Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sara Watkins began performing music aged just eight, alongside her brother Sean and friend Chris Thile as part of the bluegrass group Nickel Creek.
Since then she’s racked up six albums with the band – including their Grammy-winning fourth record, 2002’s This Side – as well as performing as part of the trio I’m With Her and releasing several albums as a solo artist. The fourth of these, ‘Under The Pepper Tree’, was released last month and is her first children’s record.
I recently spoke to Sara about the new album, her plans for touring the UK later this year (alongside her brother as The Watkins Family Hour), making music and performing during lockdowns and more.
You’ve just released your new album Under The Pepper Tree – tell us more about that…
It’s a record that I made with children in mind. It’s a children’s record. But I’m also thinking of it as something for the whole family because these are songs that I knew growing up, and that have stayed with me throughout my life, and have actually served me well. There’s a depth to these songs, melodically and lyrically, that I think makes them beautiful and deep and rich and valuable to people at all stages in life. But I particularly made this album with children in mind.
Why did you decide that now was the right time to make this album?
Well, I had never really thought about it too much – making a kids’ record – until I had a child of my own a few years ago. And while we’ve been housebound this last year bar a month or so, I just realised that there was a real value in the rhythm of the day and creating that rhythm where it had been taken from us all, our work rhythm. And so I found great value in nurturing this before bedtime moment. It’s no secret to caregivers at night [laughs] – the bedtime routine or whatever is kind of a big deal. But separate from the routine, this was something I also found useful for myself, just to calm my head and to soothe my soul with these lovely, imaginative songs.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of sequencing and transitions on this record. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah. When I realised that a lot of the songs would be in this sort of dreamy tone and tempo, I knew that if we had too many songs like that in a row it would get pretty old and fairly uninteresting. And so I realised that a way to solve that would be to connect them, and to make the songs flow into each other if that was possible. So we sequenced the record before going in to record it. We did a little practice run of the songs with a hypothetical sequence, and then we changed it a little and tweaked it to make it just right so we knew exactly how the record would flow when we went in to record it.
How was the process of choosing which songs to include on the album? Did you find that challenging or was it always clear to you which songs would be on there?
It wasn’t too challenging at all. I had a few songs that came up immediately, like Blue Shadows On The Trail, Beautiful Dreamer, the Harry Nilsson song Blanket For A Sail. There were several songs that just came immediately like Second Star To The Right. And then just talking to other people, being reminded and ‘oh yes that’s beautiful! La La Lu, that’s gorgeous!’ I remember that from Lady And The Tramp. And Good Night, off the last album from The White Album. You’ll Never Walk Alone was a song that I’ve heard it’s much more common in Europe, but over here I hadn’t really heard it done in a way that… Most of the versions I had heard were very over-produced and kind of hard to understand, but I’m sure there are so many great versions of the song because it’s been well appreciated. But I couldn’t really find one that I would want to listen to over and over again, so I tried to make this version a little more like you would sing it to a kid, or to any loved one whom you’re trying to give comfort to. I think that’s the biggest, most melancholy song on the album. I think it speaks to any stage of life.
You’ve also got two original songs on the record. How did you find the process of writing those in particular?
Well, Night Singing is the vocal, and I wrote that first as a poem for my daughter, and it became this little tiny short song. It’s probably only a minute and a half long. And I wrote it to her, but as I was singing it to myself, practising it and tweaking a few words, I realised that I really needed to hear some of those words said to me. It was oddly comforting to be able to sing it to myself. And since then it’s even developed beyond that where I’ve been able to sing that for a friend who’s nearing the end of life on Earth. It’s became a sort of full circle song for me in a lot of ways.
The instrumental song was one that I felt like I needed to have a little bit of a tune on here, because that has to do with a lot of my musicality and the way that I experience music. And I called it Under The Pepper Tree because there are these pepper trees in southern California. They’re everywhere – I’m looking at a hillside right now that has many, many pepper trees on it. And they’re beautiful trees for a child I think, because they’re very, very strong, great for climbing, but their branches sort of willow down to the ground which creates this room, this great play area for an imaginative place to just play. And the leaves when they drop create a very soft mulch on the ground. I spent so much of my time as a kid under pepper trees so it seemed like a very fitting title for this album that I made for children.
I wanted to ask about the visuals for the album as I know you’ve said you wanted the record to be a visual experience as well. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yeah, we spent a lot of this year when we were at home like everyone else listening to old children’s records that I picked up on tour. When I’m on tour like most musicians I end up going to record stores quite a bit and I was picking up a lot of children’s records for a while, and we got to listen to them this year because we were at home. And some of those records are these beautiful books that open up with pages and lovely story book visuals that a kid can follow along, and I noticed that my daughter sometimes listens to the music more when she’s looking at the books and sort of piecing things together. So it seemed really important to me that this album which is kind of for children had artwork that would broadly hold kids’ attention. And I found a wonderful collagist named Adam Sniezek and he put this beautiful collage together, and the album art opens up so that they can have so much to look at. I just was so happy with how he put it all together. Collage is a wonderful way of blending the real and the surreal, and I think that’s just perfect for a children’s record.
You’ve got several collaborations on the album, particularly with your bands Nickel Creek and I’m With Her. What was that like?
So wonderful. Because both of those bands have been a big part of my life, and Nickel Creek, we grew up watching a film called The Three Amigos and there are some wonderful songs in that movie. And I knew that I wanted to record Blue Shadows On The Trail but I also knew that I didn’t want to do it without them. For a minute it looked like it was gonna be impossible because there was no travel, there were weird scheduling things happening. But it did work out and I’m so pleased, because it’s really special to get to have both Nickel Creek and I’m With Her on this record celebrating kids and families. Because we grew up together and now we’re at the age where we have families of our own and it’s lovely to get to share it with them.
How have you found the process of making music and performing during the pandemic and lockdowns?
Yeah. My brother and I, Watkins Family Hour, put out a record called Brother Sister last April and we haven’t been able to tour it. So what we did was we set up a Patreon page, which is a subscription platform that enabled us to keep that project alive and going. It’s really given us a musical purpose for long stretches of this crazy year. So every month we do two live streaming shows and we have guests come and join us outside, and we also release these little podcasts that are up on our Patreon. And there have been others – Nickel Creek did a couple of livestreams. So I think that’s getting people by in a way and I think it’ll probably stay with us for a while, the livestreams. It’s been lovely for people who live in isolated areas or can’t get to live shows. So I think that’s a real good thing for a lot of people but it will be immeasurably joyful to be among strangers in a room singing together, when that happens.
You’ve got some UK shows planned with Watkins Family Hour later this year – what can people expect from those?
This album, Brother Sister, was different for us, because we’ve really never focused on the potential of our duo. In the past the Family Hour has been a way to play with people in town as we do our residency, but we really wanted to focus on the arrangements and writing for this duo. So we’re really proud of the songwriting on this album and of the record. And we’re truthfully really excited to go anywhere and tour this album. And I think it’ll be a very joyful thing for us to get to bring it to the UK. That might be the first one we get to do.
It’s been a few years since your last solo record [2016’s ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’] but you’ve had several other projects out with bands in the meantime. Is having that variety important to you?
Yeah, so I really value that fact I can dance between band collaborations and solo projects. I think they help each other in terms of my musicianship and what I can offer. It keeps me learning and in shape, I think, to be able to do as wide a variety of projects as possible. And I consider this ‘Under The Pepper Tree’ record to be a solo record. And I will also continue to be a part of the other collaborations, because I think it’s very important to be a quality teammate and build a collaboration. But I also really enjoy leading my own show and designing my own concerts and tours. I think that’s something that I get a lot out of. So I’m very lucky that I can do both.
Is there anything that you’ve learnt from making ‘Under The Pepper Tree’ that you’ll take forward into your next projects – either solo or with your bands?
I’ll definitely take with me the process of pre-production. We sequenced the album before going in and I did a hypothetical sequence – I had a couple of songs where I thought the transitions would be great and we did a proxy thing when we recorded all of that. Then I went away and I did some switching around and reorganised the songs in a different way, so that it was all sequenced, and then we went in to record it. So that’s a process I’ll definitely use on other projects.
What’s the one song you wish you’d written?
Oh gosh! You know, I’m not sure I can answer that question. I love being able to cover songs because these are songs from different perspectives and I never would have put them together. I don’t think I have an answer for that, I’m sorry to say.
What’s next for you? Is the record and preparing for touring later in the year your main focus at the moment?
So the focus is to get to fall really. We’ve got some dates coming up with Family Hour and I’m just really ready to start playing shows. We’ve been making things and writing for future projects and I’m just looking forward to getting out and playing in front of people. And also going to see my friends, going to concerts. So I think that’s what’s next for me.
Can you give us any hints about what those future projects might be?
No, they’re just hypothetical at the moment. Sorry!
Sara Watkins’ latest album ‘Under the Pepper Tree’ is out now on New West Records.
See Sara on tour in the UK this August with Watkins Family Hour:
Purbeck Valley Folk Festival, Wareham – 22nd August 2021
St Pancras Old Church, London – 23rd August 2021
Brudenell Social Club, Leeds – 24th August 2021