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Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins talks classic album reissues, band’s future & more

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 11/28/2020 Gary Graff,

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Nickel Creek has been an on-and-off -- and mostly off -- concern since the Americana trio decided to make time for its own projects back in 2007.

The group certainly made an impact during the early phase of its career. Youthful and blending bluegrass, folk, country, pop and Americana, the consortium of Sara and Sean Watkins and Chris Thile released five critically acclaimed albums, winning a Grammy Award with 2002 1/4 u2032s “This Side.” It made appearances at festivals such as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, High Sierra, Austin City Limits and more and did a highly collaborative tour with Fiona Apple.

The three musicians have gone on to other projects -- solo albums as well as Thile’s Punch Brothers and “Live From here” radio show, the Watkins Family Hour and Sara’s involvement with I’m With Her. Nickel Creek’s 2014 reunion for the album “A Dotted Line” and a subsequent tour proved it had hardly wasted its time apart, and the trio considers itself still together, if only semi-active.

Those early days, however, were revisited this fall with the vinyl reissue of “This Side” along with 2000 1/4 u2032s “Nickel Creek” and 2005 1/4 u2032s “Why Should the Fire Die?” They sound as fresh and relevant now as they did then, and Sara Watkins, for one, is alright with spending a little time in what was a glorious past...

All these years later, what is your relationship to these three albums?

Watkins: It’s funny. It’s in some ways like listening to a photo album, like you look back at your high school yearbooks and you see what everybody was wearing, and you have so many emotional things connected to the way your hair looked that day, the uniforms people wore. That’s the kind of stuff I experience.

Do you recognize those kids?

Watkins: I feel very kind towards those people as the time has gone by. It’s been really sweet, actually, for Sean and Chris and I to remember those times together and be proud of them, be proud of those people even if it’s not necessarily the music we stand behind now. We stand behind the efforts. So, there’s a lot of compassion for those kids. They’re at the beginning of a great journey.

Tell me your thoughts now about each of the albums. “Nickel Creek,” and working with (producer) Alison Krauss?

Watkins; There are SO many things about that album to remember. We had signed a record deal with Sugar Hill and we were talking about, “What if Jerry Douglas produced it? What if Tim O’Brien produced it?” We’d met Alison eight or 10 years before but didn’t really know her, and she had skyrocketed since. We did a bluegrass series show at the Ryman (in Nashville) and she came back after the show and was really complimentary, really sweet, and I think after that conversation we thought, “Man, I wonder if Alison could produce the record?” She wound up making two records with us, and she taught us a lot of things.

Like what?

Watkins: The first thing that really stuck with us was she pointed out that what you do live and what works live does not always work on an album. At that point we were playing everything really fast, and her point was, “That’s great live, but on an album, people are going to get tired listening to it. Make it groovier to have long listening potential.” I think she was right about that. That was a big thing.

You really began to expand the sound on “This Side.”

Watkins: Definitely. We were trying to explore the potential of some more, like percussive qualities without using drums -- tapping on the guitar or mandolin, trying to get more of a rhythm going. We spent a lot of time updating Alison on what we’d been listening to, playing music back and forth trying to figure out what lit all of us up together. It feels a little adolescent, just a little bit uncomfortable, like we were in the process of growing up.

And then it goes and wins a Grammy.

Watkins: Omigosh! (laughs) So wild, yeah, and very unexpected and thrilling. I just remember hearing our name called and running so fast to the stage. There was a lot of jumping.

Did you have a sense at the time that “Why Should the Fire Die?” was going to be it for awhile?

Watkins: I’m still really proud of that record. I feel like I learned how to sing in the process of making that record. I think you really see the strengthening of each of us, individually, coming out in different songs; Instead of being joined at the shoulder we were joined at the knee. You get a little bit more of the individuals coming through on the album.

So, there was a need to pursue those individual directions more?

Watkins: We needed to surprise each other more, I think. We had been a band since Chris and I were eight and Sean was 12. We’d really grown up together, and there’s not a lot that we didn’t know about each other from the ages of eight to 24 or 25. We needed to have the space to live separately long enough that we had new things to contribute to each other, and I think with “Why Should the Fire Die?” we got to a place we were really proud of and could stand back and say, “That’s what we meant” and feel pretty fulfilled.

What’s it like for you now when Nickel Creek gets back together?

Watkins: One hundred percent natural, right away. Chris said once it’s like jumping into a bus mid-tour. It’s a really unique thing to be able to share as much of your foundation with somebody as the three of us have. We will not have anything else like that in our lives. We value it so much. We’re family, right? It’s a really precious thing.

Any sense of when we’ll hear more new Nickel Creek music?

Watkins: We’re talking about doing stuff, trying to figure out scheduling to spend some time together and see what happens. I think there will always be something down the line for Nickel Creek -- why wouldn’t we? It’s just a matter of timing logistics at this point. I think we’ll have some things in the next few years for sure.


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