Nickel Creek
Photo: Josh Goleman / Sacks & Co.

Nickel Creek Repeat Themselves Anew on ‘Celebrants’

Celebrants finds Nickel Creek returning after nearly a decade. Sean and Sara Watkins tell PopMatters about finding creativity in repetition and their ambitious new album.

Nickel Creek
Thirty Tigers
24 March 2023

By now, fans of Nickel Creek must be used to waiting. Following the turn of the new millennium, the trio of Chris Thile and siblings Sean and Sara Watkins put out and toured three records in quick succession: 2000’s self-titled major label LP, 2002’s This Side, and 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die? The band won Grammys, sold enough records to earn Gold and Platinum RIAA certifications, and became one of the most beloved acoustic groups in the United States. But then, on the heels of what was then their most mature and accomplished effort in Fire, Nickel Creek stepped away from the limelight. It would not be another seven years until they reconstituted for 2014’s A Dotted Line. One of the best albums of that year, A Dotted Line suggested a newfound vitality for this long-running trio. Perhaps the next record would arrive on a faster timeline.

Fast forward to 2023: nine years have come and gone, and A Dotted Line‘s follow-up, Celebrants, will be out on 24 March with their new label, Thirty Tigers. A few weeks before the release, I join a Zoom call with Sean and Sara, who I have interviewed for this publication before. Our conversation about Celebrants begins with a fortuitous error on my part. I try to point out that the first song and single off the album, “Strangers”, begins with the line “It’s been too long” – on the nose, surely, with the final notes of Line having rung out nine years prior. Sara corrects me and notes that “Strangers” is the first single, not the first song. But, yes, she confirms, the choice was intentional. And what’s more: she reminds me of the first line of the first song, the title track: “My God, it’s good to see you.”

Suffice it to say, the lengthy gap between Line and Celebrants plays an essential role in the latter’s composition. Sean, Sara, and Thile’s patience with Nickel Creek stems from a critical artistic realization that came from their post-Fire hiatus. Sara explains, “Curiosity is a hugely important factor when it comes to making music. We had spent so much time together as kids through the making of Fire, the touring of Fire, that we had lost some of that curiosity about each other’s musicianship and even about each other personally. We just knew each other so well. That space [between Fire and Line] allowed us an opportunity to develop as individuals – meaning as songwriters, musicians, and people.”

This isn’t to say that the last near-decade was a dormant period for Nickel Creek. The Watkinses and Thile, having built their musical lives together from their adolescence through young adulthood, are more family than friends. Along with staying personally in touch after Line – including during the fraught first year of the COVID pandemic – the trio found ways to continue flexing their collaborative muscles. Sean and Sara cite Thile’s now-defunct radio show Live from Here, the successor program to A Prairie Home Companion, as a key venue for writing. Both of the Watkinses were regular guest performers. For one show in 2017, the band wrote a new composition for Thile’s regular “Song of the Week” segment, a tender piece called “No Place Like Home”, whose themes of maturation and family foreshadow those explored on Celebrants.

Though that song doesn’t appear on Celebrants, the lead single “Strangers” dates back to that time of writing for Live from Here, specifically the guitar picking that opens the tune. “I was thinking about Lindsey Buckingham,” Sean says. “I love his really aggressive fingerstyle stuff. That inspired the main part of [“Strangers”], some musing on Lindsey.” Apart from “Strangers,” the rest of Celebrants derives from what Sara calls the “little seeds of thought, seeds of song starts” that the trio brought with them to a gathering in 2021 at a mutual friend’s house in Santa Barbara, California, the first time the three reconnected in person following the bleak 2020.

“I’d say 99 percent of what we did was made from scratch by all three of us – or, close to scratch,” Sean recalls. “We wanted to have all of our fingerprints on as many songs as possible. What that means is: before we bring any songs that are fully formed, let’s mine all we can from these little bits, most of which aren’t even lyrical—they’re just chords and a melody or a general vibe. Then we’d want to do as much together as possible.”

Outside of Nickel Creek, Sean and Sara, like their bandmate Thile, put out music at a steady clip across an array of projects. Sara and fellow acoustic music luminaries Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz form I’m With Her, and following A Dotted Line, she released two solo LPs. Sean also dropped two solo discs during that time, one with the string trio, the Bee Eaters. Then there’s the Watkins’ home base project Watkins Family Hour, a regular show at Largo in Los Angeles that resulted in albums released in 2015 and 2020. I ask the siblings if, when composing music individually, they know instinctively if an idea would find its best life in one of these projects over another.

“Very rarely do I think, ‘I’m going to save this song for this project,'” Sara says, building to one of two metaphors she and Sean utilize in our interview for the creative process. “Usually, if there’s a project I’m writing for, everything I have in my phone at the time that I haven’t used, I’ll throw at the wall to see if it’s of interest to Sean and Chris.” This process, according to Sean, included lyric revision processes that took place over a shared note on each other’s phones.

“Our friend Dan Wilson said something a long time ago,” Sara says. “He co-writes a lot of songs. Someone asked him if when he has a good idea, but the song doesn’t end up being great, he keeps the song to himself and saves it for a project or some other songwriting session. His perspective was: ‘You have to trust that there will be more ideas.'”

Sara then introduces the “pile” metaphor of composition. “Whatever I have is up for grabs for whatever project I’m working on. Those ideas can become their own thing. It’s not, ‘here’s an idea: use this or not’, but instead it’s what happens when you put that idea in the room, and it interacts with everything else that’s being presented by the group. I’m imagining a pile in the middle of the room. You throw [the idea] on the pile and see how it reacts to all the other stuff. It may make something else light up, and you love what it does with this other section of the pile. Or, it just falls flat, and it needs to be there. It might come to play in some other song or just go away.”

Sean nods his head as his sister speaks. He then adds his metaphor to characterize the process behind Celebrants: “I remember one time I was excited about a particular chorus, and Chris and Sara felt the verse was much better. Ultimately, that didn’t go anywhere. But a week later, one of us thought, ‘Hey, remember that thing we did? That would go really good in this song.’ A part that may not be good enough to be the foundation of a song could be a melody or bridge in another song. So it’s like we bring a bunch of ingredients to make food together, throw it in a pile in the middle, and go, ‘Let’s see, we’ve got some eggs, cheese.’ Some stuff gets put to the side, sure, but you can always use it later.”

Celebrants, consisting of 17 songs that include some split across the tracklist (one, “Goddamn Saint”, even has its own “Reprise”), must have emerged from a rather large pile – or smorgasbord. Nickel Creek have never shied away from challenging compositions; Line features the whirligig instrumental “Elephant in the Corn”, with Sara and Thile mirroring each other through hyperspeed licks on the fiddle and mandolin, respectively. Such instrumental virtuosity has long been a hallmark of the trio; the This Side classic “Smoothie Song” showcases the ability of each musician to dazzle without sacrificing musical expression.

But Celebrants reveals a new side of Nickel Creek’s musical experimentation, principally at the level of album construction itself. Songs bookend each other across the whole tracklist: “Water Under the Bridge” appears as “Part 1” early, with “Part 2” setting up “Failure Isn’t Forever” to bring the album to a close. That same divide appears between the instrumentals “Going Out” and “…Despite the Weather”. Those track arrangement decisions mirror an ethos for the record that Sean and Sara cite as key to the trio’s shared vision for Celebrants: not being afraid to repeat, to call back to earlier themes and melodies.

“Those [structural elements] aren’t something we’ve done before as a band,” Sara says. “Within a couple of days of getting together, we identified that it would be neat if the album could have an intentional sequence out of the gate – having the songs designed to relate to each other. As the writing progressed over a long time – many months – we were able to figure out ways to achieve that.”

She points to “Failure Isn’t Forever”, a song that Sean notes that Thile had developed in an earlier iteration for Live From Here. This was a song, therefore, that arrived comparatively more “complete” than the other ideas that laid the bedrock for Celebrants. “In ‘Failure Isn’t Forever’,” Sara says, “There are things echoed from earlier in the album. There are melodic themes that happen too; something might be a bridge in one vocal song and become the melody of an instrumental.”

Repetition with difference is a principle with a long life in the annals of music history. But to hear Sean and Sara speak about the importance of repetition in Celebrants’ creation is to be reminded that even seasoned musical artists can gain a second wind by returning to fundamentals. In Sean’s words, “With our other records, we’ve not wanted to repeat ourselves, but now we turned that completely around. ‘Where can we use this idea again?'”

Nickel Creek
Photo: Josh Goleman / Sacks & Co.

As Nickel Creek gathered in Santa Barbara in February 2021, one record became a point of discussion and then of inspiration. It’s a masterpiece shrouded in mystery by a band that, like Nickel Creek, hails from sunny California: The Smile Sessions. (The trio started in the San Diego area; the Watkins siblings now reside in Los Angeles, while Thile resides in Brooklyn.) Sean narrates the night that Brian Wilson’s unfinished opus first became a part of the story of Celebrants.  

“I think it was maybe the first night we got together in February 2021. Chris’ and my birthdays are two days apart, so we had a birthday gathering at the house we were staying at in Santa Barbara. The kids went to bed, and then it was just the three of us musing about what we wanted to do; it was all very exciting and new. One of the albums we were talking about was The Smile Sessions. It’s incredible, even though it never got finalized. You can see what he wanted it to be, and so many of the great ideas on that record come back around. He’s borrowing themes from one song and putting them into other ones. It’s all this blurry, beautiful mess. No can really compare to the genius of Brian Wilson, but talking through that record got us thinking as to how we could do our own version of that approach.”

Sara follows up her brother’s reminiscence with the counterfactual that’s, at one point or another, been on the mind of anyone who has listened to The Smile Sessions since it was unveiled back in 2011: “We don’t know what The Smile Sessions would have turned in to, so there was a lot of curiosity about what he was going for. What would it have been like?”

Though the bricolage structure of The Smile Sessions comes through as an influence on Celebrants, Nickel Creek’s LP, fortunately, was not doomed, like Wilson’s vision, to not achieve its true form. As Sean sees it, the album cohesively expresses three themes: togetherness, the “friction of productive relationships” (Sara’s words), and the ins and outs of adulthood in one’s 40s.

The first theme makes itself evident immediately with “Celebrants”, a song on which Sara and Thile’s vocals strike an impressive dynamic flourish, reaching high notes like the spikes on the green line of a heart monitor. “Strangers”, too, can’t help but feel like a commentary on the specific friendship of these three individuals: “Are you hanging in there? / (How about this weather?) / Are the kids all right? / (Remember that one time?) / Before every sentence / (Felt like a sentence) / To life with old friends.” Earlier in the song, Sean sings, “Guess even hard times fly,” a lyric that – especially considering the early 2021 genesis of Celebrants – suggests the hard pandemic year of 2020. Though Sara grants that COVID plays a part in the story, Celebrants tells, particularly on the hypnotic “Holding Pattern”, where she trades in her usual fiddle for a Nashville-tuned guitar, she cautions against a simplistic “COVID album” portrait.

Her statement about “Holding Pattern” leads to her elucidation of the second theme, the “productive friction” in longstanding relationships. Her thinking takes a turn for the historical, looking backward at how Nickel Creek have evolved as artists. “The idea of togetherness, and the friction innate to choosing that togetherness over a long period, is something we have experience with in this band. Surely, everyone who’s had a relationship or a friendship where they choose to come back together even though it’s not always smooth sailing, knows that it’s not always easy, but it’s so worthwhile. It’s so rewarding when you can look back and have the depth of relationship and having gone through hills and valleys together. That’s really the bigger theme of the album.”

Sean adds the context that also represents the third theme: where the trio is now in their lives. When Nickel Creek broke big on the national music scene in 2000 with their Alison Krauss-produced self-titled record, Sara and Thile were on the cusp of their 20s, and Sean has four years on both of them. Now, Sean says, “We’re all in our 40s. We each have one kid. We’ve been in relationships for longer periods now. So now we’re writing songs more about the meat of relationships. It wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but we did talk in the early stages of writing about how there are so many songs about the beginnings and endings of relationships but very few about the middle, which is the most of any relationship.”

The sound of the younger Nickel Creek lingers in moments on Celebrants. But even when this new music strikes a familiar old note, the artists we hear from is one examining the concerns of the times in which they live now. The jaunty “Where the Long Line Leads” wouldn’t have been out of place at the folk festivals in which Sean, Sara, and Thile cut their teeth as young bluegrass aspirants in the early 1990s, but lyrically the song deals with the all-too-contemporary trouble of waiting in line for everything. (As stated earlier: these people call New York and Los Angeles their homes.)

Sean, Sara, and Thile’s characteristically dreamy three-part vocal harmonies on “To the Airport” evoke the way their voices sounded on Nickel Creek tracks like “Out of the Woods” while at the same time paying tribute to, of all people, TSA agents. (It’s a bit too magnanimous about the indignities of air travel for this writer’s taste, but these folks travel considerably more than I do, so they must mean it.) The members of Nickel Creek grew up together through music, but they’ve by no means stopped growing together, even now that they’ve matured as artists and people.

In describing the referential quality of “Failure Isn’t Forever” within Celebrants’ framework and themes, Sean says something that bodes well for the future of Nickel Creek. “One of the lines in [‘Failure’] is, ‘From the desert to the meadow.’ The desert references ‘Hollywood Ending’, where there’s a lot of talk about the desert,” he says. “And then we have the song ‘The Meadow’. ‘Failure Isn’t Forever’ is kind of a recap and a way forward. So the song says that failure isn’t forever, but there’s always a way forward.”

“There’s always a way forward” pairs nicely with his sister’s quotation of Dan Wilson earlier in our conversation: “You have to trust there will be more ideas.” Based on how Nickel Creek, even after over three decades together, continue to push themselves musically, it requires no stretch of the imagination to say that many more ideas are likely to come. Now, how long will it be until the next album comes around? I didn’t want to ask Sean and Sara that question, one I’m sure they will be asked countless times on the upcoming Celebrants tour and during the overall promotion of the album. Listening to them talk about these songs, I suspect that even if another extended gap follows Celebrants, the ideas will be there when the time is right.