Understanding and Ability

by Nikki Tranter


PopMatters Books Editor

Musicians rarely come sweeter than Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins. Hell, people rarely come sweeter than Sara Watkins. Minutes into our conversation I want what she’s got: tender disposition, quiet wisdom, and straight-up earnestness. So much about this young woman is enviable, from her prodigious violin skills to her cherubic features and country-casual wardrobe. Ask Watkins, though, and she’ll tell you she’s just a lucky girl with a great job who’s nowhere near perfecting her craft. “I know very well I’m at the bottom of the heap in terms of musical understanding and ability,” she tells me during our chat on the eve of the band’s US tour. Sincere and cherished as her humility is, it’s hard not to want to convince the girl that, whether she likes it or not, she’s an absolute star.

Never has Watkins’s and Nickel Creek’s superb musicianship been more evident than on their latest record, Why Should the Fire Die?. Watkins is spot on when noting the maturity of the album’s writing, mainly courtesy of her bandmates, Chris Thile (mandolin) and Sean Watkins (guitar). “Topically,” she says, “the subject matter has gotten very interesting. The guys have gotten more intense, more mature.” This maturity signals a slight shift in direction for the group, albeit a slight one. The record is unmistakably bluegrass, but it’s an innovative and exciting rocked-up version; very much an extension of the band’s already progressive 2002 record, This Side, with its brilliant cover of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger”. The shift for Nickel Creek, though, isn’t about subverting the genre or merging it with anything else to grab every possible ear. Watkins says the band, which started out on the talent show circuit 15 years ago, has always been about growth, development, and change. “[We’ve been about] change from the beginning,” Watkins says. “Not necessarily change, but just learning. And when you learn, you grow, and then things change to compliment that.”

So, rock-edged bluegrass today; tomorrow, who knows? Which is exactly Nickel Creek’s appeal. The band’s experience allows it to freshen up a typically traditional style of music in a way that respects that tradition while demonstrating its youthful potential. They doing via distinctly Nickel Creek twists on classic bluegrass tracks like “Helena” and “Best of Luck” (from the new CD). The songs are compelling and different and challenging the any ear tuned specifically to classic bluegrass. These songs, especially, are invigorated bluegrass. They stick to the basic elements of the genre, while adding a suitably modern touch—a rock-y, dance-y pinch of progression that pleases the traditional bluegrass sensibility, but revels in its ultra-contemporary vibe. It’s a great rev-up for the genre and definitely proves the sound can extend beyond its usual traditional boundaries.

Despite the record’s obvious potential to draw a wide audience, Watkins’s goals are far from the superstar kind. Her understanding of her position in the music world is hugely refreshing. She knows her face on CMT is a paid commercial, as well as appearance on late night talk shows. Cool as it is to be up there on the small screen, don’t for a minute think Watkins has delusions of grandeur. It appears remaining in star-limbo, then, isn’t any big deal. “Everything happens so slowly,” Watkins says about the rise from talent shows to Conan O’Brien. “Things change, but people perceive the fact that you have a video on TV, that all of a sudden you have some level—no matter how small—of celebrity. They don’t realize that the reason you’re on CMT is because people are pretty much paying for you to be. Or you’re paying to have the advertising on TV. We’ve had people be very generous with the amount of help they’ve given us, [but] everything is advertisement and everything is business on that end of things. The perception of the way bands and business music or any kind of entertainment in industry is run is wack from my experience, being in a small portion of it.”

In resisting limelight fakery, Watkins remains fiercely devoted to her band’s core philosophy—that of musicians needing ample time to develop before they can consider themselves successful. She admits feeling as if “things were a little different for [us]” upon receipt of the band’s Grammy [in 2003 for Best Contemporary Folk Album, This Side], but says success for her is about making a living playing music. (And touring around in a bus, which, she says, excites her a lot—“It’s what real musicians do!”) “Success,” according to Watkins, “is kind of a funny word. To me it implies that you’ve reached some kind of an ultimate and I don’t think we have. I don’t think any of us are of that opinion. Not to say that we haven’t reached levels of success—we’re able to tour, that’s a success. We’re able to earn a living playing music and that’s huge.”

Watkins says the critical success of the band’s latest record is a thrill, and she’s happy to extol its virtues: “We enjoy talking about this record a whole lot because we’re very proud of it. I remember especially looking forward to people wanting to talk about it and [to share] things on it.” Still, she says, she’s been promoting the record so long, she’s almost done talking about it. She’s ready, she says, to start showing listeners exactly what it is about the band’s new songs that has her so over the moon. The Nickel Creek concert experience, just like the new record, will be something special. “It’s going to be more of a proper concert experience for people. There’s excitement about being out there with something that’s new, that people haven’t heard yet. We’ve been touring for three years—not [specifically] for the last album, but for that album, then just kind of touring for the sake of touring even up until last spring. So it’s been a long time since there’s been something new for people to be excited about.”

People are important to Watkins. Human connection is a big part of what she and the band do. Bluegrass’s ability to generate a genuine feeling of spiritual association is at the heart of the genre’s appeal. Watkins is aware of this and what it means to listeners and fans. “You’re connecting with people on a very personal and intimate level every night hopefully,” she says of playing in front of an audience. “And after each show we usually get to talk to people and have brief conversations. Sometimes you talk about more than other times, but you’re constantly meeting people and often it’s communicated to you that your music has a big part of [a fan’s] life.”

Watkins attempts her own connection on Why Should the Fire Die? via her self-penned “Anthony”. Prior to the song, Watkins says, her contribution to the lyrical content of Nickel Creek records was minimal. Still, “Anthony”, she says, isn’t as revealing as it could have been, but remains a personal, introspective song. She says she desires to write more, but with most everything else in her professional life, she needs time to develop her skills before strutting her stuff on stage to be digested and scrutinized. “I definitely make the effort [to write more], but it’s something that doesn’t come too easy for me. Nor does it come really easy for the guys I think they’ve just been doing it for a very long time.”

Following a brief conversation about influences, (“You’re influenced by everything for better or for worse,” she says), I ask Watkins if musicians better understand music and musical trends. “I think they can identify a little better why something might be more pleasing. Some people might think, ‘I like that’, or ‘I don’t like that’. But, when you get inside something, food or art or any craft, you understand the details and you have a little bit more [understanding of them]. Music is ultimately subjective, though. It hits somebody one way and you don’t know why. You can never predict it and that’s what makes things so beautiful. I think that we notice the details on things. [We might know] the reason you probably don’t like that is because it’s not in tune or the band isn’t tight or something like that. But ultimately there’s a lot of stuff that people do like that’s not in tune. There’s a lot of stuff I like that’s not in tune, or that’s out of time or something else. There are no exclusive right answers to these things. There’s a whole lot of consistent trends, but no conclusive ‘This is better’ or ‘This is worse’.”

What about life? Does the control needed to master a musical instrument carry over into other areas of a musician’s life? Are they more committed and disciplined in what they do? “I’m not the most disciplined person in the whole world,” she says. “I’m really not, and I’m far from mastering my instrument. [Learning an instrument] definitely affects your life in terms of confidence or lack of confidence. I think any time that there’s a place for you to put a lot of your attention and devote time in, you put more value into who you are. At least it’s starting to affect me that way, when I’m trying to be honest about everything. But it’s hard to tell because how much of that is growing up and how much is based on music?”

It’s a question she’ll probably never really know the answer to, especially considering she’s been playing her violin since early childhood. With music and life so connected, one wonders how much of Watkins’s determination to learn more about music is wrapped up in a determination to learn more about life? Whatever the case, while she might consider herself a woman with a lot to learn, the tools to do so appear well at her disposal.

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