Family and music go hand-in-hand for Sara Watkins. At a mere eight years old, she began playing fiddle in Nickel Creek, the band she formed with her brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile.
While Watkins has now delved into her own solo work and I'm With Her - her band with Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan - she continues to return to the theme of music and family. The siblings even went on to form the Watkins Family Hour, a bluegrass variety show in Los Angeles, so it's obvious how influential kinship is to the singer-songwriter.
With the birth of her daughter, Watkins’ relationship to music only deepened. As she readied her daughter for bed, Watkins began sharing some of her favorite childhood songs with her; culled from fantastical movies like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory or western comedies like The Three Amigos. Those tracks offered a bedtime ritual unlike any other, sparking an idea — to record a family-friendly album of classic songs.
The result, Under the Pepper Tree, marks Watkins first solo release since her 2016 debut album, Young in All the Wrong Ways. Pairing covers with original songs, the album feels almost autobiographical; thanks to guest appearances from Nickel Creek, I’m With Her, and even her daughter, who lends her voice to The Sound of Music tune ‘Edelweiss’. The result is, to borrow a phrase from Wonka, pure imagination.
Watkins sat down to talk about these songs she connected to most as a child, why it was important for her to record a family-friendly album and delves further into the inspiration behind Under the Pepper Tree.
There’s an evident cinematic quality to these songs, because many came from movies. Was there a visual element that you connected to?
No matter what age you are, if you hear a song at an impactful time in your life, it sticks. I think films are a very vivid way to experience a song in the course of a story, such as Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music or Lady and the Tramp. The visuals help capture an emotional depth, that might not be terribly clear to a kid. I wonder if the first time a kid marries lyrics with a story is when they watch a musical or a movie?
It’s so interesting that you listen to music with your daughter before bed. What is it that music, rather than a book, provides for you two in that sacred moment?
When I was making the record, I explained my intent for it to my friend David Garza. He said “that makes total sense, music aids every transition in life.” When you’re entering a new phase of life, music can help you through that transition - through birth and death. It also aids you in and out of relationships. It can take us into a more imaginative world. I think it’s a sacred tool; that’s part of the purpose of this record, for sure.
You approach these covers with such tender care. How did that level of consideration factor into each rendition?
I think that was a required ingredient for each of these songs, in an effort to not only reassure and comfort little ones, but also grown-ups too. We all need this tender care, and a lot of times we don’t offer it to ourselves. We offer all kinds of generosity and optimistic perspective to our kids, but we don’t do that for ourselves or each other very often.
You’ve embarked on so many different musical ventures. How do the projects feed your creative impulses?
It’s really nice for me to be able to relax a part of myself by exercising another, it’s a muscle. When I make a solo record, i can figure out what I want to do in a really focused way. But when I get to collaborate with my bandmates, there’s that wonderful feeling of being part of a team. I'm revitalised by the momentum of a group. There’s real value to each role.
For Cuts The Deepest, Sara delves into the songs that inspired the making of Under The Pepper Tree.
It was always going to be the opening track, because it’s a clear announcement of what we were hoping to make. I wasn't able to make it the whole way through Willy Wonka until I was a teenager, because I found it to be very unnerving; I would always leave the room at some point. But there’s just so much wonderful magic in that film, and, even without the context of some of the bizarre things that happen in it, the songs still stand up on their own.
I was on tour with Patty Griffin and Anaïs Mitchell, back in early 2016. We were a part of this in-the-round show, and every once in a while, Anaïs would sing ‘Moon River’ on stage. She had this beautiful delivery, and would also sing it to her daughter, Ramona, who joined us on the tour. That was the first time I heard that song as one you could sing to a kid. That’s what introduced me to that interpretation of the lyric, and I always held onto that. It seemed to fit.
I grew up in such a niche musical scene in southern California — a lot of it was linked to this cowboy music thing. I was lucky to have relationships with horses growing up, so I kind of identified as a cowboy for different periods of my life. This was a really formative song for me, so it's really sweet to bring it full circle and record it with my I’m With Her bandmates. In a lot of ways, this record is sort of a benchmark in terms of my life, largely because of becoming a parent; it’s a life changer, in the most beautiful way. I was so happy to be able to celebrate that with the two fundamental bands of my career, Nickel Creek and I’m With Her. Each of those bands plays a role in my family’s life as well.
[Producer] Tyler Chester suggested this one for me; I didn’t think I could be drawn to do a Beatles song. Their material is so well covered, it’s rare to hear one that brings something new to the song. I learnt it for the first time and internalized it in the context of this record. I was certainly familiar with the song, but I hadn’t sat with it the way I had the rest of the White Album. I'm so glad he suggested it.
Under The Pepper Tree is out on March 26th via New West Records. Watch the video for 'Blue Shadows on the Trail', featuring Nickel Creek, below.
Photography by Jacob Boll.