Talking Guitar: Bourgeois Artist Sara Watkins
Bourgeois artist Sara Watkins is a singer songwriter and guitarist. Sara is also best known as vocalist and fiddler of Grammy-award winning, progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. The band, who celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2014 having started playing together when they were kids, is completed by Sara’s brother and guitarist Sean Watkins, and virtuoso mandolin player Chris Thile.
In 2009, Sara stepped out on her own, releasing her first solo record. Seven years and two more albums later, and we meet Sara on the tail end of her UK and Ireland tour in support of 2016 release ‘Young in all the Wrong Ways’.
It’s a cold, wet Saturday night at St Mary’s church in Guildford, and I had the privilege of spending a few minutes with Sara discussing her new album before she took to the stage.
TNAG: You are currently touring new album 'Young in all the Wrong Ways', your first album of all original material. How would you describe the writing process?
"My other albums have been half original and half covers but this time I had a little more to say and turned out I had a whole album's worth of material. I wrote several songs with friends, or they helped me finish them.
"I wrote with Jon Foreman [Switchfoot, Fiction Family&91; and I wrote two songs with my friend Dan Wilson [Adele, Taylor Swift, John Legend&91; - 'Say So' and 'Like New Year's Day' - and, in both cases, I had the start of the song, but couldn't really finish it and Dan is a great person to write with. He has an incredible knack for supporting people's vision for the original intent as well as helping you expand on it which is really important and often very useful when you're co-writing.
"Sometimes just the process of telling someone what you're trying to say in a song teaches you, informs you and helps you to make more sense of it.
"The album was produced by Gabe Witcher, who is the fiddle player in Punch Brothers [his credits also include Eric Clapton, Beck and Paul Simon to name a few&91;. We were kids together playing festivals at eight or nine years old, competing against each other in contests, and we've gotten to know each other again over the last 15 years or so.
"For me, a lot of the time the writing process starts with writing prose or gibberish or unformed thoughts and somewhere in there finding a little corner to grab on to, something that is the essence of what I'm feeling and trying to spiral towards the real meat of the issue.
"All the while I was playing my little Bourgeois Parlor guitar. I wrote almost exclusively for this album on that guitar. It was my companion for the whole writing process.
"It is a beautiful sounding guitar and also just fits me really well, so it's a very easy thing to hold and play and I feel very comfortable finding my way on the guitar."
TNAG: How does the writing process work in Nickel Creek? Is it more collaborative or does one of you approach the group with a complete song?
"In Nickel Creek, we didn't co-write for a very long time, until the ‘Why Should the Fire Die?’ album. We co-wrote on [latest release&91; A Dotted Line and, in that instance it varied from song to song. A song like ‘Destination’ for example, was something I had for a very long time - the bulk of it, the verses and choruses - and knew I wanted to add this feeling of frustration of the unresolved and I had tried to put it together in different metaphors over the years and it was all unsuccessful and I couldn't make it satisfying.
"So when we were getting together, we were kind of throwing a lot of ideas into a heap and seeing what excited the rest of the band and that was one that everyone grabbed onto. I think it was the first one after we worked out for the record, so we came together on that song and immediately the guys started nipping and tucking little things and cutting off phrases a little early or extending them, and then we had to work on the arrangement of it together and in each case on that last Nickel Creek record, usually the person who sang the song wrote most of the lyrics.
"Before ‘Why Should the Fire Die?’, there was not a lot of co-writing, there was a lot of mutual arrangement but we wrote separately or with other people and then would bring it in to the rest of the band."
Nickel Creek performing 'Destination' at Austin City Limits in 2015:
Performing in Nickel Creek, you are mainly seen playing fiddle and ukulele, but can you tell us about your journey as a guitarist?
"I didn't play a lot of guitar in Nickel Creek because my brother Sean is so damn good! But I think I was just chicken for a long time and it's been really gratifying to dig into the guitar in a new way and, particularly at these solo shows, it's been really fun to perform the songs and develop a show around the solo performance and learn how to accompany myself in a somewhat satisfying way.
"It has been a really great challenge and satisfying, something I was craving I think in terms of just wanting to step out of my comfort zone and force myself into positions that I have to rise to."
Can you tell us about how you came to choose Bourgeois and become a Bourgeois artist?
"I first became acquainted with Bourgeois through my brother Sean who has been playing Dana's guitars for a long time. He would always tour with them and they're incredibly strong and stable. You can take them from the mountains to the ocean and they're not going to break down on you through weather and temperature changes.
"Dana puts them together incredibly well and they have a beautiful character for soloing as well as for accompaniment. I think some guitars, maybe they shine really well when they're being soloed but they don't have a lot of character in the strum. I think that's something that Dana is very much aware of and I think that's a conscious decision to craft his guitars in a way that features both roles and, particularly in our world of music which does usually feature a lot of soloing on the acoustic guitar."
You have a prototype of the Bourgeois Parlor, in Mahogany and Spruce, how do you feel this guitar suits your style of playing?
"I was playing one of my first solo shows and I had an old Washburn parlor style acoustic and it was a beautiful guitar but the top was all warped, and the tuning was bad, you could play it in one position but then capoing it up the neck it would just make it go bonkers.
"Dana saw one of those shows in Portland, Maine, and he said ‘you know, I’m working on this Parlor style guitar', and he ended up sending me the prototype.
"He told me the story recently actually that he was building a fancy guitar for someone and thought that before he built it I should just build a basic model and learn how to do it first, and I got that prototype, and that's what I've been touring with. And that's the guitar I've written most of my record on and it's really cool to get to tour with it. I didn't write on a guitar that I wouldn't be able to tour with, so I feel like it's a full circle for these songs in a lot of ways."
You are performing solo on this tour. Have you had to adjust your approach to playing at all?
"You are more exposed in solo shows, but there’s more space, so room for more subtleties so you can explore more nuances and timing in ways that you can't if two or three people are playing with you and that's been a great thing to explore on this tour.
"I've played two or three solo shows at a time before but I've never done two and a half weeks of solo shows and it's a totally different kind of experience because of endurance and also just getting to really dig into the development and flow of the show, how such small changes in terms of what you do with all that space, affect a 90-minute show. A lot of that has to do with how you're playing, the nuances of where you put your energy really affects the flow and it's been fascinating and I look forward to doing it a lot more."
The official music video for Sara's latest single 'Move Me':
What does 2017 hold for you?
"I'll be focusing on this album in 2017, touring the US through the summer and then I’ll move onto other projects, but I am really proud of this album and I really want to take it as far as I can so I'll go home to the states and have a couple of weeks off and then do some touring in the south, out west to California and then I'll pick up again in late January and February and do another month or so and continue down the road."
View a recent session with Acoustic Guitar magazine, where Sara plays two songs from 'Young in all the Wrong Ways' on her Bourgeois Parlor:
Sara Watkins' album 'Young in all the Wrong Ways' is out now on New West Records. Head on over to sarawatkins.com for more info.