Bluegrass virtuoso Sean Watkins is making his way to Northampton next week. The singer/songwriter recently released "All I Do is Lie", his first solo album in nine years.
He's played with Steve Martin, Hank Williams Jr, Fiction Family (his side project with Switchfoot's Jon Foreman) and is best known as one third of Nickel Creek, the contemporary bluegrass group that returned from a seven year hiatus in 2014.
Watkins is fresh off a west coast run of solo dates promoting the new album, and will be performing at The Parlor Room on February 28th. We spoke to him about the new album and his first solo tour.
PCP: In terms of your solo career, your last album Blinders On was in 2006. A lot has happened since then.
SW: I put out three records but they were all while I was really busy touring with Nickel Creek. It was more like an extra thing to have at the merch table. It was more that than putting myself into something and standing behind it and going out and playing it for people. I didn't tour for any of those records. At the time they were more reactionary to what I was doing with Nickel Creek. It was a way to do something totally different, use different instruments and such.
It was the end of 2007 we went on a hiatus with Nickel Creek. Since then I put out a few records with Work’s Progress Administration. Along the way I started writing songs and a couple of years ago I came to a point where I was happy with group songs and wanted to go out and stand on stage by myself. So I put together this record and I’m really proud of it.
PCP: People have been asking you if it’s different or odd to go on a solo tour. It seems like it might not be that new for you. You’ve released solo albums and you’ve toured plenty.
SW: It is different. But it’s also very much the same. I know how it goes, I know how to be on stage, I like playing songs for people. I’ve done a lot of it around Los Angeles where I live. You can go out and play different venues around town all the time. It’s a different crowd. I’ve got a lot of different experience doing that. It feels good to take it out to new audiences. It feels really good to play it for new faces.
PCP: Can we talk a little about Noisetrade.com and why you decided to give the album away for free for a little bit?
SW: Basically I just wanted to get my record out to as many people as possible. Going on tour, I wanted people to know the songs before I played them. I figured that’s a good way to do it. In certain situations I don’t really like to give stuff away that I’ve worked hard on but for this it seemed like the right thing to do. A lot more people have the record than before!
PCP: You’re a guy who’s been playing music most of his life. And you played during a time when people actually bought records and the music industry looked a little different. It’s nice to see artists at least trying out the free approach.
SW: I think it has its place.
PCP: What does your setlist look like on this tour?
SW: Primarily songs from my record. There’s stuff people will recognize. A couple Nickel Creek songs. Songs from my various projects. Little bits and pieces.
PCP: I’ve heard news about the Watkins Family Hour podcast coming back. What’s the deal with that?
SW: We’re working on a way to get it out to more people. I can’t really say exactly what it’s gonna be yet. We’ve been working on things and trying to figure out. We might make it a podcast, or make it something else. We’re working hard on bringing it to more people. Whether that means shows or a different format. I’m excited to have some news at some point.
I didn’t want [the record] to be reliant on drums. I wanted to be able to go out and plays the songs for people and have them translate. I thought a good way to do that would be a light-handed production approach.
PCP: Can I ask a really specific, maybe nerdy question about a song of yours? The song “Don’t Say You Love Me” appeared on a Fiction Family Christmas B-side, and now again on your solo album with a different feel an altered melody. Can you talk about that a little bit?
SW: That’s a song I’d written awhile back. I liked playing it a lot solo and I felt like I had a different way of singing it. It’s kind of weird to put a song out twice but a lot of people have done that. I first I thought I shouldn’t do it but then I thought “Well, it’s my song. I can do whatever I want with it.” It’s different enough. It’s fun to sing in both formats. I felt like there was a place for it on my solo record.
Tyler Chester did a lot of really great mellotron stuff on that song. Most of that was recorded in a hotel room when we were on the road with Jackson Browne a few years ago.
PCP: I’ve heard that a few tracks were recorded on the road. The production of the album is pretty stripped down, mostly guitar and vocals.
SW: I didn’t want it to be reliant on drums. I wanted to be able to go out and plays the songs for people and have them translate. I thought a good way to do that would be a light-handed production approach.
PCP: Going back to something you touched on a minute ago: it seems like you had a lot of songs and some went on the solo album and some went on the new Nickel Creek album. How did you make that distinction?
SW: It just sort of makes itself known. I finished my solo record by the time we started working on the new Nickel Creek album. The song “21st of May” which ended up on the Nickel Creek record was supposed to be on my solo record. We were working on songs and writing Nickel Creek stuff in New York at Chris [Thile’s] apartment. Sara [Watkins] and Chris were like “That song ‘21st of May’, is that for sure gonna be on your solo record?” and I was like “Well, it’s on there now.” But they liked it and I thought of course I’d love for it to be a Nickel Creek song. It ended up jumping off my record and on to the Nickel Creek record. I wrote the song “All I Do is Lie” to replace it and it ended up being the title track.
I don’t really like to give stuff away that I’ve worked hard on but for this it seemed like the right thing to do. A lot more people have the record than before!
PCP: You’ve talked about the song “The God You Serve” being a bold statement about faith. It reminds me of a Nickel Creek song called “Doubting Thomas.”
SW: With “The God You Serve” I wasn’t trying to ruffle any feathers. It’s just something I think about. There’s some major hypocrisy in the church, which I kind of grew up around. I just ended up having some thoughts in song form. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone, it’s just something to consider.
PCP: Have you gotten a lot of response either positive or negative?
SW: Yeah. Mostly positive. There’s some negative stuff too but that’s fine. Anytime you say something like that, you’re gonna get some responses. I just think it’s important to think about these things and not just kind of brush them aside.
PCP: What should we expect from Fiction Family, Nickel Creek, and solo Sean Watkins in the future?
SW: Fiction Family and Nickel Creek are up on blocks and at some point there'll be something. I'm not really thinking too far in advance. I’m just focusing on the next few months of solo shows. There will be lots of things to come after I get through this tour.
Tickets are available for Sean Watkins' preformance at The Parlor Room in Northampton on February 28th
The album "All I Do is Lie" is available for free at Sean's website.