Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins on the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut and their connections to Kansas

Nickel Creek Main Press Shervin Lainez

Nickel Creek [L-R]: Sarah Watkins, Sean Watkins, Chris Thile // photo by Shervin Lainez

Over the course of their 30 year career, bluegrass band Nickel Creek has gone from wunderkinds to icons themselves. Beginning with their self-titled release for venerable label Sugar Hill in 2000, the band–featuring Chris Thile on mandolin and siblings Sara Watkins on fiddle) and Sean Watkins on guitar–became wildly popular within folk circles, while their sophomore LP for Sugar Hill, This Side, made a splash in indie rock circles due to a cover of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger.” Over the years, the band’s taken time off and come back for the occasional reunion tours and shows.

2020 marks the 20th anniversary of that self-titled record, and Nickel Creek’s first three LPs have remastered and repressed on vinyl by Craft Recordings. I took some time earlier this week to speak with Sara Watkins about the occasion and the band’s long-time connections to Kansas.

The Pitch: What’s it been like going back and revisiting these albums and realizing it’s the self-titled’s 20th anniversary?

Sara Watkins: It’s so wild. We didn’t realize it until we read something–I think NPR put out a little piece about it and that was what that’s how we found out that it had been 20 years. None of us were very aware that the albums had come out of print and that the vinyl had gone out of print. The label came to us, wanting to reissue, and we just loved the idea. We were so glad that they were excited about celebrating the collection. It has been really sweet to revisit the albums actually and I think that, with the distance between especially that first record and the second record, and now coming back to them, I think we have a little bit more compassion for what we were trying to do on those records.

I think when you’re a little bit younger, you can look back at two or three years and be mortified by what you thought was a good idea and try and distance yourself from some of those decisions. Just little artistic things, you know? Maybe a turn of lyric here or there or production choices, but now that it’s been a little while, looking back at them? There are so many memories attached to those records and what led up to making those records. It’s a sweet documentation of our lives.

Those albums were so well-received when they first came out. I remember the dialogue that was around them, because it was like, “You’re not gonna believe it! They’re all these kids and they got Alison Krauss to produce them and it’s on Sugar Hill.” It was all of these new things and old things and also not so old things all coming together at once.

It’s funny to hear you say that from the outside–that perception–because, for us, it felt just crazy that Alison wanted to produce us but when you’re a kid, you do kind of adapt pretty quickly to whatever situation you find yourself in. There were definitely many moments in that process where we’re like, “Oh my gosh: Alison Krauss! This is crazy!” but then you start to work within that new reality.

She taught us so much. She was and still is a highly-respected artist for what she continues to do. Every record she comes out with is something to listen to and learn from. At the time, she was an example of someone who grew up in bluegrass and meteorically broke through to a new audience and that was very appealing. It also felt like she understood some a lot of stuff that we were trying to do in terms of a common past of growing up and being these kids who people thought could play well and be impressed by, but we didn’t want to be thought of as just “good for kids.”

We took ourselves very seriously and I think she related to that in her career arc, as well–having done that seven years before. It was just a really incredible gift that she produced our record and I think she’s responsible for most of our success that we ever reached.

It’s not like Nickel Creek hadn’t recorded before. You have two albums that had come out in the decade prior to this but that self-titled album and This Side were recorded as you were becoming adults. I’m really curious about that aspect because I know where I was at in my late teens and early 20s. What’s it like to have a musical document of where you were at at the time?

That’s part of what was so mortifying for a while. This was not our first time in a recording, but it was our first time in a proper recording studio. It was our first time working with a professional producer and professional engineer, so in a lot of ways, it did feel like our first. It was our first statement of this kind, for sure, and so we really tried. We swung for the fences in terms of our earnestness–how seriously we took it–and what we were trying to accomplish.

I think that’s part of where the mortifying comes out of because, listening to it, I still hear and I can still feel in my body how I felt when I was recording those things and I can remember the insecurities that I was feeling when I was trying to get a fiddle solo right or learn how to sing a song the way I wanted to or the way that was right for the record. There are so many memories attached in my body to how I was feeling while I was singing those songs and playing fiddle and so it’s impossible to be objective.

Certainly, with the distance that time provides, I can be a little bit more objective and a little bit more compassionate and so, there’s a lot to be proud of on those records and I’m really grateful for any positive effects that those records had on other players–other kids–and certainly for my life. Those records have had a very positive effect. They’ve opened up all kinds of opportunities for different collaborations and to perform for so many people and in beautiful theaters and so many relationships have been borne out of those opportunities. I’m just grateful for all of it.

Nickel Creek has a bit of history local to Kansas. Early on in your career, you played the Walnut Valley Festival. That’s been a breeding ground for young bluegrass musicians. How did playing the festival circuit for almost a decade before you recorded that self-titled album influence your sound? Folk is such a broad umbrella, I’m curious as to how that affected the tack that Nickel Creek took once it went in to like record those albums for Sugar Hill.

I mean, everything affects you. Through Winfield, we met a lot of people that that would have us up on stage. I think, particularly, Winfield has a different culture than a lot of festivals in that they have this huge campground scene. A good friend of ours, Byron Berline, would go every year, and his family would have a big camp with a recognizable flag in front of and to the right of Stage Three–or what was Stage Three.

In California, growing up, Byron was always a beacon at local festivals and someone who made us feel incredibly welcome and really shepherded a lot of us younger players, in terms of just giving us a place to learn. We would jam late into the night, playing fiddle tunes, learning jam etiquette–just kind of following his lead and learning a lot just from watching him and watching how he ran things. I remember continuing that when he moved out to Oklahoma and started going to Winfield every year.

We also started coming out to Winfield. We would circle around his and his family’s camp and spend a lot of time there, a lot of nights. The campground scene was really educational. Also, there’s a work ethic at Winfield because you’re expected to play many sets a day, every day of the festival. In a lot of festivals, you might come in and play just one show, one night and then move on to another festival and kind of try and make the rounds on a tour. Maybe you’ll do a workshop and then play a set, but at Winfield, they really like to keep you around, so there was a real work ethic that I think is encouraged in that scene.

You learn a lot by watching all the other bands: how they work the setlist, how they what they do consistently, in terms of stage performance, what they alter–how they make the shows different and special for the different stages, and what the strategies are there–and that’s really important to learn.

The other thing that I think of in Kansas is Liberty Hall. Nickel Creek have a very special place in our hearts for Liberty Hall because that was the first place that we ever played–certainly one of the first rooms that we ever played–that had standing on the bottom and seating up top in the balcony. It’s got kind of a crazy backstage with a toilet in a weird corner. It’s kind of a spooky backstage. You got to watch your head because you’ll hit the pipes, but it’s a really special room and that we’ve had several magical shows there. That whole town is a really fun place to stop on a tour. When you see that on an itinerary, you’re always really happy because you know there are some places to be and you can have a good day there. There are so many great memories from Nickel Creek tours in Kansas.

Since we’re talking about live stuff you just announced a month ago that you’ve got a live album–Live from the Fox Theater–coming out next year. Can you tell me a little more about that?

I’m super excited. It’s on Bandcamp right now and it will be available on vinyl in the early part of the year. We didn’t really intend to release a live album, ever. We haven’t talked about it in a long time but the last time we did talk about it like, 10 years ago, we all kind of agreed that that wasn’t something that we wanted to really approach. It just seemed kind of daunting and we had conflicting feelings about like, “What’s the purpose of it?” but you grow up and things change and you find yourself in a pandemic where everybody just wants to go do things with people.

The idea was presented to look at a handful of shows that we remember being particularly good from the last tour. We listened to a few shows and one of them was in the Fox Theater in Oakland, California. It’s on Bandcamp and it is available in its entirety, including all the banter, all the tuning, and all the songs untouched.

We’re really proud of this show. I listened to it and I was like, “Wow, that was a really good night!” It’s not perfect – you can hear us thinking a little bit, but it’s super-solid and I’m really proud of it and I’m so glad that it’s coming out.

You’re putting out all this vinyl. Are you a record person, yourself?

I don’t think record people would call me a record person because I don’t know enough about originals versus reissues and all that stuff, but I listen to vinyl more than I listen to streaming in my house because I like focusing in on the record. I forget what I want to listen to on streaming–the world is too big and I just can’t remember what I want. I really like browsing through stuff and so, I need to get some more vinyl.

I’ve pretty much exhausted what I have now, but it’s been great listening and re-listening to records – not just once or twice but going deep the way that we used to and noticing on those great records how much there is to notice, in terms of whether it’s a great lyricist or whether it’s production or the performing of the band. I really enjoy that and I find that listening on vinyl is the way that I do that the best.

The vinyl reissues of Nickel Creek’s self-titled album, This Side, and Why Should the Fire Die? are out now from Craft Recordings.

Categories: Music