“I would hang out with the teachers at recess,” Sara Watkins says on a plush red couch in Manhattan, searching for the most salient way to sum herself up. For someone who experienced fame early in life (she was eight years old when her former band Nickel Creek played its first gig), Watkins is a realist. She’s also a box-checker (though she denies ever keeping a five-year plan). With a firm gaze and pin-straight bangs parted over the rims of her glasses, the 35-year-old singer-guitarist comes off like a bluegrass-loving Hermione Granger.
Watkins emerged as a solo artist following Nickel Creek’s hiatus in 2007. In 2016, she released her third and finest solo record Young in All the Wrong Ways, which – in part – examines dislodged domesticity. The video for the title track for instance depicts a Norman Rockwell-type dinner setting gone awry as Watkins rejects a future she never wanted. “So I’m gonna leave you here / I’m going out to see about my own frontier,” she sings on the buoyant, folk-pop single. This year, Watkins also toured with two personal idols, Patti Griffin and Rodney Crowell (“I left that tour craving to do a two-step”). And last month she became the first female artist named Instrumentalist of the Year at the Americana Honors & Awards. “I try to say yes more than I say no,” Watkins says softly.
Watkins plays the violin, guitar, ukulele and percussion. Her unique collaborations with John Paul Jones (“a true prince”) to John Mayer to the Decemberists are nearly as celebrated as her solo work and Nickel Creek, the progressive bluegrass band she co-founded in 1989 with her older brother Sean (at the ripe old age of 12) and their family friend (now superstar songwriter) Chris Thile. After getting discovered at a local pizza parlor in Carlsbad, California, Nickel Creek became country music’s Hanson. Their major-label debut record went platinum and they started opening for modest acts like Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton. Their second album, This Side, won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album and was produced by Alison Krauss. Nickel Creek celebrated its 25-year reunion/anniversary two years ago – a milestone typically reserved for musicians with a good 15 years on the trio.
Of the miscellany of music legends Watkins has shared a stage with in her young career, she said Jackson Browne’s influence sunk in most when they toured together a few years ago. “I’ve got many memories of sitting with my back to the wall on the stage left, sitting on the ground and just listening to a song for the 20th time, hearing new metaphors being developed, new rhymes and stories unfolding,” she said. “You also learn things like how to run a business, how to treat people,” she said. “I remember he didn’t use a set list. So his shows were just fluid and beautiful.”
Raised in rural Vista, California, Watkins’ neighborhood sounds Edenic. Bountiful orange groves, fruit trees and orchards lined the “unorganized acreage,” she said deprecatingly. She lived in a home built by her father and grandpa Watkins. And in 2008, she married her husband, actor-director Todd Cooper, there in the backyard. “I think a lot of what I write uses metaphors of nature, because my childhood lessons were taught through, you know, weaving gardens and planting things,” she said. “Effort in, effort out.”
Sundays in the Watkins household were about spending quality time via physical labor: stacking firewood, working in the front yard and carrying water in buckets to water the ice plant. As Watkins says this, she laughs knowing that no one knows what an “ice plant” is. (It’s a kind of succulent that sparkles). “I still find it very satisfying to work outside,” she says. “It’s about seeking physical results for your work.”
Both of Watkins’ parents were teachers, a plus for Sara when she discovered she hated attending school and could be homeschooled by her mother after sixth grade. “I think a lot of people don’t feel seen when they’re in school and that’s how I felt,” she said. “I’d go away to bluegrass festivals with our band on the weekends and we’d get to hang out with all of these super-cool grown-ups treating us like their peers and joking around … And then you would go back to school and it’s just – crickets and isolation.” Watkins visibly perks up talking about taking biology in “somebody’s garage.” “Each week we’d dissect something new – a worm, a frog, a fish, a fetal pig,” she said wistfully. “It was a beautiful group of nerds.”
It’s clear Watkins’ scientific proclivities extend to her songwriting style. On “Without a Word,” for example, the precision of the song’s harmonies achingly elucidate romantic thoughts the narrator wishes she didn’t have. “Invisible” portrays the complicated weight of being in an unraveling marriage. “Today we walk together, but one’s ahead and one’s behind / And if there is an answer here then I am blind,” she sings. “It’s about couple who has been together a long time, coming to a point of like, ‘We can’t really divorce at this point – we can’t really do anything.'”
The second single, “Move Me,” is about self-pruning, says Watkins, stoically trying not to reveal anything too personal. “I was taking steps toward the way I wanted to see my life, and this has to do with the way you maintain relationships,” she said, suddenly speaking in second-person. “This album was written during one of those course corrections … I was assessing a lot of things in my life. That brought about some turbulent feelings that I’m glad I recognized. I made the conscious decision to embrace the turbulence and move forward.”
A life spent in constant motion – touring, writing, creating, playing – has left Watkins wary of those slower periods of time. Her defense mechanism has always been to do more (“If you’re in a band, you should be in another band,” she says matter-of-factly.) Her prolific career has made her a poster-child for adopting healthy distractions. But as an adult, she uses her father’s car metaphor to remind herself not to get caught in analysis paralysis. “My dad used to tell me not to stall out when I have a decision to make, because even a small choice will send you in a direction. And if it’s a wrong choice, you can almost always move, turn around, switch or pivot,” she said, choosing her words with care. “The important thing is to just make a choice – and then move on.”
And should life tempt you to slam on the horn? “Yeah, you can use it,” Watkins smiles. “I’m not afraid of using it.”