Interview with Sara Watkins

sara watkins
Sara Watkins

Interview and Photos by Scott Preston

You could say that Sara Watkins’ solo debut has been a lifetime in the making. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter and fiddle player spent nearly two decades—all of her teenage and young adult life—as one-third of Nickel Creek, the Grammy Award–winning acoustic trio that used contemporary bluegrass as a starting point for its no-genre-barred sound. Along the way, she’s hinted at her desire to do a project of her own and even organized some exploratory sessions in Los Angeles about six years ago. Now, with Nickel Creek on indefinite hiatus, she is releasing her self-titled solo disc, recorded in Los Angeles and Nashville and produced by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. It features an impressively wide range of backing players and old friends, including itinerant alt-country duo Gillian Welch and Dave Rawling, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas; fellow travelers from the bluegrass world like Tim O’Brien, Chris Eldridge, Ronnie McCoury and Rayna Gellert; and her Nickel Creek bandmates.

Cincy Groove: What was it like for you to be able to write your own album after being in Nickel Creek?

Sara Watkins: When I first started writing I wasn’t necessarily thinking, okay this song will sell on a record. I generally get caught up in the craft of writing a song and when that happens, those songs are the ones that will make it on an album. I’m usually happier with those songs for longer. I write when something comes to me, I haven’t learned really how to write on demand. When I get caught up in the moment is when the best stuff ends up coming out. It was really great to see the songs on my debut album finished according to my vision and John Paul Jones’ vision. I think this album is really a contrast to what I have done before and before now I don’t think I was ready for it.

Cincy Groove: How did you end up having John Paul Jones produce your album?

Sara Watkins: John toured with a side project that we were all involved in, the Mutual Admiration Society, where he played bass. John has been coming to bluegrass festivals for a long time, so I have known him through that. He approached me about producing my record when Nickel Creek was playing at Cambridge. I was delighted and surprised.

Cincy Groove: Who did you have playing on your record?

Sara Watkins: well, had 18 people total. My band mates from Nickel Creek are on it, John Paul Jones plays bass, Pete Thomas, Greg Leisz, Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Billy Cardine, Ronnie McCoury, Jon Brion and a lot more very talented players. Its a incredible list of players, and the thing is I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to assemble this all star list of players. I am just lucky enough to be able to play with these guys. Each of the people on this record are important to me musically. Also each of them have been an influence on me. Tim O’Brien is on this record and he happens to be one of my all time favorite singers. It was so amazing to watch him come in and throw down three completely different harmony tracks to 2 songs. Each one of them had its own melody, was so effortless and had a life of it’s own. I really could tell stories about each of the people I have on the record. It just happens that the people that are on the record are all super talented and it reads as an all star cast, so I feel very lucky.

Cincy Groove: How was your experience when you recently played on the Jimmy Fallon show?

Sara Watkins: It was a great experience, I mean I got to play with Questlove , how much better could it get? (The Roots were Jimmy Fallons house band). It was Tommy, Questlove, myself, my brother Sean, and John Paul Jones on bass. I sometimes forget how much John Paul Jones can rock. Just put him with a drummer and electric bass and watch him play. Its really an amazing thing to witness especially when you are standing on stage with him. (watch her appearance here)

Cincy Groove: Who will be playing with you on tour?

Sara Watkins: The lineup will change as the tour goes along. Right now it is my brother Sean, myself, and Sebastian Steinberg on electric bass. We are going to do the trio thing, so I think its going to be a lot of fun.

Cincy Groove: What have been some of the highlights for you so far this year?

Sara Watkins: Obviously playing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with Questlove and John Paul Jones was a big one. The other big event was finally having this record come out. This whole thing is just getting started, I mean I have only played 4 headlining shows total in my life. This is my first major headlining tour. Mostly I have been just opening for people so this tour is going to be fun.

Cincy Groove: Who do you consider some of your influences?

Sara Watkins: There have been so many over the years. Obviously all the people on my record. I just feel giving you an incomplete list would be unfair. But listening to Tim and Molly O’Brien sing had a big effect on me as well as my band mates in Nickel Creek. Getting to sing with Fiona Apple over the last couple years has been great as well. She is incredibly talented and just a sweetheart.

Sara Watkins filmed live from the Violin Shop in (nashville) Bellevue, Tennessee.

Sara Watkins tour dates:
for show details visit
Apr 28 2009 Iron Horse Music Hall Northampton, Massachusetts
Apr 29 2009 Cafe 939 Boston, Massachusetts
Apr 30 2009 Port City Music Hall Portland, Maine
May 2 2009 Bearsville Theater Woodstock, New York
May 6 2009 Shank Hall Milwaukee, Wisconsin
May 7 2009 Majestic Theatre Madison, Wisconsin
May 8 2009 Abbey Pub Chicago, Illinois
May 9 2009 Southgate House Newport, Kentucky
May 12 2009 Swedish American Hall San Francisco, California
May 13 2009 La Poloma Theatre Encinitas, California
May 14 2009 Largo at The Coronet Los Angeles, California
May 15 2009 The State Room Salt Lake City, Utah
May 16 2009 Mississippi Studios Portland, Oregon
May 17 2009 Tractor Tavern Seattle, Washington