Sara Watkins - change for one nickel


There’s a pizza parlour in Carlsbad, California that’s missing a trick. It was here almost twenty-five years ago that one of the great success stories in twenty-first century American roots music began when two sets of parents brought their children along to hear the bluegrass band that entertained customers at weekends.


Soon the children were onstage with the bluegrass band. And we are talking children. Chris Thile was still a year or two away from being the ridiculously talented seven year old mandolinist who could hold his own with seasoned professionals in fiddler Richard Green’s band. Sean Watkins was a budding guitarist and his younger sister, Sara, sang.


“Then when I was six,” she says, underlining the trio’s youth, “I started playing fiddle.”


For the home-tutored Watkins, if the pizza parlour was primary school, where they learned accompaniment skills and how to address an audience, their next move – forming Nickel Creek – was high school and university combined. They spent a dozen years touring the bluegrass circuit before, in 2000, they struck gold, selling over a million copies of their first, eponymously named album. Two further releases, This Side and Why Should the Fire Die, saw the erstwhile kiddiewinks confirm their grown-up star status with a massive following among bluegrass aficionados and the mainstream audience alike.


Sara Watkins laughs, though, when I suggest that the pizza place should mark the band’s foundation on the premises with a plaque.


“They couldn’t care less about that,” says Watkins, who featured in the Transatlantic Sessions tour with Aly Bain last January and returns to Scotland this month [November]. “But then, pizza places and bluegrass bands forming kind of go hand in hand in the States. Ninety-five per cent of the time, when you hear about an open mic night for bluegrass musicians or a new regular session starting, it’ll be in a pizza place. Maybe it’s because the mandolin and the violin, two of the instruments most prominent in bluegrass, are Italian and they feel at home among the sun dried tomatoes and oregano.”


Watkins is back home in Carlsbad when we speak, taking time off from touring in support of her first solo album, which in one move has taken her from being one third of a successful band to being a solo artist well on the way to repeating that success. She’d always planned to release her own album one day but didn’t want to follow the route that sees bluegrass band members, especially fiddlers, release a solo album that becomes just another CD on the band’s merchandise stall. With Nickel Creek put on indefinite hold in 2007, she wanted a career move – and she got it with the help of the Led Zeppelin old boys club that has seen the former heavy metal gods become curators of Americana’s treasures.


The members of Nickel Creek had worked with former Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones in a fleeting band called Mutual Admiration Society during 2004 and had become used to seeing him around festivals in the States where he’d turn up unannounced and play mandolin, as he did just the other week in Glasgow with David Rawlings. Then in 2006, Watkins walked off stage at Cambridge Folk Festival to find Jones waiting for her.


“He came up to me and said he wanted to produce my first album and if I didn’t let him, he’d never speak to me again,” she says. “I thought this was just him being sweet, that it was a compliment that had got a bit out of hand and he’d soon back out of it. But we kept in touch and we found that our ideas for the songs I should sing and the musicians we should involve were very similar. So when we put Nickel Creek on the shelf, he and I set to work and I was really pleased with the way the album turned out. John Paul was a dream to work with, almost invisible, but by getting on the musicians’ wavelength and just tweaking ideas here and there, he made it much more musical than it might have been otherwise.”


Watkins’ parents were actually more impressed with the fact that she was working with Jones than she was herself. Big fans of Led Zeppelin, they’d played Sara and Sean the band’s albums when they were starting out in Nickel Creek.


“You have to remember that I was about nine, maybe younger, when I was introduced to Led Zeppelin’s music,” she says qualifying her delightful response that, yes, she’s a fan but not in the way that some people are. “And I loved the bass playing and drumming, especially the power and excitement they created. It’s just that … I didn’t like the singer. I know, I know. When I got into my teens I understood more what the attraction was. But when I first heard them, I was used to bluegrass singers and musicians – and now Robert Plant’s working with bluegrass singers and musicians.”


Having managed, she hopes, to avoid talking herself out of contention should Plant wish at some point to follow up his work with one bluegrass singer-fiddler, Alison Krauss, who produced the first two Nickel Creek albums, by engaging another, Watkins moves on to talk about her next album, for which she’s seeking out and writing songs at the moment. It’s likely to contain a similar rich breadth of material as the first one, which found her drawing on gospel, vintage country and swing and Tom Waits’ darkness as well as her own writing.


“I’ve been touring with my brother, Sean, and two other musicians in the States but when we come to play in the UK, it’ll be just Sean and myself,” she says. “Sean’s such a good accompanist that he gives us a fuller sound than the average duo. We have a residency down in Los Angeles that allows us to play for fun and find out what works, so we’ll have new songs as well as songs from the first album by the time we get over there.”


From The Herald, November 4, 2010.


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