MUSICALLY, SOUTHERN California is associated with hip hop, punk, hippy singer-songwriters, and sleaze rockers, not bluegrass, country, and folk, but Sara Watkins and her family prove an exception.
Sara, who first came to attention as the vocalist/violinist with the great roots trio Nickel Creek - which also featured her guitarist brother Sean and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile - and who is now a member of Indie folk-rock band The Decemberist,s and a solo artist, is coming to Galway to play the Róisín Dubh on Friday February 1 at 9pm.
So how did the girl from Vista on the Californian-Mexican border come to play bluegrass and country?
“Southern California is an odd place,” Sara told me when I interviewed her in 2006. “There are pockets of bluegrass and we fell into one of those pockets. Our parents would take us to this pizza parlour to see this band called Bluegrass Etc. It was just something that each of us did every Saturday from two to seven years of age.
“We asked if we could take lessons and then Bluegrass Etc asked us up on stage to play tunes. They weren’t really a traditional bluegrass band. They played all kinds of music and were loose in their arrangements, so we grew up not very traditional and experimented with other kinds of music like Celtic, jazz.”
From here, Sara, Sean, and Chris, as Nickel Creek, would create their own, particular brand of American roots, one that had a foot in the tradition, but was also aware of other musical forms and was pervaded by a young and contemporary outlook on life and relationships.
The band enjoyed commercial and critical success, as well as a Grammy award in 2003, but in 2007 they went on “indefinite hiatus” to concentrate on solo careers. By 2009 Sara released her eponymous debut album, which was produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
Sara had first worked with Jones in 2004 when he, Glenn Phillips, and Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas toured with Nickel Creek under the name the Mutual Admiration Society.
“We met John Paul Jones a couple of times in London,” Sara told me. “He’s a mandolin player. He had come to see Chris and play with him at the Merle Fest. We were looking for a bass player and we thought it would be crazy, but we’d ask. He accepted, unexpectedly to us. He was a perfect gentleman. That tour was the hardest we ever rocked but the quietest John Paul and Pete ever played, which was unusual for them but we were sky high.”
Given her years of experience as a musician, Sara had little reason to fear taking the solo path.
“It’s fun to work on things and be the only decision maker,” she said. “In Nickel Creek we’re used to bouncing ideas off each other. It’s different when you are in the driving seat and it’s really good to have to do that.”
The BBC was also enthusiastic about the Californian stepping out on her own, saying: “Watkins’ time in the spotlight is a triumph with her agile playing and the kind of voice that gives your goose bumps the shivers.”
In May last year Sara released her second solo album, Sun Midnight Sun, produced by Blake Mills. The album featured vocals from Jackson Browne and Fiona Apple, and ‘When It Pleases You’, a song by Adele’s writing partner Dan Wilson. Allmusic.com gave the album four stars and prised the artist’s willingness to go beyond the bounds of folk and roots: “Watkins doesn’t completely forsake the farm for the city on this solo release, but she does stretch her arms quite a bit, pulling in everything from quirky indie pop to West Coast folk-rock to harmony-drenched Americana...Watkins can still deliver.”
Speaking to journalist Michael Hill around the time of the album’s release, Watkins reflected on how she had grown as a solo artist.
“The last Nickel Creek show was in 2007. It’s been a little over four years now and it seems like another lifetime. It felt like a steep learning curve sometimes, but I experienced a lot of pride of ownership for the shows and for the songs and for just being a musician because I was having to work for it in a different way than I had in a long time - or ever had to do, really.
“I was at an age where it felt appropriate to stand behind my musical, creative, and logistical choices, to do it on my own. I’d grown up with a band that was a team and I felt like I’d been protected from having to make my own decisions for a little bit longer than a lot of people. I found it really satisfying to be on my own. Whatever I did, whether it worked or not, it was mine, and that was a good feeling. ”
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, from the Ticket Desk at OMG, Shop Street (formerly Zhivago ), and The Róisín Dubh.