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Reason for Celebrants
Sara Watkins shares the backstory behind Nickel Creek’s new album
By Lee Zimmerman
One would be hard pressed to find a more accomplished group of musicians than the three accomplished musicians that comprise the seminal trio known as Nickel Creek. Sara Watkins, her brother Sean Watkins and Chris Thile can all claim exceptional careers both singularly and in various combinations, but it was their combined efforts in the trio called Nickel Creek that first brought them fame, even as the band itself became one of the seminal contemporary bluegrass bands to bring a younger audience into the realms of traditional music, albeit with a contemporary approach.
The band’s new album, Celebrants, finds them reconnecting for their sixth album since their beginnings in 1989, and their first in nine years, the release of A Dotted Line.
It’s not that any of them have been idle. Thile, of course, has found tremendous success with the Punch Brothers, while both the Watkins siblings have been involved in various projects, both on their own and in various configurations. Sara Watkins herself has been especially active, working alongside such outfits as Watkins Family Hour, WPA and the supergroup of sorts, I’m With Her, w which also features Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, all in addition to a busy schedule of session work.
While some might consider Celebrants a comeback, especially considering the fact that it’s been so long since that last endeavor. Sara, however, disagrees. ‘I think a word like comeback album doesn't really apply’ she said while speaking on the phone just prior to the band’s tour. ‘The last time, we wanted to make new music because we wanted to tour. But we did not have a ton of time. And so that album was written, assembled, and sort of assembled very quickly, like in a week or two where we were able to get together and write. It was more or less cobbled together, like a few days here and a few there. We ended up recording A Dotted Line in eleven days. It kind of felt like a bit of a Polaroid of a Nickel Creek record. It was really fun to do that really fast process, and it was an interesting exercise. And I'm so glad we did it. There's so much that we love about that record. But when we thought that, by contrast, for the next record that we were going to make, it would be so great to be able to put in the kind of thought and time that was needed. So, this record really changed things up for us in terms of the process and the writing and the sonics’.
Sara Watkins also credits producer Eric Valentine for helping to hold the process together. ’Celebrants is now the third record that we’ve made with Eric and we were really pleased and thrilled that he was willing to make this record with us’ she says. ‘He hasn't produced a record for anybody other than Grace Potter in a very long time. And we were delighted that he was willing to kind of come back with us, as a producer and engineer for this third record with him. So, we explained what we wanted to do, and he was right there with us. And he was excited by the challenge. We got together for a month of writing before going into the studio, and when we called him, we knew what kind of record we wanted to make and had an idea of how we wanted to make it. When he signed on, we knew that we were going to have full confidence at that point that we were going to be able to make the thing that we wanted to make, or at least we’d able to go for the kind of thing we wanted to go for’.
Nevertheless, given their busy individual schedules, it seems something of a surprise that they were actually able to find the time to coalesce. Here again, Watkins has an easy explanation.
‘The pandemic afforded us the time’ she explains. ‘All of our schedules were wiped off the calendar and wiped clean. Then, in the summer of 2021, we were asked to get on the phone to do an interview, because NPR was running a piece on the 20th anniversary of the first record. We hadn’t thought about it, about how that anniversary was coming up, so it was kind of news to us. And we were delighted that they cared. It was also incredibly enjoyable to get on the phone together. We had all talked and kept in touch and all that, but we didn't really didn't hit on the idea of recovering as a trio for a very long time. So once we got off the phone, we started texting. Actually, I think what happened was that when the interviewer hung up, all the three of us stayed on the phone for a while. And talked and thought, ‘This is really fun, talking together and being excited about things together. Now it feels really good, like maybe now is the time to take a swing at the kind of record that we’ve talked about trying to make’.
Nevertheless, at least at the inception, nobody seemed sure of how that would evolve. ‘We didn't know exactly what that was going to be’ Watkins maintains. ‘We just knew that we wanted to have the time to dive deep into whatever it was that seemed to want to come out at that moment. So several months later, we were able to come together at a friend's vacant house in California and live there with our with our families for a couple of weeks and figure out what it would look like and then start writing. It gave us a month of writing time that laid the foundation for the album. And there were many, many developments and pivots and changes to that vision as the work went on. But it would have been a very different record had we not had that time gather and discover together in real time. We were truly able to live out a lot of the content that made its way onto the record’.
In fact, what resulted, is a singularly joyful and expressive album that lives up to the title. It finds the trio in a celebratory state of mind, braking barriers with an effusive delivery and decidedly compelling approach that illuminates the album overall.
‘Well, I'm so glad that that's your response and, I think, that a lot of that is how we feel in general’ she agreed. ‘I think that in some ways, our insights just started to matter a little bit in that way on this record, and it was largely captured by the dynamic that Eric Valentine, as the mixer and producer, afforded us. It helped us get that across on the record, because in the live show, when you're playing right in front of somebody, you can really get that across. Eric knows how to record people and how to get things to sound the way that you want them to, as they're coming out of the speakers. He’s a master at that. So, it was great. It was with great assistance from Eric Valentine that listeners are able to get that impression, and I'm so glad that you got that impression’.
Nevertheless, she says there was another factor involved as well. ‘We only have so many tools, and we just try to use all of our tools possible’ she notes. ‘We have three voices, we have these instruments that we play, and we enjoy the kind of surreal elements that you can have in the studio. By expanding the space a little bit, we want to make records that make a listener curious. And with the kind of depth and scope sonically that you feel like you can use, you can just kind of poke around and use an imagination approach, like with little things. Where are the background vocals coming from or where is that tiny little whisper of a fiddle coming from or that extra guitar part. I think that we wanted people to be curious, and we hope that they want to just kind of like poke around and visit some of those little sonic corners that are that are present in some of these songs’.
In a very real way then, the album provides a kind of connection, one that’s been lost recently due to distancing and the divide. Here again, Watkins concurs.
‘It is something that I think is as true on the macro level as it is on the most micro level’ she insists. ‘Yes, there is a divide in this country, and there is a divide in a lot of our personal relationships, family relationships and friendships. There's also a divide for many of us in ourselves, where we have to separate ourselves, parts of ourselves from other parts of our lives. We are separate mentally from the people that we live with physically. We’re separate emotionally from the land we live on, from the sunlight and the air. We separate ourselves as much as possible as a way to keep ourselves safe. But truly, the real potential for depth and beauty is when we are able to be intimate with the things and the people and the places that we're in’.
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For more information head over to the Sara Watkins website
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