that were getting together in the studio. I thought that would be a really exciting way for the songs to come into their own for the first time. So much of the fun is playing off each other and singing off each other. I’m a big believer that songs change. We are not trying to replicate the album versions onstage. I want each song to live, breathe, and die onstage each night with the audience in the room and the players onstage.
Weld: Your last comment touches on something that’s a challenge for a lot of musicians: the ability to keep songs fresh when you’ve performed them repeatedly.
Watkins: Some songs have more flexibility than others. There’s always room for interpretation. When you have the right people onstage with you, you allow for some flexibility and still trust that it’s going to be compelling to the audience.
Weld: Your standing gig at [Los Angeles nightclub] Largo with your brother — titled “The Watkins Family Hour” — has found you performing alongside some impressive players including Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz, Fiona Apple, and Chris Thile. Are you still involved in the project?
Watkins: We took a couple of months off this year for the first time in about 13 years, but we are still doing it every month. It’s a revolving cast — there are some people that are there pretty consistently, but the only truly consistent part of it is my brother and I. Sometimes people are out on tour and you get a few different players. That’s kind of fun. It keeps it from getting too serious.
Sara Watkins will perform at WorkPlay on Monday, January 30. Liz Longley will open the 8 p.m. show. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit workplay.com.