Q&A: Sara Watkins

Becoming a solo artist has been interesting, exciting, empowering, and frustrating.

Videos by American Songwriter


I could use this introduction to tell you things you already know about Sara Watkins– how she was one third of the Grammy-winning quasi-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, or that in addition to being a veritable fiddle virtuoso she also plays guitar and ukulele. I could also list a handful of the many musicians with whom the 27-year old singer-songwriter from California has already worked (Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien, Benmont Tench, and Jon Brion, to name a few). I could tell you that Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones was so impressed by Watkins that he told her if she “didn’t let him produce her record, he would never talk to her again.” All of these accomplishments would certainly paint the portrait of a young musician with a world of talent and potential, but wouldn’t give Watkins the full credit she deserves.

I had the privilege of talking with Sara backstage at Vanderbilt University’s Rites of Spring Music Festival about Sara Watkins, her recently released debut solo album. She exuded an infectious warmth and humble friendliness that many artists of her experience seem to have a hard time holding onto, even offering me the only available chair and opting to herself sit in the grass while we talked. Beneath the virtuosity and behind the musical history is a woman steeped in heart and humility, still finding herself as both a songwriter and as a person. Here’s what she had to say.

Most people know about your history with Nickel Creek, but how did you get into playing music initially?

I got into music when I was recommended to go to this pizza parlor where there was a quasi-bluegrass band that had a residency and played every Saturday night for years and years. So from the time I was two until I was about seven we went every Saturday night to see this band called Bluegrass, Etc. play. Long story short, the bluegrass community was small and it would be the same 100 people that came every week and I would just fall asleep listening to the stuff around eight o’ clock and we would stay until eleven and just listen to the band. I would usually be asleep on a bench but when I was four, I asked the band to play “Long Black Veil.” I loved the song. I heard the band do it a lot and the mandolin player and sort-of frontman of the band said, “Well yeah, why don’t you come sing it with me?” I said, “Well I only know the chorus but that’s great.” He took me up after the break and on the chorus I chimed in and sang along. I remember feeling like the stage was so tall and kind of rocking out of dizziness because of the height of the stage. And when we went back to that pizza parlor it was literally a foot and a half off the ground (laughs). But I was four and nervous.

So they would continue to have us up and have me up to play songs and not long after, my brother [Sean Watkins] started playing mandolin and Chris Thile started playing mandolin as well and they both took lessons from the band. When I was six I started taking fiddle lessons too, so the band would have the three of us and maybe one or two others up to play with them on different songs every week. That’s how Nickel Creek started—we got to know each other that way. And it was also the beginning of my musical experiences as well.

Who are some artists you consider influential?

You know, looking back from now I see different artists that have made an impact that I wouldn’t have necessarily mentioned before. When I was growing up my mom and I would listen to Linda Rondstadt’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and I loved it. I did “Different Drum” tonight because I remember singing that song and just yelling it in the car with my mom. That record really sunk in. It’s a great record, and the Stone Ponies [Rondstadt’s band] is a terrific band– the instrumentation is wonderful. It’s a real soft spot for me. Emmylou Harris’ Roses in the Snow record was a really big one for me as well. I discovered it after the fact– it came out in the early eighties and I found it for myself around 2001 or 2002. I rediscovered what I love about harmony with that record– she sings so well with the Whites and Ricky Skaggs. There’s a certain quality and hominess of those songs, and I love the way that they were put together. I love that record. There are a lot of other bands I love. Tim O’Brien is still one of my favorite musicians. And recently, after her fame, after all of the craziness went down for her, Fiona apple became a big influence for me.

You toured with her, right?

Yeah we toured on the “Farewell For Now” tour and I’ve gotten to know her over the past three or four years through this club we play called Largo in Los Angeles. I’m such a fan of her interpretation of songs and her way of owning them and commanding them. Her vocal improvisational abilities are so much more than just licks and so much more than frivolous movement. She possesses those songs when she sings them and is so humble about it as well.

I think Wilco is one of those bands that encompasses a lot of what I believe in and I identify with about music. The instrumentation is great and I relate to it a lot. Then there is a lot of stuff I love that I don’t relate to as much at all, and those are really exciting. Of Montreal is great. I love Kings of Leon and Radiohead too, of course. But bands that I don’t understand are also really intriguing (laughs).

Having played with Nickel Creek for most of your life, what was it like transitioning to life as a solo artist?

It has been interesting and really exciting, empowering and also frustrating. And I want to learn how to do it better– “it” meaning I want to learn to manage myself better. I have a manager but I want to learn to be more self-sufficient and to be more capable and to just be able to handle more, like multi-tasking. I don’t want to be so overwhelmed with details about travel and logistics. I want to be able to handle all of that and still be able to put everything into a show. I haven’t had to deal with those issues in a long time so my tolerance is down. But I’m learning how to do it. I’m traveling with my brother [Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek] and a couple other musicians and they are helping me a lot out of the office, although I don’t have anybody with me. Even still, I notice that I get frustrated but I’m getting better at managing that time and managing those frustrations.

Musically, it is a little bit of a challenge in that I’m used to having these wingmen around me. Sean and Chris [Thile, of Nickel Creek] were always there and if I wasn’t sure about a decision, they were passionate about it and I could just go with them and trust that everything was going to be fine. Now if I’m indifferent on a decision, I still have to make a call, and I have to make sure it’s a good call. So it takes a little bit more time to navigate through some foggy waters sometimes but it is also really good for me to have to put a little more energy into making sure that I’m comfortable with everything and that I am willing to stand behind all of these decisions personally. It has been a really fun process. I think I’m at a really good point in my life to be doing it. I feel more confident in my ability to handle it and to flourish than I think I would have felt in earlier years.

You wrote or co-wrote 8 tracks on your new album. I saw you [with Nickel Creek] in Knoxville in October of 2007, and if my memory serves me correctly you played one of these 8 tracks, “All This Time.” I remember it because the sincerity and universality of the song really struck me. Tell me a little about your songwriting process. Has your approach changed since leaving Nickel Creek?

I didn’t write a whole lot when I was with Nickel Creek because it was slow to come to me. I knew that the odds of me writing a song in my early stages and having it be the quality of Chris and Sean’s songs or the quality of one of the songs we were covering were slim to none. So honestly, I did co-write several of the tracks on the last Nickel Creek record [2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?] and I wrote “Anthony” and I was delighted that the band did it. But when I really started to write was in the last couple of years touring with Nickel Creek because of this show my brother Sean and I had called the Watkins Family Hour, which we do [at Largo] in LA. It’s become a proper show but it is also a safe place to try out new material and it’s low pressure, where you can do a song once and not feel like you have to do it forever. The crowd isn’t going to be bummed if they hear a song that wasn’t off of a record. They are pretty much volunteering for an experimental show a lot of the time, which is really helpful and they are always encouraging in that. Something that the crowd there really loves, I think, is an insight into the creative process and the spontaneity that all of the artists feel when they come there. So a lot of the songs I wrote were written with that outlet in mind. I wasn’t writing for a bluegrass band or for a quasi-bluegrass band, I was just writing for myself. For the last few years I have really identified most with those performances at Largo and I feel like I’ve become much more comfortable because of the frequency of those performances. So I also feel more comfortable putting stuff out there.

I’m glad you said you thought “All This Time” was very honest because it is. A lot of the songs I wrote at Largo I feel comfortable putting out there if they are honest because I feel like the performances there are very honestly me, rather than a brand name like Nickel Creek became. And I love that brand name but when you are a beginning songwriter or when you feel like you’re just starting to have something to say, it’s a little scary to have to live up to that. Do you write songs yourself?

I play guitar and mandolin, so I do write some instrumental pieces. I write lyrics sometimes, too, but don’t think anybody would want to hear me sing (laughs).

That’s great.

You chose a pretty wide range of covers for the album, from Tom Waits’ “Pony” to Jon Brion’s “Same Mistakes.” What made you choose these specific songs?

That was one thing that, when I started thinking about the songs for the solo record, was really exciting– the idea of introducing Nickel Creek fans to these people they might not know. I know some of them are familiar with Jon Brion, David Garza, and there are plenty of Tom Waits fans in every field of music. But I was really excited about getting these songs out there, as well as getting a Norman Blake song to people at Largo, people who are more likely to know David Bowie songs than Norman Blake songs.

That was something that was really fun—getting with musicians whom I knew would love to play all of these songs. First we just played them live for a while, everyone in LA anyway. Largo had heard us playing these songs for about a year or more. We were in the studio and Jon Brion was there the first day and dropped off instruments for us to sort of play with so we could have some extra toys around. He played a little guitar on “Any Old Time,” which was the first one we recorded. I think we did “Too Much” next. So we got “Any Old Time” and Jon is like, “Sweet, what’s next?” and I said “Too Much” and he said, “Awesome I love that song!” It was a really fun environment because all these guys knew each other and we were just having a really fun time with songs we were all familiar with. John Paul Jones was also a great guide in bringing them to the next level.

Speaking of John Paul Jones, he produced your new solo debut album. How did working with him change your final product?

He is so sweet and so trustworthy and communicates really well. He gives the musicians, including me, enough credit to really explore what we want to explore. And if we’re going the wrong direction he will corral us a different way. For instance, when we were tracking we would go through the song one, two, maybe three times and instead of coming back on the talkback mike from the control room and saying, “It sounds good but I think the riff could be tighter here” and “you’re stepping on the bass part on the chorus” and nitpicky, tweaky things, which many great producers do, John didn’t say anything. 15-20 seconds would go by and he just waited until the band started talking to each other. Greg the pedal steel player would say, “Sean what are you doing there on the bridge? I think I’m kind of stepping on you, what are we doing?” He allowed us to communicate with each other and play for each other, rather than play for him. And we were playing for him no matter what (laughs), but I think it allowed for very natural performances.

Are there any other acts you’re hoping to catch tonight?

Flaming Lips, definitely.


Leave a Reply
  1. Dear Sarah,
    Thank you for your music from your heart and soul.
    I know that your gifts are from Gods own heart I can sense it as you sing. I am a mother of 6 children and two grandchildren. My only prayer all these years is that my kids would grow up to love and serve the Lord and to respect life as a precious gift while serving those less fortunate. My grandchild spun out of control this last year and she is beautiful 12 year old. I prayed for direction for her. Last week I took her to a working Cattle Ranch in New Mexico that works with youth who have RAD. She was abandoned by her mom at 2 and I have raised her with the help of my husband and many friends over the last 10 years. Would you consider praying for her and also the ministry of the Tierra Blanca Ranch a faith based program for troubled youth. They have a 85% success story and I know it is because they serve the King of Kings.

  2. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a celuoagle who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!|Great write-up, I’m normal visitor of one’s site, maintain up the excellent operate, and It is going to be a regular visitor for a lengthy time.|I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this web site. I’m hoping the same high-grade website post from you in the upcoming also. Actually your creative writing skills has encouraged me to get my own website now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings rapidly. Your write up is a great example of it.|Good blog! I really love how it is simple on my eyes and the data are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified when a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your RSS which must do the trick! Have a nice day!|I’m really glad I’ve found this information. Today bloggers publish only about gossips and web and this is really irritating. A good website with exciting content, that’s what I need. Thank you for keeping this site, I’ll be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Can’t find it.|I was just searching for this information for a while. After 6 hours of continuous Googleing, at last I got it in your website. I wonder what’s the lack of Google strategy that don’t rank this type of informative web sites in top of the list. Generally the top websites are full of garbage.|Hi there, just changed into aware of your weblog via Google, and located that it is really informative. I am gonna watch out for brussels. I will be grateful when you continue this in future. Many folks will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!|It is appropriate time to make some plans for the longer term and it is time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I wish to counsel you some interesting things or tips. Perhaps you could write subsequent articles regarding this article. I want to read even more issues approximately it!|Excellent post. I used to be checking constantly this weblog and I am impressed! Extremely useful information particularly the ultimate phase I take care of such info a lot. I was looking for this certain information for a long time. Thanks and good luck.|hello there and thank you for your information – I have definitely picked up something new from right here. I did alternatively experience a few technical points the usage of this site, since I skilled to reload the website many instances previous to I may just get it to load correctly. I have been wondering if your hosting is OK? Now not that I am complaining, but sluggish loading cases times will often affect your placement in google and could harm your high-quality score if advertising and ***********|advertising|advertising|advertising and *********** with Adwords. Well I am adding this RSS to my email and can glance out for a lot extra of your respective fascinating content. Ensure that you replace this again soon..|Magnificent goods from you, man. I have consider your stuff previous to and you’re simply too wonderful. I actually like what you have bought right here, certainly like what you’re saying and the way in which by which you say it. You are making it enjoyable and you still care for to stay it wise. I can not wait to read much more from you. This is really a wonderful site.|Pretty great post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wished to mention that I have really enjoyed browsing your weblog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing on your rss feed and I’m hoping you write once more very soon!|I just like the helpful information you provide on your articles. I’ll bookmark your weblog and check once more right here regularly. I’m relatively certain I’ll be informed lots of new stuff proper right here! Best of luck for the following!|I believe this is one of the most vital info for me. And i am glad studying your article. However want to statement on few general issues, The website taste is wonderful, the articles is in reality excellent : D. Excellent task, cheers|We are a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your website offered us with helpful information to work on. You have done an impressive task and our whole community can be thankful to you.|Undeniably imagine that which you stated. Your favorite reason seemed to be on the internet the simplest factor to bear in mind of. I say to you, I certainly get irked whilst other people think about issues that they plainly don’t recognise about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest as neatly as outlined out the whole thing with no need side effect , folks could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thank you|That is very attention-grabbing, You are a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look forward to looking for extra of your excellent post. Also, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks!|Hey There. I discovered your weblog the use of msn. This is a really well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful info. Thank you for the post. I will certainly comeback.|I liked as much as you’ll obtain carried out right here. The cartoon is tasteful, your authored subject matter stylish. however, you command get bought an edginess over that you want be turning in the following. ill unquestionably come more formerly again as exactly the same nearly very continuously inside of case you shield this increase.|Hello, i believe that i saw you visited my web site thus i got here to “go back the want”.I’m attempting to to find things to improve my site!I guess its ok to make use of some of your ideas!!|Just desire to say your article is as astounding. The clarity in your post is simply excellent and that i can suppose you’re knowledgeable in this subject. Well along with your permission allow me to snatch your feed to stay updated with imminent post. Thanks a million and please continue the enjoyable work.|Its like you learn my thoughts! You appear to grasp a lot about this, such as you wrote the book in it or something. I feel that you simply can do with a few percent to pressure the message house a bit, however instead of that, this is magnificent blog. An excellent read. I’ll certainly be back.|Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in reality was once a leisure account it. Look advanced to far introduced agreeable from you! However, how can we be in contact?|Hi there, You’ve done a fantastic job. I’ll definitely digg it and in my view suggest to my friends. I’m confident they will be benefited from this web site.|Wonderful beat ! I would like to apprentice even as you amend your web site, how can i subscribe for a blog website? The account aided me a applicable deal. I were a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered vivid transparent concept|I am extremely inspired together with your writing skills as well as with the layout in your weblog. Is that this a paid subject matter or did you modify it yourself? Either way stay up the nice high quality writing, it’s uncommon to look a great weblog like this one nowadays..|Pretty part of content. I just stumbled upon your website and in accession capital to say that I get actually enjoyed account your weblog posts. Anyway I will be subscribing on your augment and even I achievement you get right of entry to consistently rapidly.|My brother suggested I might like this web site. He was totally right. This publish truly made my day. You cann’t believe simply how so much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!|I don’t even understand how I ended up here, however I believed this post was once good. I do not know who you are however certainly you are going to a famous blogger when you are not already Cheers!|Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I to find It truly helpful & it helped me out a lot. I am hoping to offer something again and aid others like you aided me.

Leave a Reply

It’s All Happening for Landon Pigg