Nickel Creek are much more than the sum of their parts. Mind you, those parts are pretty impressive. Siblings Sean Watkins on guitar and Sara Watkins on blazing fiddle first hooked up with mandolin wizard Chris Thile when Sean was 12 years old, and the others just eight.
Initially produced by Alison Krauss, this trio have been together for 34 years – on and off – while also doing parallel solo and side projects with musical peers across all sorts of genres. But it was bluegrass and Americana that had their hearts, and where they made their name – and now they’re back with their fifth studio album, Celebrants, forged back home in California, and produced by old pal Eric Valentine in Nashville’s RCA Studio A.
Chris Thile has already described this album as achieving harmony through dissonance, with its bumper 18 tracks exploring friendship, human connection and togetherness. Holler got the lowdown on the rest of the story in an in-depth interview with string-driven siblings Sara and Sean Watkins from their homes in Los Angeles. There’s a lot to talk about.
Why have Nickel Creek lasted the course? Is it because you’ve gone away and come back again?
Sean: I think that definitely helps. At the end of 2007 we’d been touring really hard in support of our first three albums, and we were on the verge of burning out. I think we all realised that, and loved the band too much to take it to that place. It was best to step away, and we did. We did solo records and other bands and that was really beneficial. Then when we came back to do A Dotted Line six-and-a-half years later it felt like it was the right time and felt good – and it was the same with this album. Yes, stepping away from it has had a lot to do with our longevity.
Celebrants is a very long album, with 18 tracks, but were there even more left on the cutting room floor?
Sara: A lot of songs were edited over the writing process, so we don’t have a lot of whole songs left over. Early on in the process we knew we wanted to have a sequence decided, before we went into even pre-production. There were a lot of different writing times that we were able to get together to work on lyrics and arrangements, before we went in to do our four-and-a-half weeks of studio time making the actual record.
We did a practice swing, as we always do with Eric Valentine. We get all the songs on tape and see how they sound together, and it’s an opportunity for Eric to sonically start building his world and identify what elements of surrealism he can help us with. A couple of things flipped around and we took out one instrumental and added another, but other than that, by the time we got to that stage we knew we were close to a finished mock-up of the album.
Maybe Celebrants is your bluegrass Sgt Pepper – with themes threaded through like a song cycle?
Sean: Absolutely! Because we had so much time and started writing it in the middle of lockdown, we had time to think about the process of putting the songs together. Like, what are the cool things that bands have done that we love? In terms of connecting the songs, we borrowed melodies from one song to use in another, which is the opposite of how we’ve made decisions in the past. Before it was: “we can’t do that in this song, we did it in that other song!” For this record we leaned into it: “We did that in this song, where else can we do that melody? Where can we reference that?”
Does it feel like you’re the ragged outsiders who’ve become the revered elders, the institution?
Sean: That’s all based on how people perceive us. I don’t feel it’s our job to think of us in that way. The only way we can think about it is: this band is fun and challenging in the best way for us. We know there are certain things we can do that people resonate with, that we love. And we love singing three-part harmony and try to do that as much as we can.
People want to label us, however, and having done this for – gosh, we’ve been a band since 1989 – so that’s what, 34 years? We always want to challenge ourselves and try something new, and it’s crazy that we’re still doing it after so long. Our first album anyone heard about came out 23 years ago. So it feels good and we realise how valuable and rare it is to be in a band that long.
You call Nickel Creek the most challenging musical experience you’re involved in, Sara. Presumably that also makes it the most satisfying?
Sara: It’s satisfying in a different way. I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to step away and have other bands and collaborations on the back burner, while we focus on other aspects of our musical life. It’s a privilege for those other projects not to be threatened by anything. It’s part of the culture of the folk world to be able to collaborate with various people.
The way I’m challenged in this band is unique. And I wouldn’t want that for all the other projects I’m in. On this album some of the fun things are based on the fact that we had enough time to thoughtfully arrange and re-approach these songs. They’re arranged in a way that we can play and sing and perform them as we’ve written them. Then once you get in the studio you record that bit, then sing your parts and step back and listen, and think okay, now I’m not worried about performing it, I can hear the song and think we should double that fiddle and mandolin part.
There’s this surrealist potential to do things that layer and build and add to the texture and depth of the sound of the record. And some of these things are not instinctual when you’re performing them, or writing them to be performed. But they add to the record. So some of the fun is learning how to do those things and figuring out how to have the separation to be able to sing and play some of these more complex polyrhythmic things at the same time.
Sean: There’s a lot of rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint happening, and what that means is while you’re playing one rhythm you’re singing something that can feel disjointed, but ultimately if you do it right it sounds really good and satisfying.
Sara: You just have to learn how to do it!
Is it like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time?
Sean: [laughs] It’s a little harder than that, but yes! Eric our producer loves to make records where you create a universe that you can play around in. I remember him relating that to the difference between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Where the Stones’ approach to making records is: 'let’s get the band into the studio and play it live and get good versions of it', the Beatles would be like: 'let’s get in the studio and record each drum separately, then mess around with different ways of mic-ing it and have these crazy ideas that make this album seem surreal and otherworldly at times'. I remember he brought up that idea to us when we started working with him in 2004 for our Why Should the Fire Die? album. Those are the two general ways. Then Radiohead is a completely different story… and he told us that’s how he wanted to approach recording us and definitely has stuck with that. We love it too.
How were these songs written and evolved?
Sara: We came in with ideas, with starts. There is a song called ‘Holding Pattern’ and Sean had this beautiful two guitar pattern that is the foundation, and the melody for the chorus, so that was the start. ‘Strangers’ was started four years ago, a time we were all together in New York. With one or two exceptions, these songs were grown out of a month we spent living together and really, truly reconnecting. Families spending time together, rearing our kids and scheduling moments where we could childcare so the other person could exercise, doing fun stuff and making meals together.
And writing! Then when the kids went to bed we’d talk about our families and catch up: how are your parents doing? What are you listening to? What are we going to do with this record? What do we want this to be? We had the opportunity to really pursue that. So these songs are of the band 100%. You have to start somewhere, there’s always a seed of thought that begins things and that seed is sometimes two notes and sometimes a chorus. But this whole album feels of us.
Tell me about ‘Stone’s Throw’.
Sean: It sprung out of listening to the intro of the Radiohead song ‘Kid A’. I was messing around with the harmony, sitting on my couch, working out what they did. I realised that even though it came out of that idea it didn’t seem derivative. I don’t think I had any lyrics – we went into this without much lyrical content. We had much more musical, chord information, and that was by design for us to do something new that was a blend of all of our ideas.
Rather than one of us having an idea and bringing it in, we wanted all our fingerprints on as much of it as possible. I wanted the song to be called ‘Stone’s Throw’ and there was something in there in terms of talking about a relationship, casting stones, being close enough to hurt someone and also that you need to be that close for a relationship to work. That dichotomy of when you let somebody in to be that close to you, you’re really making yourself vulnerable. I didn’t have much beyond that, but I knew there was something to be mined, and that came later.
Sara: We struggled with it the first day. I think your homework was to figure out what this song was about – or an example of the situation.
Sean: We needed some meat for the song; it needed to be grounded in something real. We were working on it and Chris said: can you think of real, juicy story you can use for the first verse of this?
Sara: Yes, Chris and I contributed some juicy stories!
What about the song ‘Thinnest Wall’?
Sara: That was my juicy story, and it’s not even juicy! I came with the melody, chorus and basic arc, but the lyrics were different. I kept the first line “oh you got a mouth on you, baby!” and the first bridge about being in a museum. The song was originally about taking the good and bad and all that stuff, and I love you so much, you’re a piece of work. And Chris specifically said: I don’t care about all of that, I just wanna hear more about “you got a mouth on you”. Dig into that part!
It gets hard to put yourself in the position to remember how you felt at various times in your life. We talked about inspiration versus craft, and that was interesting to navigate. Ultimately I love how it turned out. I was glad to have that assignment, to dig into this part of me. It’s a way more interesting song than it would’ve been.
Is there any leeway – when in the studio or playing live – to improvise?
Sara: Totally. Improvisation is a big part of the fun of this band and playing music in general. But there are parts to every song that might seem crucial to us or to the audience. You go to shows sometimes and see somebody play the exact same solo as they did on the record. Maybe this song has been out for 30 years, but that solo became canon because of the experience of the song, for whatever reason, that became crucial. So there are parts of all of our songs that are crucial.
We’re not going to improv the chords or change the words; certain things are solid. In these songs there are definitely parts of the arrangement that help everybody else’s parts. There are also moments of pure release where we don’t feel we need to stick with those things. And the more we tour this album, the more we’ll find those places. All of our old material that is living and breathing still allows for plenty of places to step out and explore and expand. So ideally there’s a balance of these arranged type places and freedom to come back and land together, knowing exactly how this part of the dance works. That’s part of the joy of live performance.
Did you ever think you’d do anything other than music as a career, as your livelihood?
Sean: We grew up playing in the bluegrass world, which is not a moneymaking genre of music. Very few people, especially when we were kids, were doing it as a full-time job. So all of our examples were teachers, and they all had day jobs, teaching music lessons or doing gigs around town for 100 bucks. That’s what we saw. We all went to college, we were all going to do music either way, but didn’t know it would be our full-time livelihood.
I was about to start at UCSD in San Diego, studying music composition. We’d just made our album with Alison Krauss and we were going to tour that summer. I was going to try to do both and at the last-minute, the day before school was going to start, I didn’t turn in a form and decided to just tour. I thought I’ll try it for this year; touring took off and all of a sudden we were doing it full-time. We prepared to have other jobs, but I don’t think any of us landed on anything we were super-passionate about. Other than music.
So are you now less folky and more urban, maybe even a bluegrass Talking Heads?
Sara: I’d be happy to leave any comparisons like that to you! We’re just trying to develop our Nickel Creek abilities, and we’ve never made a record like this before. We are trying to deepen some of the sonic and arrangement potential we started with Why Should the Fire Die? And we’re really proud of it. So whatever that means in terms of comparisons.
Sean: I’d say if you listen to our album from 2000, stylistically that feels very simple, more folky and straightforward. But at the time we were trying to do something new. This is an extension of that; it sounds different and you could draw different comparisons, but we’re just trying to do the same thing we’ve always done; push ourselves and create music we feel is new and exciting.
Nickel Creek's 2023 album Celebrants is out on Friday March 24 via Repair Records / Thirty Tigers