Sean Watkins Finds Right Time for New Solo Album

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It made headlines earlier this year when the acoustic trio of Chris Thile and siblings Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins — aka Nickel Creek — reunited for the first time since Mumford & Sons demonstrated that a string band setup could be a viable route to arena rock stardom.

This was a timely moment indeed to fire up the old virtuosic, unplugged power-pop act, and the resulting Nickel Creek album, A Dotted Line, and festival and theater tour haven’t disappointed.

In the midst of all that, guitarist, singer and songwriter Sean — who’s also a sporadic member of folk-rock outfits Fiction Family and the Works Progress Administration — was prepping his latest solo album, All I Do Is Lie. It’s a much more modest affair by design. Ruminative musician that he is, it’s worth hearing what he came up with when there were no other performers to defer to or hide behind.

CMT Edge: You’ve said you feel like your new album is, in some ways, more representative of where you are as a solo artist. It landed pretty squarely in confessional folk singer-songwriter territory — not so much rock, pop, instrumental flash or any other direction you might have gestured toward in the past. How did that happen?

Watkins: My other solo records happened sort of in the old Nickel Creek times. … I loved them at the time, but I also wanted to sort of poke and prod into the other areas of music that I was interested in. They weren’t the areas that I was the best at. I wasn’t really making the most of my particular skill set and who I am as a musician.

I hadn’t made a solo record in a long time. I didn’t really want to do one until I felt comfortable in my own musical skin and until I had a group of songs that I felt proud of. … When I started making this record, I wanted to keep it simple or relatively simple. I wanted the songs to hopefully stand on their own, aside from the production and who plays on it or whatever. … I did have fun with some production things here and there, but I kept it more sparse than I had in the past.

You came up in a world of acoustic music recorded in well-equipped, professional studios but made this album with home and hotel room recording, settings where you can experiment and add as many layers and players as you want. So it’s interesting that having that freedom yielded such a sparse result.

I have spent a lot of time in very nice recording studios, and that’s a great thing. I love the feeling of going into a studio and feeling like, “OK, we’re making a record. We can’t be messing around here.” The way we made the latest Nickel Creek record was that way. Our producer has this amazing studio, and we had about 11 days as a band to be in there.

But for this record, I was wanting to experiment and have the time to let the songs be what they wanna be. It was a luxury that I appreciate. At the time, you know, like, last summer and the summer before, I was on the road a fair amount with Jackson Browne. … We had a fair amount of time off, and I was working on these songs at the time. So I just tried to make use of the days — free days.

I would think being around Jackson Browne might be good for your songwriting.

Yeah. I hope I was influenced by him. I tried to soak up as much as I could.

I’d play with Sara opening, and then we would play a fair amount of his set. I’d say at least half, sometimes more. But I didn’t really know when a certain song that I’d be playing on would be in the set, so I would just watch from the side of the stage every night. I would’ve watched anyway because it’s just an incredible learning experience to get to watch him play these songs. … It was songwriting 101. … There’s so much depth to a lot of his lyrics. I really love that about his writing.

Your song poking fun at apocalyptic prophecies, “The 21st of May,” got a lot of laughs from Nickel Creek’s crowd at the Ryman Auditorium. “The God You Serve” is a much clearer statement of departure from a certain kind of evangelical theology. Does it feel like that the sort of song belongs on a project that’s yours alone?

It’s definitely a statement. I hadn’t really written a song that said something like that or took a viewpoint that might be … not offensive to other people but might touch a nerve. I think that writing a song like that, sometimes it’s better just to have just your name attached to it. It’s all very personal. It’s all just my thoughts. Everybody’s got different thoughts on the subject.

Since you’ve done a bunch of Nickel Creek reunion shows, do you have any perspective on who’s in the crowds and what material they’re responding to?

The audience has been amazing. All the shows so far were really great. Most of them were sold out. Surprisingly, they responded way better to the later songs — like the songs off Why Should the Fire Die? — more so than the songs off the first record. Which we thought, “That’s the one that sold the most. That’s the one most people remember.”

In press coverage of the Nickel Creek reunion, I’ve noticed that people are zeroing in on the backbone, anchor role you play as rhythm guitarist in the group. But you’ve filled that role all along. Does it seem to you what you do is somehow more appreciated this time around?

Yeah. (laughs) I’ve heard that mentioned in articles and stuff. I guess I just take it for granted. As a rhythm guitar player in a bluegrass band, you’re sort of the glue between the bass and the mandolin. Not glue, but you’re sort of playing both parts. … Bass and mandolin are kind of opposing generally, like on-beat and off-beat. So as a bluegrass guitar player, you have to really be paying attention to both at the same time, and that’s something I really like.

When it feels good, it’s awesome, the best musical feeling, and when it’s bad, it’s really frustrating. In Nickel Creek, it’s great. … Sara and Chris are able to run around the stage. I mean, I could if I wanted to. I do sometimes. But it’s a little bit harder for me to do that and play the part I have to play in the band. Plus, we don’t need three people running around like crazy. I like my role.

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