Sara Watkins appeared at peace with herself following the release of her third solo LP—something she affirmed over the phone from her Los Angeles home. “Young in All the Wrong Ways felt very much like a lot of things I’d been trying to sort through, that I had finally gained some clarity on and had things to say about, that I could stand behind,” she said.
This same self-assuredness is easily heard in the album’s sonic style. The 2016 record projected a dynamic boldness and creative ambition after Watkins ventured away from the fiddle for a wide array of instruments. Now in 2021, following a few tumultuous years, Under the Pepper Tree arises from conscious musical choices she has made as a result of the isolation brought on by the pandemic and the birth of her daughter Sam. Though specifically crafted for children, the record isn’t an artistic reduction so much as a re-channeling of the introspective poise Watkins has cultivated over time.
“I never would have made this kind of record had I not been at home all the time this year and, you know, experiencing life similarly to everyone else,” Watkins told American Songwriter.
While it feels easy to question the creative acumen of a project comprised predominantly of cover songs encompassing fantasy themes and/or commonly used as lullabies, Under the Pepper Tree brandishes plenty of the adventurous music Watkins has developed since 2016. This time, however, she uses familiar songs to draw attention to some subtle attributes of the album and her personality.
“My music and my musical output has largely been influenced by shows and my experience performing,” Watkins explained. “But since there were no shows this year, I think I explored productive production with [producer] Tyler Chester in a different way than I would have were the songs based on live performances, because it’s a different kind of playground when you’re in the studio.
“We were able to envelop ourselves in the potentials of the studio rather than the environment of tour and a live show, in that, we wouldn’t be touring with all the instruments that were on” Under the Pepper Tree, Watkins added. “You always sprinkle in some extra fun studio stuff, toys, and instruments, that you only have around in the studio on a record. But this was a new level to me. It felt like a playground.”
Thinking of the recording studio—a place with which Watkins is intimately familiar—as a playground, is an apt metaphor. Playgrounds often ignite the imagination of children and give them a sense of magical possibilities. “I feel like I’m remembering a lot of magic that I had just sort of taken for granted,” she said.
“Magic is something that’s really complex, and crafted and made to look impossibly easy and unexplainable,” she added. “I think that is the magic.”
Watkins often evokes the essence of this magic through fanciful instrumentation like the sparkling bell-like Rhodes on “Pure Imagination” and the jubilant honks of electric air organ on “Blanket for a Sail.” Under the Pepper Tree’s magic also flourishes in the listening experience, which unfolds in an entirely seamless manner—a very deliberate decision on Watkins’ part.
She claims that she and Tyler Chester “started connecting the songs and using the sequence based on what would really lead into the next, what would follow the previous the best way. The sequence started to come to life, and the record became much more than a series of songs. It became a record. I think, especially with records that are geared towards kids or children’s records, we’re not looking for complex. We’re looking for simplicity or, at least, we’re finding simplicity. ”
In a time and culture that demands immediate gratification and innovation at the same time, Watkins finds charm in the intangible experience that comes from listening to vinyl—the most tangible form of music media. “I think one of the best arguments for vinyl is the event of just listening to it and the absence of shuffle. There is something about the physicality of it, where it starts, and it plays through, and it’s done. It’s like a process.”
Though “process” might not be the most romantic word to describe a magical experience, Watkins still pursues her album in this very specific way, thanks to the time she’s spent bonding and fostering a sense of tradition with Sam and her vinyl record collection.
“It’s been really fun to explore vinyl records with her because it is tangible. It’s become sort of an event to put on a record and she loves to look at the covers. She loves to look at the old records that have stories and books inside—things that she can take in while listening to the record. And I feel like that really triggers her imagination in a different way,” Watkins said.
“I wanted that to be a huge part of building the experience for kids,” she added.
“Making this record is the first time that I’ve strategized the visual—the artwork—while creating the record. The artwork has always been something that I focus on after the record. And often there’s not really a clear vision to the artwork until we’re taking the photos. But in this case [of Under the Pepper Tree], it was largely inspired by a lot of stuff that I was now noticing with Sam, my daughter, and also just the stuff that I have started to enjoy looking at.”
Watkins’ emphasis on the visual aspect of Under the Pepper Tree might seem unique, since she is a musical artist, rather than a visual one. However, she argues that adults, with or without children, can benefit from slowing down and dedicating time for something simple, like observing vinyl artwork.
“I’ve noticed the rhythm of being home, just how much on-off there is and how jarring that can be to a system. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there’s no transition,” Watkins said. “It’s just on-off. And that’s not how our bodies work best, in my experience. I think that we need transition. We need signals to help guide us through the rhythms of the day, and we need that time in our bodies. In my mind, this record is one that helps.”
All the same, while quiet observation and reflection have their value in daily life, Watkins still lives with a creative mind, regardless of how fast the world seems to be moving or what stage of life her daughter is experiencing. One might presume that Sam has greatly reshaped the way Watkins makes music, but other than shuffling her schedule to find time to write, Watkins’ inherent creative cycle rolls on, unfazed by her new role as a parent.
“The writing that I’ve done, largely since becoming a parent, has been co-writing. It’s been writing that I’ve been really proud of—with I’m With Her or with my brother [Sean Watkins] for the Watkins Family Hour group. I haven’t written a ton of songs just by myself. I think I’ve written two that I would sing in public,” Watkins said.
“I’m not exactly sure why that is, except that everything is blurry. Everything is blurry in terms of my priorities and what I want and what I care about. But this isn’t unique to becoming a parent. This happens to me between each project, where I have to gain focus on something that I care enough about, to write with a clear perspective.”
If there were ever a year to gain clarity and focus, 2020 was it. A range of physical, mental, social, political, and cultural questions have come to the forefront of public awareness, and Watkins is aware of all the changes going on around and within her. Though she does not take her visibility as an artist for granted, Watkins doesn’t over extend where and how she expresses her thoughts and feelings on everything.
The issues of the world, she said, “just feel enormous, and I’m not an authority.”
Still, just as she did with Under the Pepper Tree’s artwork, Watkins has developed a new awareness about the world around her through the deeper connection she’s forged with her community in the last year.
“I’ve become more aware of what my city council actually does, and I’ve become more aware of what my local representatives actually do or don’t do,” she said.
“And so, it made me a better citizen in that way because I’ve actually learned a lot about what’s happening locally and what affects my neighbors and what affects all of us. The silver lining of this year for me has been having to deal with having to live without distraction about certain things that need my attention—that deserve all of our attention.”
Watkins hopes that Under the Pepper Tree will help listeners “live without distraction” and to ground themselves with goodness and peace. For Watkins, this goodness and peace shines through several tracks, including “Night Singing”—one of the album’s few originals—which offers lines like, “Trust the ground beneath your feet.”
“I think I originally wrote the song specifically as me singing it to my daughter, but I found myself kind of singing it all day long and realized that I was singing it to myself with the same words of encouragement,” said Watkins.
This song in particular connects all the facets of what make Under the Pepper Tree different and meaningful. It has a single, unifying idea—one that transcends genre, age, location, occupation, and culture.
“It’s just encouraging to grasp onto something reliable, and to find some hope and comfort,” Watkins said.
“I’ve really been thinking about ground and soil and dirt a lot this year,” she continues. “And I’m just feeling, as part of my community, I’m realizing I’m feeling more tied to this actual ground, this actual part of the world. Just feeling personally connected to this idea—this ‘dust to dust’ kind of thing. The last line of [“Night Singing”] is just a recurring repeat of the phrase, ‘I love you,’ and I think that ultimately, is the ground beneath our feet we need to find: the people that love us.”
Photos by Jacob Boll