Sound Observations With Sara Watkins

Friday, May 21, 2010 10:20
Posted in category Interviews, Past Shows

By David Moye

It’s safe to say that Sara Watkins knows a lot about music.

This Grammy-nominated fiddle player has been fiddling around with music for most of her 28 years (29 on June 8th) – since she formed the progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek with her brother Sean Watkins and friend Chris Thile back in 1989.

But at the height of its ever-growing fame Nickel Creek went on an extended hiatus and during that period, Watkins stepped out on her own as a solo artist, releasing an acclaimed self-titled solo debut CD last year.

The album was all Sara’s, but was, in its own way, a homespun celebrity affair. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones produced the album, which includes performances by Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, singer Gillian Welch and Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas.

Watkins is currently on tour with singer/ songwriter Vienna Teng and Alex Wong and will be at Anthology on May 22. She recently spent an afternoon in a Carlsbad park discussing her music while walking her Saint Bernard, Buckley.

Q. So are you one of those people who can compose while on tour?

A. No, I cannot actually. And lately, I’ve been tour managing myself the last year and a half, so that leaves for very little creative time. But I’m hoping to do some more this summer by going on tour with Garrison Keillor. And even the tour with Dar Williams, a lot of that tour managing is not even going to come on my plate at all, so instead of worrying about directions and hotels and load-in times and setting up merch, I can have time to, hopefully, be creative and try and write songs and learn how to play guitar better.

Q. So when you are writing songs, do you do lyrics first or music first?

A. I like them to come together. If I am just writing lyrics, they tend to be just boring shapes. Like, AABB will be the rhyming scheme and it will be very boring lengths of phrases. So if I have music, I am more likely to form them together, rather than adapt music for a silly limited rhyme scheme.

Q. So are you more likely to write on the fiddle? The guitar? The ukulele? Do you play the mandolin or do you let Sean handle it?

A. I generally let Sean handle play mandolin. I write a lot on the uke and some on the guitar. I have written vocals on the fiddle. But many times, I’ll be driving around in the car and get my phone out and start singing melodies. Then when I get my guitar, I can sort of use that as a starting point and, hopefully, get it into some musical shape.

Q. You work with a lot of different people, such as Benmont Tench and John Paul Jones…

A. He produced my album!

Q. Any of them ever given you songwriting tips or advice? Little things you never thought you might use?

A. Most things they tell me are very useful (giggles). I never thought of them as not useful.

Q. I mean things you wouldn’t expect. Tommy Boyce, who wrote a lot of songs for the Monkees used to say he got the best ideas for songs and titles by reading comic books.

A. Hmm.

Q. Yeah, certain phrases….

A. Most of the things I’ve learned from those guys are from example. I just see how they do things and how they communicate where they want to go or when they’re not satisfied with something. And what makes them satisfied. Observing them is just the best way, because I don’t think these guys want to communicate in a teacher-student way, they just want to do their thing. And that’s largely how musicians communicate.

Q. So is there anything musically inspirational that comes from being your own tour manager?

A. Yeah, it makes me appreciate tour managers a whole lot!

WHAT: Vienna Teng & Alex Wong with Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek
WHEN: Saturday, May 22nd, 2010, 7:30pm
TICKETS: $12 – $36 BUY TICKETS
MORE INFO: Artists’ Profiles