You can’t talk about Sara Watkins without dropping some big names. The former Nickel Creek member produced her first, self-titled 2009 album with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. She’s spent the years between now and then as a touring fiddler and backing singer for the Decemberists, as performer and occasional guest host for “Prairie Home Companion” and continuing the foundations of the Watkins Family Hour at L.A. mainstay Largo with her brother and Nickel Creek cohort Sean.
“I’ve gotten some nice invitations, and I said yes to them,” Watkins said in our recent interview. This time, for her new solo album “Sun Midnight Sun,”she said yes to collaborations with artists like Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne
, with Dawes’ Blake Mills at the helm.
Each experience in the past few years has helped to inform Watkins, Solo Artist. “Prairie Home” was the opportunity to “pretend I was Dolly Parton… I’d do my thing, then sit on my bench and watch and enjoy.” Decemberists was what it was “to work and be in someone else’s band – I’d ride on the bus, no accounting, no driving. I’d use my energy to rest up and play for an intense couple of years. I learned to be relaxed and I got refreshed… It’s really fun to see how other people put on a show.”
Watkins paired up with Apple on cover “You’re the One I Love” for “Sun Midnight Sun,” and she said it was a thrill to put two very different female voices on an Everly Brothers tune. “I love Fiona. She’s a sweet person, lovely to be around and exciting to sing with and work with,” Watkins said. “There’s a particular girl-backed intensity. When we sang it together it was the absolute highlight of my career.”
The remainder of the 10-track “Sun” is a mix of roots-influenced pop originals, some country, some bluegrass and couple more covers. Watkins, 30, has been recording albums since she was 12 years old, but has found as her tastes expand, “you have new things to say. Lyrical topics get better. I get better at improvising,” she said. As a fiddle player, she works increasingly to become an accomplished player with more character. “It’s the personality behind players is what I love. I love to be able to recognize their playing, and what they’ve been learning about music lately. When I’m 70 years old, I want there to be a legible line that says what I’ve figured out about my instrument.”
For fans of Nickel Creek, Watkins says she and Sean are still close with Chris Thile, who has gone on to form groups like the Punch Brothers. When I interviewed Watkins all the way back in 2007, she and Nickel Creek had said they were going on "indefinite hiatus"; that hiatus is still on, but performing together again isn't out of the question.
"I'd never say never... it would have to be the right timing. Chris and I play together in L.A. sometimes. So, maybe down the line. We said we'd play in Nickel Creek until it stopped being fun, and that's really what we did. If there's nothing we're counting on, then it'll be easy."