Singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Sara Watkins has been performing music since the age of just eight, when she formed her first band Nickel Creek with her brother Sean and friend Chris Thile (with whom she later won a Grammy). She’s also a founding member of all-female Americana group I’m With Her and has had success as a solo artist with three albums under her belt, including 2016’s ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’. Now she’s back with her newest record, ‘Under The Pepper Tree’, which is aimed at children and families.
The record opens with a version of ‘Pure Imagination’, from the 1971 film ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’. The quivering string intro builds the anticipation before a short spoken word intro from Watkins, whose delicate, soft vocals work perfectly with the soaring music and draw you into the fantasy world of the song. I really love that she’s kept the spirit of the original track as well as putting her own spin on it, and that’s a trend that carries on throughout the next 35 minutes – not an easy trick to pull off.
Across its 15 tracks, the album covers a wide range of songs, particularly drawing on classic movies and the Disney canon. ‘The Second Star To The Right’ is an acoustic guitar-led tune highlighting the beautiful clarity in Watkins’ voice, whilst her take on ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ has a lovely warmth and organic feeling about it. Elsewhere, the twangy ‘La La Lu’ (from ‘Lady and the Tramp’) is full of emotion and the layered instruments on her rendition of ‘Stay Awake’ give it a wonderful lush quality.
Another thing which really stood out to me about the record was the ease in which it all flows together. This is particularly evident on songs such as ‘Edelweiss’ (featuring a guest appearance by Watkins’ young daughter), which keeps the strings from the previous song before moving into a piano melody that adds to the song’s dreamlike quality, then switches up again into a sparse, twangy take on ‘Moon River’ that features Spanish guitar. Watkins takes a similar approach later on with her version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, which picks up with a bright Hawaiian guitar melody then drops away into the song’s softer melody. It makes the whole thing work as a complete piece of music and really adds to the sense of care and investment in this project.
For me some of the album’s loveliest moments come in the form of the collaborations. ‘Blue Shadows On The Trail’, featuring Watkins’ first band Nickel Creek, is a playful yet mellow cowboy number featuring double bass and honky tonk piano as well as some gorgeous harmonies and incredible drawn-out notes from Watkins. She takes a similar approach on Tumbling Tumbleweeds with I’m With Her, with its down-home, rollicking feel and a capella ending, whilst Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith provides a great vocal complement to her on the jaunty, almost tropical-sounding ‘Blanket For A Sail’.
Watkins also wrote two original pieces for the record, including the instrumental title track, which has an almost Celtic vibe about it and put me in mind of the last rays of sunlight setting over a river, as well as providing a short break and showing off the range of her style and her skill as an instrumentalist. Her other original song, ‘Night Singing’, comes shortly afterwards and is a simple, heartfelt number written for her daughter, with messages of love and vivid imagery of ‘painting the sky [and] the moon’. It’s a real testament to her talents that she’s able to slot these two songs in seamlessly with the rest of the record and it all works wonderfully together.
After a midtempo, folk-influenced take on ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – which really adds to the song’s sense of optimism and may just be my favourite version of it ever – Watkins closes the album with ‘Good Night’. For me it brings a lot of the album’s aspects full circle, such as echoing back to the message of ‘dreaming for everyone’ from ‘Blanket For A Sail’, as well as the softness of Watkins’ vocals. She ends the way she began – on a snippet of spoken word – and it’s a nice, gentle way to round off the record.
Overall ‘Under The Pepper Tree’ feels like a true labour of love, and the result is an album that could easily slot into any family’s daily listening, with a classic retro feeling that avoids tipping over into being too old-fashioned. You really sense that Watkins has taken the time to carefully craft these interpretations of songs that have a place in so many people’s hearts, paying tribute to the originals as well as adding depth, and as such it feels like a very special piece of work. If you’re looking for something nostalgic and comforting to relax to in the evening – for the kids or for yourself – or for a gift for a child or new baby, then this is well worth looking into (especially the vinyl version which is absolutely beautiful).
Track listing: 1. Pure Imagination 2. The Second Star To The Right 3. Blue Shadows On The Trail (featuring Nickel Creek) 4. Edelweiss 5. Moon River 6. Under The Pepper Tree 7. When You Wish Upon A Star 8. Night Singing 9. La La Lu 10. Tumbling Tumbleweeds (featuring I’m With Her) 11. Blanket For A Sail 12. Beautiful Dreamer 13. Stay Awake 14. You’ll Never Walk Alone 15. Good Night Record label: New West Records Release date: 26th March 2021