Once upon a time, for quite a long time — for much of her early life, in fact — Sara Watkins was in a band called Nickel Creek, a bluegrass-acoustic-folk hybrid that presaged the expansive tendencies of Crooked Still and other like-minded contemporary string bands.
She began fiddling and singing in the band in 1989 with her brother, Sean, and Chris Thile, when she was all of 8 years old. Nickel Creek remained a going concern for almost 20 years, touring, recording five albums, and gaining accolades (including a Grammy) before breaking up (more precisely, going on indefinite hiatus) in 2007.
So it’s no surprise that Watkins emphatically agrees with the suggestion that the band must have constituted a formative experience in her life. “You’re right,” she says, speaking by phone from Chicago, where she had an off-day on a tour that brings her to the Sinclair in Cambridge with a full band on Monday. “It was very formative. I was in that band for 18½ years.” And when it ended, “I was 27, but it felt kind of like I had just turned 18 and was moving out of the house and figuring out what I wanted to do. You know, you’re going to high school, and you get your diploma, and then let’s figure out what you’re going to do. That’s the best way that I can describe it.”
What came next was her solo career. When asked for perspective on how her years in Nickel Creek might have helped or hindered that, Watkins is quick to say that she doesn’t think the experience was a hindrance in any way. But she singles out one side effect. “Being in a band for that long, you start to adapt your growth to the form that’s around you. And the form was Nickel Creek. So a lot of times my musicianship depended on how it could fit into the context of the band.”
Indeed, in the latter stages of Nickel Creek, she had begun wondering about what it was like to be outside a band. That feeling had something to do with the advent of a monthly show she and her brother started doing at a Hollywood club, which they dubbed “the Watkins Family Hour.” The pair sang whatever they wanted to, tried out new material, and played with an entirely different set of musicians and instruments. It was, she reflects, “huge for me. It was when I started figuring out the kind of thing I want to sing and how to do it. It really broadened my musicianship.”
Thereby it provided what Watkins labels a “middle ground” between Nickel Creek and her solo career. “I don’t think I could have made the transition quite as smoothly if I hadn’t had that experience.”
She began work on her first record once Nickel Creek went dormant, releasing it in 2009. Then she hit the road, touring behind it for a couple of years. By the time she finished tour support for the record, it was time to start thinking about another one. But, she says, “I had nothing to say; I had no record.” And then a perfect opportunity presented itself: an offer to tour with the Decemberists as a supporting musician. The tour gave her six months of work — which meant a needed source of income — and at the same time, six months of needed rest. She played at night, and “during the day I got to walk around, read books, absorb life, and then, eventually, write.”
The gig turned out to be crucial to the making of her next record, “Sun Midnight Sun,” in her view. “I couldn’t have made the record without it; it lessened the pressure of the timeline.”
She also thinks that being with a totally different group of musicians for that long on the road influenced her perception of songs and what she wanted to put into them. “It definitely affected the stories that I told and the lyrics. It was refreshing, it was a great way to wipe my slate clean and tap into who I was each day and what I wanted to say musically.”
If the Decemberists tour prepared the ground for the next record and began the process of making it, Watkins points to specific purposes and collaborations to account for the way it turned out.
“I had different goals for it,” she explains. “The first record was me establishing a home for music. I wanted that to be my starting point. I was very aware of that going into it, that I was making a starting-place record. This record, I wanted to step off of that home plate.”
There’s no doubt she’s done so. Whereas her debut is the sort of record you might have expected her to make, “Sun Midnight Sun” is miles away from that starting place. It’s a much poppier record, with the pop by turns rootsy, ebullient, muscular, and sweet. Sonically, it’s much grittier than its predecessor, and it sounds much more constructed, much more of a studio record than her debut, which had a more conventional ensemble sound.
Brother Sean, who played guitar on the record, offers a similar assessment: “ ‘Sun Midnight Sun’ differs from her first record in many ways,” he says. “I feel like it’s a more current and focused representation of where she is at musically right now, whereas the first record was more a collection of songs representing where she’d been up to that point as a solo artist.”
Watkins attributes that result to her collaboration with producer and musician Blake Mills, whom she met through the Watkins Family Hour. “A lot of the tonality has to do with him — a different studio, a different producer [Mills], and a different engineer,” Watkins notes, while adding that brother Sean, who plays on both of her records, served as the constant. “It was a great adventure every day, just going in and seeing where the songs wanted to go, taking them as far as they wanted to go, maybe backing off, maybe not. The first record was very much band-oriented. This record was more just a few people in the studio, geeking out.”Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com.