Sara Watkins Sees the Light on Sun Midnight Sun

When the acclaimed progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek stopped touring and recording in 2007 to pursue other projects, gifted fiddler and singer Sara Watkins stuck to what she knew. But that time has passed.

“A lot of the first record was me finding Nickel Creek fans and showing them that I’m still alive and that they should care,” reflects Watkins. “In this record, I’m getting to play for new people. And that’s really exciting.”

Sun Midnight Sun features more adventurous instrumentation and a refreshed sense of creativity, which Watkins says was helped along by her decision to step away from her own music and hit the road as a backing musician in 2011.

Touring with Americana favorites the Decemberists rejuvenated and inspired her enough to enter the studio with a new producer (Blake Mills), and the resulting album pushes Watkins even farther away from bluegrass. From the opening track — a grungy, distorted instrumental piece with a hint of Celtic flair — listeners will feel the difference.

The album also includes a guest appearance by Watkins’ friend and indie darling Fiona Apple on a cover of the Everly Brothers‘ “You’re the One I Love,” so fast it’s hardly recognizable, and a devastating indictment of a lover in “When It Pleases You,” written by Dan Wilson. Meanwhile, “Take Up Your Spade” shows a young songwriter looking optimistically toward her future. caught up with Watkins before opening a concert for Jackson Browne at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. She filled us in on finding her feet as a solo artist, shaking loose new songs for Sun Midnight Sun and discovering that being your own boss is far from easy.

CMT: It’s been a long time since Nickel Creek disbanded. How does it feel to you now?

It’s been since 2007, so five years almost. It feels good. It does seem like it was another lifetime, in a lot of ways. But I think a lot of that is being older, you see a lot of your life sectioned into like, “Oh, that’s when I was going to school.” I’ve often compared it to feeling like Nickel Creek was school. Whenever we see each, other we just pick up where we left off. There’s no emotional distance. It all ended very healthily, very friendly.

Since then, has your musical taste changed?

I’ve been trying to be more current in some ways. You can’t help but listen to the bands that are big now. I’ve been trying to be more open-minded towards bands that are very current right now and young and doing different things and to really listen to them with optimistic ears. It’s a lot more fun to be open-minded like that. There’s a lot of great stuff like that out there.

After your first album, you went on the road with the Decemberists. Do you think that helped rejuvenate your creativity?

Yeah. With my first record, when that came out, I worked for about a year and a-half or two. Even though I had no experience, I was tour managing myself, driving around with three men schlepping their own gear everywhere, playing crappy backline drums. It was embarrassing, and we got paid very little. But I learned how to manage the logistics of things as well as be onstage — and settle up and answer everyone’s questions about how far the hotel is from the venue. … I got my stride. I learned how to do it better, but it was always pretty exhausting.

So what happened is, that would be all-encompassing. Then I would go home, and I’d be really tired and I’d have to get ready for the next tour. So that left very little time for playing, for fun or reading or just kind of indulging in self-nourishment like that. When the Decemberists offer happened, I was a little hesitant because I didn’t know them at all and was going to sign on for five or six months with them as a side player, which I’d never done.

But then I thought about it, and I needed to prepare for the next record but didn’t have any material because I’d been so exhausted. So it was really the perfect opportunity to do something different that would refresh me and kind of cleanse my own pallet from what I’d been doing for the last year and a-half. I had no responsibilities. I would read and just look around and be a little bit more thoughtful and let my logistic side of my brain rest.

I want to ask you about the Everly Brothers song, “You’re the One I Love.” Do you enjoy looking for material outside of your comfort zone, or was that in your comfort zone?

I think it’s totally within grasp. One thing about Nickel Creek was we didn’t have any real cutoff of things we wouldn’t try. Many things maybe we shouldn’t have tried, or maybe we shouldn’t have kept doing, but live and learn. A lot more can be achieved than we think sometimes, especially when it comes to covering someone’s song. With “You’re the One I Love,” I was looking for duets to do with Fiona. I was sort of in this Everly Brothers phase, and I heard that song and it seemed like it could be a little more intense, and I really wanted to sing it with her. We sang it facing each other with two different microphones and we probably did like 10 passes. The last two were fun, really fun. It was pretty incredible.

The theme for “Take Up Your Spade” seems to be “dig in and keep going.” Is that something that you need to remind yourself to do?

I think so, not necessarily in the career way as much as in a life way. I remember I was texting [former Nickel Creek member Chris] Thile, and I had this vision that my world was this snow globe and I needed to turn it upside down. It was all settled and I wanted to be disrupted.

That was a big goal of this record — to try to disrupt my world and how I created it. I’d written a bunch of these songs and sort of left them there, and I couldn’t figure out what else to do with them. That’s a great time to call a producer, to shake things up a little and add new things. … Musically and in terms of artistic thought, I think it’s crucial to keep things moving and to keep messing around and not to create these rules that you live by forever. Art’s going to change.

Watch the video for “When It Pleases You.”