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Sara Watkins’ Solar Flair

Each day Sara Watkins encourages new experiences and gains a deeper awareness of where she is as an artist. The acclaimed singer and fiddle player literally grew up in public. Beginning as a pre-teen, she performed and recorded for 18 years as a member of Nickel Creek. In 2007 the popular progressive bluegrass trio went on hiatus.

Two years later she released a self-titled solo album, and followed that with an international slate of concert appearances, developed her songwriting skills, toured as a member of the Decemberists and “A Prairie Home Companion” road show and co-hosted the artistic hootenanny, Watkins Family Hour.

All of that collectively influenced her second release, Sun Midnight Sun,” which came out in May.

The new album displays her growing confidence with diamond-sharp folk-pop numbers written by her (“You and Me,” “Take Up Your Spade”) as well as several collaborations with producer Blake Mills (“The Foothills,” “Be There,” “The Accord,” “Impossible,” and “Lock and Key”). It also features a cover of Willie Nelson’s “I’m a Memory” and a duet with Fiona Apple on the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love.”

She worked exclusively with Mills and her brother, Sean (Nickel Creek, Fiction Family), to create the foundation of each song. Later, guests such as Jackson Browne, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) added their contributions.

The lineup of musicians on Sun Midnight Sun unintentionally mimics the Watkins Family Hour, which takes place at the Los Angeles club Largo. Co-hosted by the Watkins siblings, the show offers musicians a no-judgment atmosphere so that they’re free to try out new material and perform in special one-of-a-kind groupings. Past participants include Browne, Chris Thile, Dawes, Michael Nesmith (The Monkees), Grant Lee Phillips, Buddy Miller and David Garza. It was here that she was introduced to Mills by Tench, another WFH participant.

Last June, Watkins brought that collaborative spirit to her set at Bonnaroo’s Great Taste Lounge. Just before stepping onstage, she, Sean and Nashville-based artist Caitlyn Rose rehearsed “You’re the One I Love.”

“I saw she was on the list and I liked her singing. So, I asked if she would sing along with me. We’ve never sang together but we have mutual friends, so I contacted her on twitter. It was really fun.”

Since then, she’s toured with backing from Sean and fellow Fiction Family member, multi-instrumentalist Tyler Chester, at festivals, headlining dates and opening stints with Dawes and Browne. She continues to support Browne through the fall with European and Australian dates scheduled for next year.

JPG: I was on the side of the stage taking photos of your last-second rehearsal with Sean and Caitlyn Rose. Watching that play out did that offer a glimpse of what happens during the Watkins Family Hour shows?

SW: In a way, yeah. There’s a lot of surprise singing, a lot of harried rehearsals at Family Hour. That’s by no means exclusive to the Family Hour. It’s sort of part of festivals where there’s so many people to draw on. Sometimes, it’s nice to get to have one-of-a-kind collaboration.

JPG: You played other festivals such as Newport and Floyd Fest. Do you look at the schedule ahead of time and try and hook up with somebody?

SW: Yep.

JPG: At each stop?

SW: Not at each stop. If it works, if you know somebody…Generally, I don’t get to be hanging with people for the first time unless they’re onstage, but I just thought it would be fun. (slight laugh)

JPG: Back to the Largo shows, how have they come to influence you and…?

SW: A lot.

JPG: …in what ways?

SW: It’s a testing ground for a lot of new material. Songs that they might not be finished or you might think they’re finished and then you perform onstage and you realize you have to work on the bridge or find a new chorus or whatever.

The audience has been trained over the years, maybe not trained, but the people who come there that’s part of what they love about that venue is that it’s a safe place for musicians and comedians and artists to try out stuff. There’s no taping of any kind, which makes it very safe. That element makes the intimacy of that performance really special and that much more memorable because everyone knows that it’s a one-of-a-kind experience; musicians, comedians, the audience alike. A lot of times there’s these great performances there that you just know are very, very special nights.

So Family Hour is great because sometimes we do it once a month. We have to try out material, which adds new songs to the repertoire pretty often and to keeps it fresh. A lot of the songs that I end up singing on tour and even on the record are covers that I learned out of necessity and that have just stuck around. They weaseled their way into the repertoire.

JPG: That’s a wonderful luxury for you, to have the comfort and freedom to be allowed to fall flat on your face in front of a small supportive group. In your case when you originally wrote songs you played just a little bit to your bandmates in Nickel Creek and that was about all you felt comfortable with. Is it a matter that over time you’ve felt more comfortable to do that and can do that in front of strangers as well as peers or is it a result of putting out your solo debut and you feel more confident?

SW: I think the songs are better for one thing. The stuff that I was showing Sean and Chris [Thile] in the early years were things that did not need to see the light of day, whatsoever. It was the kind of thing that you feel means something to you, especially because you put your heart and soul into it for a little while, but you also are aware that it’s below standards. You’re not going to add anything to the world per se. For whatever reason you’re still learning the basics and everyone’s still learning all the time. I know all that but there are certain things that are really not good songs and I was writing them.

Finally, I got over a few things that were holding me back and I started…when I pictured the Family Hour, I was feeling more comfortable writing because there was an outlet that was not a Nickel Creek audience. It was like 50 people in a room who would hear a song for about three minutes and then that was it. I could play it, be done with it. I wrote a song. I played it for people. Let’s move on. Let’s try and write a better song next time. And that was the process for quite awhile. Those two things that I was proud enough of that I could put on a record and that’s when the first record came out. I hope that I’m getting better at songwriting, I guess is what I’m saying.

Each record documents a time and where you are at that time. You can’t always make the best record in the world but all you can do is try and make the best record that you can at that moment.

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