An Honest Liar: An Interview with Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins

PopMatters catches up with Sean Watkins during one of his busiest years as a musician yet, which finds him touring with Nickel Creek, recording with Tom Brosseau, and releasing his new solo record, All I Do Is Lie.
Sean Watkins
All I Do Is Lie
Roaring Girl

Though he has had an impressive musical career up to this point, 2014 in particular has proven to be among the most productive of years for the California-based songwriter Sean Watkins. Late in 2013, it was announced that Nickel Creek, the trio comprised of Sean, his sister Sara Watkins, and Chris Thile, would be reuniting for a fourth studio album, following a seven-year hiatus. The result of this return, A Dotted Line, might just be the trio’s strongest outing yet, a collection of ten songs that perfectly balance prodigious musicianship and accessible songcraft.

The year is far from over for Watkins, but already the scars of his busy schedule are beginning to show. Following the conclusion of the first leg of Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line tour, he posted a photograph of his Gibson J-45 to Twitter, revealing the tremendous scratches he put on the instrument while touring. “I play really hard in Nickel Creek”, Watkins says, “I’m slamming the guitar a lot of the time. A few of the songs we play end on this big upstroke, such as the song “Scotch & Chocolate”. I’ve since figured out how to avoid that”. With a good deal of the A Dotted Line tour still to come, however, it’s likely that the guitar has a few more battles to endure. “It’s the price you pay to rock,” Watkins explains, laughing.

Having caught the final show of the spring leg of that tour, held at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, I can attest to the intensity with which Watkins performs. Amazingly enough, however, his vivacity extends far beyond the stage. He produced and played on the most recent Tom Brosseau LP, Grass Punks, released earlier this year. He and Sara regularly perform at the Largo in Los Angeles for their Watkins Family Hour, which draws a whole range of players. In the years leading up to this one, he and Sara toured with the legendary Jackson Browne. He also caught attention for his project with Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman, the eclectic pop outfit Fiction Family.

Sean Watkins Performs with Tom Brosseau at NPR’s Tiny Desk

Now, amidst the A Dotted Line tour, Watkins adds another fine piece to his résumé: a new solo record, All I Do is Lie. “I wanted to release it last year, either in the summer or the fall, but it kept getting pushed back for one reason or another”, he says. “That summer we also started working on Nickel Creek songs. Chris really liked one song that was going to be on my record, ’21st of May’, and asked if I’d mind if we used it as a Nickel Creek song. I didn’t mind at all, of course! But following that I needed to write another song, so I wrote ‘All I Do is Lie’.

“Then I had to decide when to release the album, and if I did it in the spring it’d be too close to the Nickel Creek record. I decided to wait until after the first leg of touring, such that it’d be available during the next legs of touring for Nickel Creek, though I’ll also be doing my own tour in the fall”.

All I Do is Lie marks eight years since Watkins’ last foray as a solo artist, the pop-heavy Blinders On. Watkins has undoubtedly been busy during those years, establishing the Watkins Family Hour and recording with groups like Fiction Family. The process that brought All I Do is Lie to life, then, was equally busy. “I started in June of 2012. Over the course of about a year — so ending in July 2013 — I was recording in various places. I began at my friend’s studio in his cliff beach house in Encinitas, California, recorded a few tracks there. I ended up doing a few on the road when Sara and I were touring with Jackson Browne; he takes a fair amount of days off, so I tried to make as much use of my time as possible.

“I also recorded at Daytrotter Studios in Davenport, Iowa, and another all in a hotel room. Then I did a couple of songs here in L.A. at a friend’s studio, some in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and finally at my home studio in L.A. So the record is definitely a patchwork quilt of different places and different people. I really had a lot of fun with it.”

With so many different collaborations, Watkins definitely has no shortage of outlets to get his songwriting out to the public. When it came time for a new solo record, however, Watkins knew in which direction the songwriting was taking him. “Songs just kind of tell you where they need to be,” he says. The line between knowing whether or not a song belongs in a solo or collaborative capacity is one he has come to identify quite easily. “With Fiction Family, which happened awhile ago now, when I was writing songs for that I knew we were going to have a record coming up. When you’re in a band situation, if you play a song for the other people you can tell, without them even saying anything, if they’ll like it or think it’s a good fit. Sometimes, you’ll try it and then realize it’s not great. So some of the songs that ended up on the Nickel Creek record were songs that didn’t work anywhere else.

“With these songs, I was writing them for this specific record, although obviously ’21st of May’ ended up on the Nickel Creek record. In a band situation you’re always bouncing songs off of each other, but with these songs I had a general sound and theme that fit in to how I wanted the record to feel, and so I just wrote for that purpose.”

Watkins’ pop appeal remains as strong as it ever has; it’s no surprise that Nickel Creek has found the platinum-selling success it has, given the honeyed and warm vocals of the Watkinses and Thile. On All I Do is Lie, Watkins incorporates a healthy dose of bluegrass and country influences along with his keen ear for pop. The record makes a great deal of sense when juxtaposed with Brosseau’s Grass Punks, as both use similar arrangement styles. “I wanted it to be more sparse, based mostly around guitar and vocals”, Watkins says.

Though sparse on the whole, All I Do is Lie benefits greatly from a fine roster of supporting players. “My good friend Tyler Chester, who played bass with Fiction Family, is probably one of the most featured players on the record. My sister played on a couple of songs to bring some strings into the mix. Gillian Welch sung harmony on two songs. [Lap steel guitarist] Greg Leisz also came on board.”

Watkins’ rapport with his sister is worth noting, as few brother/sister relationships in contemporary music are as successful as the one Sean and Sara have. “We’ve always been great friends, and have had similar interests and musical drives. I’m really grateful for the relationship. We’ve remained a sort of musical duo,” he says. On All I Do is Lie, Sara’s presence is warm and familiar, but it also allows for Sean’s unique songwriting to stand on its own.

One of the strengths of Watkins as a musician is that he doesn’t let his other projects, even his most successful ones, dictate where his solo ventures must go. I ask him if he feels that the enormity of Nickel Creek’s success has meant that he feels pigeonholed in his other projects — a sentiment that Thile has expressed before with regard to the music he and the Punch Brothers make. Watkins released Blinders On during the final years before Nickel Creek’s hiatus, and that album’s methodology is a step away from the hybrid folk that Nickel Creek is so well known for. Looking backward, Watkins doesn’t feel that he was ever limited in releasing that album, and he still doesn’t feel that way. He puts it simply: “I feel like this record represents where I am and where I have been for awhile now. I feel comfortable putting it out in the world now.”

Sean Watkins – “Wave as We Run” (Live for The Bluegrass Situation)

Simply constructed and emotionally layered, All I Do is Lie easily ranks with Watkins’ best achievements. His dexterous flatpicking on tunes like the title track and the gorgeous “Wave as We Run” are proof that he could hold his own against any of his bluegrass contemporaries. The chorus on “The God You Serve” hits with a powerful punch. And, as usual, Watkins’ lyrics give the listener plenty of fascinating material to digest. One of the highlights of All I Do is Lie is its range of lyrical explorations, spanning hellfire theology and made-for-TV films.

The latter is the subject of “Made for TV Movie”, which wryly compares a lifeless relationship to the titular genre of cinema. The song is also a good example of where Watkins begins in the lyric-writing process: “I like writing lyrics to songs based on titles that I come up with. I feel it’s a really good starting point for writing a song; all you have to do is look at the back of the record, look at the title, and already you’ll have an idea of where the song is going. My brain is always searching for titles like that. I have a list on my phone of potential songs that’s just a collection of titles.

“With ‘Made for TV Movie’, I liked the title because it’s one of those things that has a clear stigma associated with it,” he explains. “Although I don’t know if they actually make them much anymore. When you know it’s made for TV, you’re already thinking it’s probably not going to be great. From that idea, I started coming up with an intro for the song, which then led me to tie that to the notion of a relationship you know isn’t going to work out.”

Where “Made for TV Movie” highlights the comedic side of All I Do is Lie, “The God You Serve” represents Watkins’ ponderous side. The chorus of that song concludes with the powerful, “The God you serve/Dropped the ball”. Though Watkins’ voice is friendly and personable, he is also able to bring serious emotional heft with some of his lyrics; years later, one of Nickel Creek’s best lines remains one he wrote for the song “Somebody More Like You”: “I hope you meet someone your height/So you can see eye to eye/With someone as small as you”. Just before playing that song during the show at the Wiltern, Watkins said that the song came from his “bitter bank” of songwriting. Though he describes himself as a happy person, he said that it’s helpful to have a reservoir of material that has the benefit of purging strong emotions. I ask him if he finds it easier to write melancholy songs rather than optimistic ones.

“Most musicians will tell you that sad songs are the easiest to write, because you’re usually feeling very strongly about something”, he rightly observes. “In the wake of a breakup or something like that, it’s very therapeutic to get your thoughts out. I think that’s why there’s so many sad, slow songs in the world; they just sort of fall out of the songwriter.

“Bitterness usually comes with being frustrated with an idea or a person. So it’s not so much the idea of sadness, but more of frustration. The song, then, helps you explain why the frustration is there. So ‘The God You Serve’, for example, is born out of frustration deriving from the way modern Christianity tends to look at God. It’s something I think and talk about a lot with my friends.”

“The God You Serve” falls right in line with Nickel Creek tunes like “Jealous of the Moon” and “Doubting Thomas”, which distinctly contrast with early tunes of the trio’s, such as the sweet, hymn-like “The Hand Song” from the trio’s self-titled, major-label debut. When I point out that lyrical development, Watkins admits that such progression is entirely natural. “I think everybody goes through phases. People are usually brought up a certain way, and after a time the natural thing is to question whether or not you really believe all you’ve been taught. ‘Doubting Thomas’ is a really honest song about that subject. I still love that song; it’s a really great tune, one of Chris’ best.

“Both Chris’ and my family raised us within Christianity to varying degrees. That’s reflected in the early Nickel Creek stuff; we still love old hymns and stuff like that. Spirituality is also just a big part of bluegrass. But I don’t think anybody ever thought of us as a religious band, and I think we tried to avoid that too, because it’s easy to end up pigeonholed that way.”

Honesty is a good word to use in describing Watkins’ music, which makes the title track of All I Do is Lie all the more interesting. “That goes back to what I mentioned earlier, about finding song titles that just grab your attention right away,” he says when I ask about the curious number. “‘All I Do is Lie’ is a funny, kinda meta statement, because you don’t know whether or not to believe it by its very nature. I thought it would look great on the cover of a record”.

All I Do is Lie‘s sleeve art, designed by singer/songwriter, visual artist, and producer Dan Wilson, certainly does look quite good. The music within, however, is even better, revealing Watkins to be a songwriter who knows how to forge a unique solo voice in a career full of outstanding collaborations. Paradoxical though it is to say All I Do is Lie, Watkins himself remains as invitingly open as ever.