Sara Watkins’ Solar Flair
JPG: Was it one of those lightbulb goes off moments where it was, say a chord change in something you were working on or a set of lyrics that sounded promising the first draft…
SW: Growing up when I was writing these things and passing them to Sean and Chris to read, they were really, really vague. And so Sean and Chris would find a few lines that were intriguing to them. Each of them would be like, “Oh, I like this one. This is great. I have no idea what you’re singing about here. No idea what these lyrics are about. This line is interesting.” And I would be listening to other songwriters who would be really vague in their songwriting and you don’t always know exactly what they’re singing about, but you feel convinced of something. So, I had all of the vagueness but none of the quality. (laughs)
And so one thing that I was trying to do, one thing that I still have to be aware of, is knowing what I’m saying, what I want to say, being able to say it. If you want to change the analogies around or if you need to refocus the actual topic that you’re singing about, then go right ahead. I was a teenager and I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to say. I was beating around the bush a lot and I finally started having some songs to sing when I was in my early to mid-20s and lived a little bit of life and listened to songs, listened to songwriting a whole lot and figured out what I like about it. Then, I started thinking, “Okay, I should head in this direction because this is what I love about songs.” That’s when I started writing songs that I would actually record.
JPG: My sister occasionally critiques my work and the process can, sometimes, get ugly. Something I think is brilliant and she ends up criticizing it. Then, when I take myself out of it and look at it again I can see how to make the words work.
SW: It’s more frustrating than anything because you want it to come across the way that you mean for it to come across, but, sometimes, you have to adjust wordings or turns of phrase or focus your message a little.
JPG: What I’m also getting to by bringing that up is that is that a nice advantage to you where working with Sean for so long that’s a stark honesty and an emotional and creative shorthand?
SW: Yeah, totally. Absolutely. I think the most helpful thing is being able to work, hopefully, with somebody whose opinion you trust and also you know where they’re coming from with their opinion; some things that matter to them, that don’t matter quite as much to you. I know that I was writing a song and Sean gave me some feedback that I disagreed with. “I’m sorry I feel like this is the song. It’s done. I’m not changing that because this just fits with the song.” I had worked on it. He had been a sounding board before on that song and I felt like it was done. He’s done the same thing to me where he’s like, “I’m not interested in your opinion on this thing. I’m interested in your opinion on this thing. Does this chord help or does this chord help? Is this lyric better or is that lyric better. This other part of the song, that’s settled. I know that’s what I want to say there.”
There’s a huge advantage to both knowing someone very well and being able to rely on their opinion as their opinion. It’s their feeling, their opinion. This is where they’re coming from. How do I feel about that? Is it relevant? Do I care? You need to have people around you that are concerned is a huge help. When you have a good relationship with family, it can be a great advantage because there’s, like you said, an honesty that a lot of times, you can get away with better than with non-family or friends.
JPG: There are two instrumentals on “Sun Midnight Sun.” Why did you did you decide not to add lyrics to “The Foothills” and “The Accord?”
SW: They didn’t have lyrics. They were instrumentals to begin with. Instrumentals are a big part of my shows, what I love about music and where I come from. The trick was to get them to be relevant to the rest of the album, sonically, so they weren’t just fiddle tunes hanging out on their little island in the context of the record that’s very un-fiddle-y, the rest of the record, I mean. I knew that I wanted to have a couple of instrumentals on the record. That was part of the plan in the beginning.
Occasionally, when you write a fiddle tune, there’s the option of adding lyrics to the song or maybe building something to it. But, generally after a couple of attempts, it becomes more and more clear that it’s just an instrumental.“The Accord” was originally really fast. I was playing that for Blake [Mills], the producer. He just started playing this really groovy guitar part (she vocalizes it.), which was a slower version of the melody. It was really fun. It changed the whole vibe of the tune. So that was just great.
JPG: You’ve been opening for Jackson Browne. I can see that as being really relaxing — go out, do 45 minutes and you’re done for the day – or dealing with an audience that isn’t open to you and isn’t there to see you. How has it been?
SW: The audience has been great. Really, really great. We do play 45 minutes in front. We come early and soundcheck with Jackson for a few hours before the doors. We play with him. It’s a full day of collaboration. That’s really fun every night to be able to spend that time playing up onstage and driving and catching up on the bus. We get to ride along with them which is so helpful.
JPG: That’s nice that you’re not just a support act but a part of something. In a similar way you were part of something, when you filled in for Jenny Conlee and toured with the Decemberists. I read that you enjoyed the experience because for a change you weren’t responsible for anything. What did you take away from that experience?
SW: Well their show is so fun. Colin [Meloy], the front man, has a great rapport with the audience. They just eat out of the palm of his hand. His stage presence is terrific; just watching somebody put on a show every night and you see the variations that they put in. You see what’s important to them to get their show across and what’s not important, things they let slide. It was a huge learning experience. They are really good at what they do, and I love Colin’s approach to songwriting. He’s a terrific storyteller.
JPG: As far as other appearances, how in all the years that it’s been broadcast, did you end up being the first guest host on “A Prairie Home Companion?”
SW: I don’t know. I think I was right place at the right time. I was doing the Summer Love Tour with Garrison Keillor (creator and host of “A Prairie Home Companion”). It was about five weeks long and it was non-broadcast Prairie Home Companion shows, just live performances and audiences. And about halfway through or towards the end, I guess, he mentioned to me that he was interested in watching the broadcast from the side of the stage. At that point, he had mentioned to people that he was talking about retiring but nobody close to him believed him. So, anyways, he asked me if I wanted to do the show. Of course, I said, “Yes.” Then, I went through a few weeks of, “What am I gonna do? Everyone’s gonna hate me. They’re gonna want Garrison…”
And, God bless him, he did not tell his audience that he was going to have somebody else host the show. So, as soon as I started singing the theme song, everyone’s like, “What’s going on?” He told the audience in the theater but nobody across the country knew. I think there were some very unhappy people and rightfully so. I don’t tune into that show to hear somebody else host that. I tune in to hear Garrison. So, I knew at the time that it was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was just really grateful for the experience. I had a wonderful time.
*JPG: Is the live situation more of a thrill for you than going to the studio? *
SW: I love the studio. It’s just that once you put a record out, it takes awhile to make the rounds that you need to make to perform it for people. It just takes a certain amount of time to get everywhere you need to get. I want to play places in Europe. I want to go to Australia. I want to go play some Canadian Folk Festivals as well as American festivals. So this year, I’m getting around towards letting it know that there’s a new record out Next time, I’m hoping to get on some of those larger festivals and play to those audiences.