Sara Watkins has been making music nearly her whole life. She was just 8 years old when her now Grammy-winning folk band, Nickel Creek, formed in 1989. The 32-year-old singer and fiddler, along with her brother Sean (above center, guitar/vocals) and friend Chris Thile (above left, mandolin/vocals), are on the road celebrating the band's 25th anniversary. It’s also a reunion for the trio, with Nickel Creek releasing its first new album (A Dotted Line) since 2007.
Watkins, who spent the past seven years working on two solo albums and collaborating with artists like John Mayer, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, and The Decemberists, sat down to reflect on her own music, as well as that which has inspired her career. Call it a soundtrack if you will: These tracks empower Watkins to create her sincere, emotionally charged, freewheeling lyrics.
Favorite Song from My Solo Career
"You and Me"
I think back to when I was a kid, and the relationships I cherished with family and friends in those different stages. I know I can't go back, because time has marched on. I also know that who I was back then will always be a part of who I am today. Each verse of this song is about a specific part of my life.
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Favorite Song That I Wrote
"Take Up Your Spade"
I have always thought of life in the metaphor of gardening and farming. My mom would wake me up each morning, saying in her soft, kind voice: "Wake up sweetie, it's a new day, without a spot or wrinkle," even after I had been a combative brat the day before. Every day you wake up, you can start again. Re-approach an issue, or just dig in.
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Favorite Nickel Creek Song
The frustration of not being where you would like to be, and the aggravating realization that the path you thought would take you there instead took you in a circle. There isn't time for circles in this life.
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Favorite Song by My Favorite Singer/Band:
"Don't Do It" by The Band
Turn it up. It's dirty, man. The horns, the band, Levon's vocal phrasing and drumming. Oh that's right, he's drumming AND singing like that. The Band gives something special to each verse. I recommend spending some extra time with the third verse there, the "go down to the river," verse. Dig in.
Favorite Song by My Favorite Up-and-Coming Singer/Band:
"Que Voy a Hacer" by Gaby Moreno
Gaby is Guatemalan and has had huge success in Latin countries, but she is far less known in the States. So she is "up and coming" in the sense of American awareness but is well seasoned already. So often I listen to singers who sound like passengers in their own songs. I like a singer who is in charge of the music. You can tell by listening to this track that she is in charge. She's a great guitar player as well.
Favorite Song About Love
"For Keeps" by Davíd Garza
This recording stops me in my tracks. His piano playing is so delicate, and the chord voicing is so strong. Not to mention the lyrics. Davíd has become a good friend. On my wedding day, he sang this as my husband and I danced our first dance. Lyrics rarely read as well as they sing and sound.
Favorite Empowerment Song
"What Makes You Think You're The One" by Fleetwood Mac
I was making a record in LA a while back and really laboring with it. I'd pull up to the studio, roll my windows up and just BLAST this song in my car. I'd turn it up so loud it hurt my ears. Sometimes it was a preemptive blast of empowerment and sometimes I was already mad. In either case, this song did the trick.
My Favorite Top 40 Guilty Pleasure
"Still Into You" by Paramore
Hayley Williams is so stinking cute and fun to watch! I love seeing her perform and the video for this song is great. They always look like they're having a blast.
My Favorite Sing-Into-a-Hairbrush Anthem
"I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston
Dolly Parton wrote this song but Whitney's version is the one I know best. I always come back to it because The Bodyguard soundtrack was one of the first CDs I ever bought. And I listened to that thing a LOT! What a vocal. What a song. Where's my hairbrush? Let's do this.
A Song That Always Makes Me Cry
“In the Garden”
This is a hymn my Grandma Nordstrom would sing and I quote a bit of it in the third verse of my song "You and Me." My grandma was someone who, even when you first met her, you knew she truly loved you. She had compassion for all God's children, whether she understood them or not. The song makes me cry because it always reminds me of her goodness.
A Song I Wish I Wrote
"Man" by Neko Case
I saw her performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and it really got to me. I watched over and over again and bought the record. I've been a fan of Neko's for a long time. She's a powerful musician and so compelling to listen to.
The Best Song You've Probably Never Heard
“Losers” by The Belle Brigade
The comedian Paul F. Tompkins asked my brother Sean and me to learn “Losers” to perform with him on his show. It's a great lyric and I think the harmony throughout gives the song an added strength. There was a righteous fury in the air the first night we played this with Paul that I feel every time I listen to it.
My Personal Theme Song
"Good Hearted Man" by Tift Merritt
I can be tired, feeling down, lonesome and ragged from months of touring. But when I go for a walk, put on headphones and listen to this song and my stride opens up, my eyes clear and my heart starts to sing.
A Song That Reminds Me of Home
“Fishin' In The Dark” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
The first concert I ever went to was Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. I must have been four or five years old. Years later, on a family vacation in the motorhome I remember standing between the front seats singing this at full voice with my mom and dad as we drove into Brice Canyon, UT. Dad and I would sing the round at the end. I love this song.
Photo: Brantley Gutierrez
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