Music and family possess an interesting dichotomy. On the surface anyway they’re the ties that bind. On the other hand, that sibling relationship sometimes seems to exacerbate the inherent tensions that exist within any band dynamic. The Everly Brothers, the Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies and Oasis’ fearsome twosome Noel and Liam Gallagher are all obvious examples.
Fortunately, brother sister duo Sara and Sean Watkins are able to claim plenty of together time, having shared the spotlight in such outfits as Nickel Creek, WPA and their current collaboration, Watkins Family Hour, an outfit that had its origins at the Largo Nightclub in Los Angeles where, for the past 18 years, the two have maintained an ongoing residency with a rotating cast of special musical guests. Both Sara and Sean also maintain vibrant solo careers as well as their own individual collaborations — Sara with the trio I’m With Her, featuring co-conspirators Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, and Sean with his sometime-band Fiction Family.
Watkins Family Hour’s sophomore album, appropriately titled brother sister, offers another fine example of their sibling symmetry. With Sara on fiddle, Sean playing guitar and the two sharing the vocals, it offers yet another example of their supple down home sound as applied with a certain folksy finesse. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has put a halt to any effort to go out on tour, play shows and promote the disc, an unfortunate predicament which Sara readily acknowledges. “Everything’s uncertain,” she remarks, speaking from her home in L.A. where she’s in isolation. “We’re just floating around until everything kind of solidifies a little more.”
“It’s certainly more sleepy and pajamas-oriented than I thought it would be,” Sean adds. In the meantime, they say they’re gardening, walking and, in Sara’s case, learning to bake sourdough bread.
It’s certainly a break from their regular routine which frequently finds them on the road and balancing their time between their various individual initiatives. “Honestly, the different projects keep us balanced,” Sara insists. “It’s not so much a matter of balancing but rather focusing on one project at a time and fitting it in between the previous projected the next project.”
“It really doesn’t take that much time,” Sean says when asked about their varied efforts. “There are a lot of other things I could be doing. Everybody’s got a different life going. I don’t have a day job and I don’t have any kids, so there’s time. We like making music with other people, and because we’re involved in a few different scenes, that’s what comes out of it. Back in the day, a band like Fleetwood Mac could spend months in the studio, because there was that kind of money behind them, but these days, there isn’t that kind of money so you’re forced to make records like in a week. So that’s part of it, and the other part is that this is just something we want to do. Music is communal by nature. All of the bands we grew up listening to spun out solo projects. The musicians all needed to work, so they’d work with other musicians in their off-time. For us it’s just kind of second nature.”
Nevertheless, the new Watkins Family Hour album was five years in coming following their eponymous debut. “I think it’s a luxury not to have to do an album of the same thing over again,” Sara suggests. “After I do a solo record, the last thing I want to do is hear and sing my own lyrics. I’d rather play with other people as equals, as opposed to putting out an album of things I want to say on my own. Personally, I don’t need to say things every year. When you’re on the road with a band, it gives you different challenges, and it’s nice to be able to write with and learn from other people. It feels natural to be able to work with friends and to know they’ll be there in the coming years.”
Hence, with the new album, the timing was right. “Sean and I have both done a range of projects in the last few years, and speaking for myself, I didn’t want to do another solo album,” Sara continues. “I wanted to be a part of a team, and one thing we hadn’t done before was to write with one another. So that was exciting, and it was just kind of like an idea that just sounded great. You just kind of go with it and don’t give it a second thought. At least that was how we went with it. We carved out time in our schedules to write together and to record together, and that’s how it happened.”
Of course, that familiarity factor can work both ways. A shared history can often revive long-held grudges and in turn, create a distraction.
“We’re happy making music together,” Sean insists. “We wouldn’t be making this album together if we didn’t get along really well. I know there are siblings who don’t get along, but we’ve been pretty fortunate to be on the same page and I think that’s a big part of it. Plus, we’ve been working together for quite some time in different configurations.”
“If something comes up, we just deal with it,” Sara says. “That kind of stuff comes up with everybody, every band. But being siblings, and having worked together for so long, makes it a little less stressful. There’s no insecurity. In other bands, you sometimes have to avoid certain things because you know the others might not be able to handle it. But one of the nice things about any secure relationship is that you don’t have to worry about breaking up the band. You can be honest and work that much harder at what you’re trying to say.”
“It’s all about communication,” Sean suggests. “If you have communication, you can get through anything. But family dynamics can be tricky.”
Although the pair’s first album was more or less an outgrowth of the communal chemistry that’s such an essential part of their Largo performances, Sean says brother sister was far more planned and more carefully conceived. “It was done in a new kind of way for us,” he muses. “The more you play and perform, the more you realize what really connects with people. I feel like this record was the result of a lot of learning for both Sara and I on how we write, how we present music and what we’re good at. It allowed us to lean into the things we do well and it gave us a chance to redefine the Family Hour as a duo.”
“For me, it was a really enjoyable personal challenge to try to focus on the potential of us as a duo,” Sara adds. “When we were writing, we were trying to come up with these complete songs that can be performed as a duo. We knew we wanted these songs to be complete in their composition. It really really feels like a duo record to me, and in that sense, it also feels like a first record. The first album was all cover songs, but with this album, we carved out time to write and to find out exactly what we want to say. We’ve never done that in this kind of setting, and we’re both really proud of the outcome.”
They also give credit to producer Mike Viola for the shimmer and sheen that pervades the album overall. It allows for a familiarity factor of another sort, one that resonates even on first hearing. Sean says Viola’s ear for detail played a big role in shaping the songs. “When he said something was really good, I believed him,” he says. “He helped set the tone for the record. He also helped us take what we started with and bring it to a satisfying ending.”
In addition to their own original material, the album also contains a trio of cover songs — Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr” — which the two originally performed as part of a Zevon tribute concert — “Neighborhood Name,” a song by Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, and Charley Jordan’s “Keep It Clean,” featuring guest vocalists David Garza, Gaby Moreno and John C. Reilly.
“They kind of represent what the Family Hour is all about,” Sean suggests. “Easy songs that a lot of people can join in on by trading verses…songs that are fun to play, by musicians we enjoy playing with. It’s a growing, evolving family and this is representative of where we’re at now.”
photo: Alisa B. Cherry