Sun Midnight Sun, released earlier this year, is her second to date, and it’s refreshingly free of singer-songwriter conventionality. Sometimes her vocal phrasing has a punchy attack akin to her bluegrass fiddle solos. Other times she’ll hold out a note as though she’s playing long, elegant bow strokes. With the help of producer Blake Mills and her guitarist brother Sean Watkins, she’s stripped the folk idiom down to its fundamental elements, then reassembled those with postmodern ingenuity and emotional immediacy.
In that same spirit, she was up for deconstructing how she does what she does.
CMT Edge: What difference does the fact that your primary instrument is fiddle, as opposed to strummed guitar, make in the way you hear and arrange music? Do you think it influences the way you sing, too?
Watkins: I think it does affect me. It has to, the way that I think with fiddle and singing, because [voice and fiddle] are such similar instruments. You can phrase the fiddle to sound like any voice. Or maybe not sound like it, but the phrasing works so much more than if you’re plucking a guitar or playing piano, even. I’m sure that the fiddle does affect the melodies. And a lot of times I actually will write them on fiddle.
I play guitar, but I’m limited. I’m not versatile at all on the guitar. That gets really frustrating. So sometimes I’ll go to fiddle, which is more fluent, and that’ll help me break out of the limitations that I have on the guitar. And that’s why I sometimes play ukulele. Not because I play ukulele well. Because I can mess around with the uke and be less angry with myself than when I’m messing around with a guitar. You can find these clusters and the chords aren’t necessarily defined. And it keeps the door open, I guess, to which direction you can go.
Do you have a sense of how your phrasing might compare to a singer-songwriter who’s a native guitarist?
I haven’t really thought about it that way — that the fiddle has made my phrasing stand out. That’s just sort of what I do. … I’ve been experimenting with singing — it sounds obvious — but singing for the treatment. I think I’m just more aware. Over the last few years, I’ve been just thinking about my singing in a different way.
Because you’re a solo act now.
Yeah, exactly. It’s not for a band or necessarily for something that has this construct. It keeps being more and more obvious to me: “You define what you want to do.”
You don’t have to concentrate on blending with other musicians as much.
Well, you do have to blend. There’s harmony onstage. That’s really important. … One of the fun things about playing in so many different formats, getting to play with other people and singing the same songs with different musicians, is reinterpreting it. You can’t sing the same song exactly the same when there’s a totally different mood coming from these different players on these different instruments.
The tracks on the new album don’t feel like they were built in a conventional way. How’d you put them together?
Well, Blake Mills who produced the record, played most of the instruments on the record. … I didn’t want the songs to revolve around the drum part. A lot of times, I feel like the drums define what everybody else does. I wanted it to be the opposite. I said, “I want the band to be Blake and Sean Watkins, my brother, and me. I want to arrange the songs for that band and then build on it from there.” And that’s pretty much what we did. With each song, Blake was really helpful with finding new voicings and new ways to build on what was happening. Some songs took a totally new direction. There’s a Dan Wilson cover (“When It Pleases You”) that’s totally different from Dan’s version. I mean, it got a huge makeover. We repeated lines that Dan didn’t repeat. We changed the chords.
That Everly Brothers cover, “You’re the One I Love,” is really different from the original and really striking.
Thanks. My brother and I have this show called the Watkins Family Hour in Los Angeles, a monthly residency, and Fiona Apple has been a big part of it. She’s a member. I learned that song to sing with her because I thought it could do with a little bit more, ah, obsession. I wanted it to sound kinda of stalker-y, and I wanted to sing it with a girl.
Fiona Apple can be a really intense performer.
Yeah, she can. And I’m always looking for songs specifically to sing with her. That one came up, and I was like, “This would work for Fiona for so many reasons.” So we learned it, and it was awesome. It sort of took on this gallop. Almost all the drums on the record, it’s pretty much like there’s a horse running through the record. (laughs) Occasionally, you turn up the horse and he plays on the song, and you turn him down where there are no drums on a couple of songs. He’s still running. That’s pretty much the drums.
You were consciously thinking you didn’t want the drums to be the backbone.
I hate that. And it doesn’t make sense when I know that I can’t tour with drums all the time. Saying that, though, I also didn’t want to limit myself based on what I perceived my touring limitations would be. In other respects, I’ve never been impractical on a record before. And I really wanted to. So that came through in other ways. But I did manage to keep the drums down. I really like that. I feel like sometimes the subtleties get lost if we’re all responding to the drums rather than these steel guitars that are battling it out. [The drums] have to earn their place, just like everything else.
There’s a mixture of originals and covers on both your albums, but the balance tips more toward originals this time around. Have you been discovering yourself as a solo, singing, songwriting frontwoman?
There are three covers and seven originals. I definitely wanted it to be more me-heavy on this record, if I could. And we had the right songs for it, so it worked. … If I can write a song that satisfies a feeling or a thought process or something I need [in my set], I’d love to. If I have the words to say it, I’d love to do it. A lot of times, I find I’m frustrated because I can’t find the cover song that I want to do. And then I realize I should just write it. I’m so used to finding cover songs that it’s kind of my default at times.
Do you mean you look for songs that strike particular emotional tones?
I want to sing a certain type of song. … And generally there’s an emotion driving that search, an emotional satisfaction of singing a certain song. … But after a while, you want it to be yours, without ripping somebody off. I want to have those personal references in the song and have that conviction. Occasionally, covers give you that sort of conviction, and you can identify so closely with it that it feels like yours. But when you can’t, then I remember, “Oh, I need to write this.” … I have the built-in kind of inspiration for the song. I have the mood for it. I have the want or — I hate the word “yearning” — but the yearning to express something. And then I just have to figure out how to say it. But if I don’t have that pull to say something, I can’t write anything.
In Americana, original songwriting is highly valued. It’s almost considered the highest art form.
Which is so funny because Nashville’s built on songwriters writing for other people. … I’m so grateful for other people’s songs, for obvious reasons, the role they play in my life. Sometimes I like to sing my own stuff and sometimes I get bored of my own perspective. There are limitations to my brain. It’s just me, me, me. Even if I’m not singing about me, it’s coming from me. And it’s awesome to try on your friend’s clothes and look in somebody else’s closet. … That’s the beautiful thing about it. You can get in anyone’s closet. Singing my own songs is fairly new for me, you know? I still really enjoy the fact that I can. This is the second record now, so now I have 15 songs, or whatever, out in the world. It’s still really limited, but that’s more than I had last year.