On The Nickel

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Sarah Watkins talks about the reunited and rejuvenated Nickel Creek and the group’s new album. By Brian Wise.

Nickel Creek might just be the youngest band ever to celebrate a 25th anniversary. Guitarist Sean Watkins has hit the ripe old age of thirty-seven, while his sister and fiddle player Sarah and mandolinist Chris Thile are still in their early thirties.

The group first got together back in 1989 when they were just kids and then developed into probably America’s most successful ‘progressive’ bluegrass outfit before taking a seven-year hiatus. By that stage they had released five albums and received two Grammy Awards. The group’s fourth album, This Side, was produced by Alison Krauss and they also toured with Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton. It was an impressive career for such a young group of musicians. But revitalization was needed.

During the break, all three musicians pursued successful solo careers. Chris, who undertook an acclaimed solo acoustic tour of Australia earlier this year, released six albums (including a classical recording) and won another Grammy for a collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer. He also won the MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant. Sarah and Sean both also released several solo albums each and played regularly at the Largo nightclub in Los Angeles as the Watkins Family Hour.

Now, Nickel Creek is a recording and touring entity once more. Their new album A Dotted Line……..(get it?) has received universal acclaim and the group is now in the middle of a 50-plus date tour that will take them through until the end of August.

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If audience response is anything to go by, Nickel Creek’s fans are happy to see them back together. At The Ryman Auditorium on April 19, where I saw them, they received several standing ovations and rapturous applause for their near-two hour show. It was an inspiring performance and I had to keep reminding myself that these virtuoso musicians and great singers were still only in their 30s. Nickel Creek it seems has a long time to run yet.

The fact that the song ‘Hayloft,’ originally by Canadian band Mother Mother, received the greatest response seemed to epitomise the group’s career in its ability to take bluegrass and bend it to their own desires.

A few weeks prior to the Ryman shows I caught up with Sarah Watkins by phone to talk about Nickel Creek and the new album A Dotted Line, which was recorded in her now hometown of Los Angeles.

Whereabouts are you at the moment?

I am at home in Los Angeles.

Which is where the latest album was recorded, wasn’t it?

That’s right. We made it here. It was nice not having to travel too much for it,” she explained. “This is where we made our Why Should The Fire Die? record as well. In some way here, it is picking up where we left off.

You left off nine years ago. [The previous album Why Should The Fire Die?]  was released in 2005]. This is your first album since then together. What’s changed since then?

A lot has changed. Nine years is a long time. We did tour for a couple years after that record, so it really only feels like seven to us, because we did extended touring until 2007.

A lot has changed. One of the great things about this hiatus is that we’ve been able to dig into our own goals, our own individual goals a lot, and just explore this whole other side of music and our vibes personally, and also just how we want to direct our careers, and all of that. I think each of us has learned a lot and developed in new, different ways. I think because of that, we bring whole new things to the band that we never could have otherwise.

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You’ve all been busy on your own projects. You’ve all made albums separately. Has it been a rejuvenating experience for you?

Yes, yes, it has. I think we also feel very, very rejuvenated by those side projects. The only reason that we are able to make another record is because we have learned so much and done so much on our own.

It is true that the band is exciting and all of that, but I wouldn’t say that the band is rejuvenating us as much as our own solo things. Our other side projects have rejuvenated the band and made this record possible. We are very, every excited and happy to be playing and singing together, and the collaborations have been really satisfying and fun.

We saw Chris here earlier this year playing solo, and we also saw him with the Punch Brothers a couple of times. He has been busy and you’ve been busy making your own albums too, haven’t you?

Yes, yes. I’ve really enjoyed that, the touring as well, and playing with other people too. Been collaborating with other musicians and performers, as well as just joining in as a support act for a lot of people. I’ve sat in as a sideman for The Decemberists for about seven years or so and I’ve gotten to go out and enjoy being a part of Prairie Home Companion. I’ve gotten to see how these other people do their shows in such different ways that I haven’t done.

Also, I’ve been putting together my career and I’ve toured two records. It’s been great to be able to see what I love about other people’s shows and through those eyes, be able to improve what I do and customise what I do and just figure out how I want to perform and what kind of music I want to make.

Your own last album, Sun Midnight Sun, released last year was so strong that it came as a bit of a surprise that Nickel Creek was getting back together, because we thought you’d be touring that pretty heavily and maybe even coming out to Australia as well.

I sure want to. I really do. It’s just the trouble is getting down. You know how it is. Getting the one gig to get you down there. I really have enjoyed that album and thank you very much. I am glad you liked it too. I’m hoping to put out another one next year.

You mentioned the word ‘hiatus.’ I like the word. It’s much better than saying that the band’s broken up, because it always leaves the door open. What led you to decide to reunite and record again?

We’ve been talking about it this whole time, always having the idea that we would do another tour. We may record some songs together. When we would get together, when Sean, Chris and I would be in the same town, we would get some food, get some drinks, and the conversation would just pick up, like, ‘Oh, we should do this some time’ or ‘When we tour, when we do something again, let’s do it this way.’ It was always being discussed just off in the distance somehow.

Then, I think each of us to another one had the conversation, as a couple of years thinking like, ‘What does your schedule look like?’ Seeing logistically how it might be able to happen sooner than later.

When Chris realized that we were coming up on our 25th anniversary it seemed like a good, extra, double excuse to put something together. We didn’t know it would be a full record though. We just thought we would just make a little EP, but it ended up going pretty well – the writing process did. We decided that we actually had enough to make a record and so we went for it.

It seems amazing that the band’s been going for 25 years, because you all seem so young still.

We’re not that young, but we did start pretty early. I was eight, and Chris was eight, and Sean was 12 when we started. It is crazy that it’s stayed together. You know a lot of kids and bands and the crazy part is that we actually stayed together that whole time.

The title A Dotted Line…… can mean a number of things. It could indicate a continuation. It could draw a line under something. What does it mean for you?

We did like how it can mean a lot of things. One thing that Chris really liked about it is, he said that a lot of his favorite art is undefined, is slightly open ended.

These are my words, not his. A lot of the things we like are the things that don’t have a solid black line around them: Music that’s not completely straightforward, that leaves room for interpretation and the same with all art and photographs, and people, for that matter. A lot of my favorite people are the ones that I can’t quite define, and I can’t put into a box and that’s one way that we could interpret it.

Another way is as straightforward S the way we feel about this record is that it has been nine years since we made the other one but it seems like a continuous path, a continuous line connecting This Side to Why Should the Fie Die? to A Dotted Line. It seems to make sense that continuity. It works in a lot of other ways as well but it was also the only thing we could all agree on.

The album was produced, as I said, in Los Angeles with Eric Valentine, but you wrote the songs in New York, I believe, at Chris’ place. Is that right?

That’s right. We started writing together in, I think, is it June or July? I really should know. We had some ideas that were unfinished – ideas individually – and a lot of those became the starting points for the songs and made the album up.

After just about five days of writing in New York we had eight songs that we were really happy with and we had figured out a couple more. We thought, ‘Well, let’s just make a record.’ It just came together very naturally. We collaborated well together, worked together well and it went very quickly.

Let me ask you about a couple of the songs. Is Rest of My Life about the band, about the history of the band?

No, it’s not. It was a happy accident. I should say that all these songs probably are about a lot of things, but I know the way that that song started was just as it says. After a pretty big party and the mess that you have after a big party and the slight sadness that sometimes we feel looking around, and not feeling so hot, and just thinking, ‘Really? What now. Come on. I’m too old for this.’

I think like most of our songs, and I think probably like most songwriters, would say where a song starts and then everything that gets included in the song is not always the same thing. Once you dig into what a song is about you can relate to it on a whole lot of different levels and touch on bigger topics in the analogy of the song. I think it’s probably quite a few things in there, as well as in a lot of other lyrics on this album. If that makes sense?

You’ve chosen to cover a song by a fantastic songwriter who’s really under-rated, Sam Philips, ‘Where is Love Now?’ She is just a great songwriter and I’m so glad that you chose to do one of her songs.

Isn’t she great? She is tops. I heard that song for the first time, my friend Mark Flanagan, who runs a club called Largo in Los Angeles, which is the home turf of a lot of musicians and comedians in Los Angeles. He provides a great breeding ground of creativity and a lot of cross-pollination between comedians and musicians, and just people in LA. I met Sam at the club, but before I met her, I believe Flanagan gave me a tape of her singing that song – years ago, probably ten years ago. I loved it and I learned to sing it, and I’ve been singing it for a while. Nickel Creek even performed it live a couple of times in our last tour but none of us had ever recorded it, so this was the perfect opportunity.

She’s a really inventive songwriter, isn’t she?

She’s a great songwriter and a terrific performer too. I saw her recently, and her show is so thoughtful and so personal, and just awesome to watch. It was great.

The song ‘Hayloft’ is probably one of the weirdest songs that you’ve ever done. Was that Chris’ choice?

Yes, it was Chris’s. He got turned on to that song by his little brother Daniel, who is a fan of the band Mother Mother, the Canadian band, and he really liked that song. He’s been sitting on it for a couple of years and hadn’t done anything with it in any of his other projects. When we were thinking of what covers we might do, that one came to mind and Sean and I really liked it. We pay tribute to Mother Mother’s version on our record. It was really fun, as you can imagine, to do.

 

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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