Most folks in the roots music world are very familiar with Sean Watkins, if not through his years as one-third of Nickel Creek (alongside Chris Thile and his sister Sara) or his ongoing Watkins Family Hour project, then certainly through his solo records. The guitarist/singer/songwriter always seems to have new music pouring out. His latest solo set, What to Fear, adds yet another notch to his artistic belt. On it, he explores stories and themes previously uncharted in his career, and he does so with the same deft skill that he brings to all of his work.
You sketch stories from a number of different characters on this album. What’s your process for stepping out of yourself and into another?
It’s always fun writing from another perspective. I don’t know that I have a process; they just kind of tumble out that way sometimes. I think it’s healthy to let go of all your own feelings, issues, and emotions every now and then and try to take on someone else’s. I tend to write autobiographically, so lyrics like those in “What to Fear” and “I Am What You Want” give me a bit of a thrill and are really fun to sing.
Alternately, mining a song from a phrase, like you did with “Last Time for Everything,” does that tap into a different approach?
Yeah, I’ve been writing song titles first a lot lately. It’s fun to go about constructing a song in reverse order of what is typically done. I heard someone use that phrase — “There’s a last time for everything” — and thought to myself, “Surely that phrase must have made its way into a (probably) cheesy sentimental country ballad.” But upon some inspection, I didn’t find much, so I started working on it. But I wanted to take it the opposite way of sad sentimentality and endings stuff. I wanted to celebrate the good endings and last times.
What does a solo record feed in you creatively that Family Hour, Nickel Creek, and your various other projects don’t?
It’s healthy and constructive to stand on your own two feet in art as in life. It’s good because it reminds you who you are and lets the people around you know where you’re at, too. And every time I’ve gone back into a band situation from a solo situation, it’s always felt better because of the personal work I’ve done.
You’ve had record releases three years in a row now, plus touring. Is this an especially prolific, energized time for you? What would you do with a whole year off?
It doesn’t feel prolific so much as it feels like I’m finally where I should be, creatively. I don’t want to spread myself too thin, but I have a lot to say and many musical experiments on my list of things to try. I’m going to keep up this pace, whatever that means. I wouldn’t know what to do with a year off. That sounds like hell to me. Ha!
Did you have an artistic vision going into the studio that you, then, recruited bassist Mike Elizondo and drummer Matt Chamberlain plus the Bee Eaters to fulfill? Or was it more collaborative once you got in the room with them?
I had two very different visions of what this record could be, going into making it. One was to make the whole record with the Bee Eaters, an amazing string band from Northern California whom I love playing with. The other was to do it with the rhythm section of Matt Chamberlain on drums and Mike Elizondo on bass. Individually, they are both huge heroes of mine and, playing together, they are just insane.
So I picked four songs that I felt would represent the whole album and recorded them in both scenarios. After that, I overdubbed the Bee Eaters onto the versions I did with Mike and Matt. The combined version ended up being the best, and that vibe and aesthetic ended up shaping how I made the rest of the record.