Former Nickel Creek fiddler to play Eccles Center
When Sara Watkins, the former fiddler for the award-winning roots and bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, decided to embark on a solo career in 2008, it was something she needed to do.
"Any bits of apprehension were secondary, because I knew that if I was nervous, it was a normal reaction and does not mean I shouldn’t do it," Watkins said with a laugh during a phone call from her home in Carlsbad, Calif. "It was something that I wanted to do and I’m glad I did it."
The musicians will perform at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Jan. 5. Watkins will be joined by her band, her brother Sean and Wailin’ Jenny’s founder Ruth Moody.
Watkins, now four years into her solo career, said the experience has helped her take advantage of the things she has learned throughout the years, growing up as a musician.
"I realize more and more, that playing music for a living is less about going on tour and playing 150 dates a year, and more about how you see the world and spend your spare time thinking about things," she said. "It’s about life and how I process things."
To date, Watkins has two solo CDs – "Sara Watkins" and her most recent, "Sun Midnight Sun" – released and is happy that each of them are different and represent snapshots of where she was in her life’s journey.
"With ‘Sun,’ I wanted to work with a producer named Blake Mills, who is a terrific musician and founder of the group Simon Dawes," she said. "He has co-produced a lot of CDs, but hasn’t taken on a project all his own, and I knew I wanted to work with him and I was grateful he had the time."
Mills used a different method than Watkins’ first producer, former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
"John produced my first record and there was a lot of pre-production stuff that went on," Watkins said. "We would email the songs back and forth and arrange and then work as a band in the studio.
"This didn’t happen with Blake," she said. "Instead, I would come to the studio and we would play through songs and kind of played around with it for a couple of hours."
After getting a feel for the songs, the two would track it and then build on it with mixes and overdubs.
"We had to be careful, because if we did too much, it would have taken the human element out of the process," Watkins explained. "But it was great to find a balance and maintain the flexibility of the tune, but also to geek out on it for a couple of days to see where it goes."
The sessions were like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
"If we recorded the album now, it would sound totally different," Watkins said. "I’m really proud of the record and glad about the way it turned out."
"Sun Midnight Sun" is the result of Watkins responding to her environment, which is also what she and her band – bassist Tyler Chester, guitarist (and brother) Sean Watkins and drummer Mark Stepro – do during their live shows.
"The musicians respond to each other while we are on stage and in turn, the audience responds to us and we respond to them as well," she said. "That’s the best part of being a musician – the camaraderie when you’re on stage. The songs can change from night to night, depending on the overall feeling."
Watkins likes playing with her older brother, but doesn’t do it as often as she would like.
"He’ll play with my band whenever I can rope him into it," she said. "He is in another band Fiction Family and they’re going to tour in January and February, so I get him when his schedule is free."
Watkins’ knack for music developed when she was in elementary school.
"My parents were getting ready to put me into music lessons, but before I got to that age, my family already had a tradition of going to see live music as often as possible," she said. "There was a bluegrass band that played in town every Saturday night. So, seeing and getting to know them and meeting other people in the music scene was natural, casual and normal for our family."
The band would invite Watkins and a bunch of other kids to come up and play during the concerts.
"As a seven- and eight-year-old, I remember thinking that these 30-year-old musicians playing every week were cool," she said. "I thought how neat it would be to make a living playing music like them. Little did I know they were all doing laundry at their parents’ house and barely getting by."
Still, music was something Watkins could do.
"I remember going to festivals and playing music with other kids, or joining fiddle contests and coming home with $50 in my pocket as a preteen," she said. "I thought it was great to live a life where I could practice, play and win third place.
"Little achievements like those kept me going," she said.
In 1998, Watkins formed the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek with her brother Sean on mandolin and friend Chris Thile on guitar.
The boys would later switch instruments.
"Nickel Creek started when I was still pretty young, but it just became something that I continued to do," she said.
The band hit it big in 2000 and continued recording, performing and winning awards until it disbanded in 2007.
Some of the band’s awards include: International Bluegrass Music Association Emerging Artist of the Year in 2000, the IBMA Instrumental Group of the Year in 2001 and a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2003.
Multiple nominations include Best Bluegrass Album, Best Country Instrumental, Contemporary Folk and Country Instrumental Performance.
"There were many times when we would have moments of looking out at a giant theatre, knowing it will be full later that night with people who were coming to see us," Watkins said. "I think many performers have those unique observations when they take it all in."
At the same time, since Watkins had grown up as a performing musician, she would take things day-by-day and work on making sure she played the music right.
These days, Watkins tries to make sure she has a balance in her life.
"I think that’s everyone’s challenge," she said. "Everyone struggles to maintain a healthy balance of work and fun, but since I have a supportive family, it comes easier to me."
Sara Watkins will perform at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Jan. 5, at 7:30 p.m. She will be joined by her band, her brother Sean and Wailin’ Jenny’s co-founder Ruth Moody. Tickets range from $20 to $67 and are available by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org or by calling (435) 655-3114. For more information, visit http://www.sarawatkins.com.
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