Sara Watkins concluded her gently self-assured 2009 Nonesuch debut with a wistful, self-penned ballad, "Where Will You Be?," about the slow fade of a romance. With Watkins standing on the brink of a solo career, the question in the song title took on significance well beyond its lyrics, though: it marked the end of an album and the jumping-off point for a whole new life. Watkins had spent most of her younger years, nearly two decades, as singer and fiddle player for the Grammy Award–winning, bluegrass-folk hybrid Nickel Creek, a trio she'd started performing in when she was a mere eight years old, alongside her guitarist brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile. Now, for the first time, she was stepping away from that marquee name, alone. Watkins may have felt trepidatious, but, as old fans and new listeners could attest, the transition felt effortless, natural. As the BBC put it, "Watkins' time in the spotlight is a triumph with her agile playing and the kind of voice that gives your goose bumps the shivers."

After two formative years on the road fronting her own band—making stops at such events as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, and Glasgow's Celtic Connection along the way—Watkins returned to Los Angeles to record her second Nonesuch disc. Produced by guitarist, songwriter, and Simon Dawes co-founder Blake Mills, Sun Midnight Sun offers both sweetness and a certain swagger; it has an appealingly rough-hewn quality. There's a bracing rawness to her rendition of "When It Pleases You," a song she nicked from composer Dan Wilson, co-writer of Adele's recent hits, and an equally fiery back and forth between Watkins and guest vocalist Fiona Apple on a surprisingly dark-around-the-edges reimagining of the Everly Brothers' staple, "You're the One I Love." The album title suggests the daily passage of time or, perhaps more to the point, the transition from light to dark and back again, much like the moods of the disc itself. Watkins brackets the album with two of her most upbeat tunes, opening with "The Foothills," a fast-paced, Celtic-flavored fiddle number co written with Mills, and closing with her own "Take up Your Spade," a hopeful, part-sing-along/part prayer that could have been taken from a Carter Family songbook. Homey backing vocals come courtesy of Apple and another old friend, Jackson Browne. At the heart of the disc, though, are affectingly plaintive numbers like "Be There" and the waltz-tempo-ed "Impossible," in which Watkins' lovely fiddle line echoes the heartbreak in her voice.

Though Sun Midnight Sun sounds more off-the-cuff in execution than Watkins' debut, the production is actually a more traditionally multi-layered effort. On Sara Watkins, producer John Paul Jones, the former Led Zepplin bassist and formidable song arranger, led Watkins and a stellar group of L.A. backing musicians in extensive rehearsals before capturing live-in-the-studio takes of all the material, with very little overdubbing or edits. This time, Watkins built the tracks around a core trio consisting of herself, multi-instrumentalist Mills, and her brother Sean, with whom she has been co-hosting the Watkins Family Hour for the last nine years at L.A.'s eclectic club Largo whenever the pair is in town. It was at Largo, in fact, that keyboardist and frequent Family Hour guest Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers introduced Watkins to Mills, who had previously worked as sideman/muse to such artists as Jenny Lewis, Julian Casablancas, Jeff Bridges, Delta Spirit, and Nora Jones.
Says Watkins says of Mills, "He sat in on the Watkins Family Hour and it was really fun to play with him. He added to every scenario. I loved his songwriting and his taste in songs, and he's especially thoughtful in the way he backs up singers. We were at Largo and, after doing some show in the little room there, I asked him if he would produce a few songs and he agreed. After that I just thought, screw it, let's do the whole record—and we did."

Mills' former band was the precursor to the increasingly popular Dawes, and that current combo's lead singer Taylor Goldsmith guests on a cover of Willie Nelson's "I'm A Memory." Mills was better known as a musician than a producer when Watkins approached him, but her instincts paid off. He became her ideal utility player, serving as arranger, co-writer, fellow song-selector, and sounding board. Explains Watkins, "I wanted the record to be based around my brother's guitar playing and whatever instruments Blake would play, and whatever I could play and sing. And that's how we approached these songs. Before we'd record them, we would sit down in a circle, re-examine the chord changes and the feel, look at them in a new way, rearrange them. I knew I wanted our playing to be the foundation of the songs rather than, say, a drum track. I wanted the drumming to fit around the guitar parts. Sometimes we'd start with Sean and Blake in one room; other times we would layer it instrument by instrument, overdubbing it all. I hadn't done that in a long time, but it seemed to make sense for this record."

Watkins took a decidedly counter-intuitive approach to the manner in which she prepared herself to go back into recording mode. While many an artist might like to be sequestered in a solitary place, to think or write and never see a soul, Watkins decided to hit the road again, albeit as violinist for the Decemberists. At that point, she admits, "I didn't know what to do for the next record because I had been touring on my own and that had been all-consuming. I had never been a side man before, but it was perfect timing because I could tour and work and have a little bit of income but not have any other responsibilities than playing on stage. I didn't have to drive myself to the next gig. I didn't have to deal with any tour-managing logistics. I would basically be babysat for six months and play with a great band. I took them up on their offer and it turned out to be really relaxing. I got to catch up on reading, listen to other people's records, and recuperate a little bit. I also finished up songs that I had started and began to figure out what I wanted to do next."

Of course, Watkins has never been a stranger to hard work. In addition to her own gigs and her ongoing Largo residency, she has been one of the most frequent guest artists on American Public Media's A Prairie Home Companion. Not only that, but Garrison Keillor offered Watkins the unprecedented opportunity to host an entire show, the first time he'd entrusted another artist with his job. As Keillor put it, "For once in my life, I want to stand in the back of the hall and watch for a few minutes. And Sara is a smart and funny and hugely gifted young woman." She and brother Sean also found time to schedule some dates with the Blind Boys of Alabama and join Lyle Lovett in an interpretation, with music, of Much Ado About Nothing at L.A.'s Shakespeare Center.
Sun Midnight Sun displays the confidence and self-awareness that Watkins has acquired during her many travels. As she reflects, "The last Nickel Creek show was in the fall of 2007. It's been a little over four years now and it seems like another lifetime in a lot of ways. It felt like a steep learning curve sometimes, but I experienced a lot of pride of ownership for the shows and for the songs and for just being a musician because I was having to work for it in a different way than I had in a long time—or ever had to do, really." Watkins continues, "I was at an age where it felt appropriate to stand behind my musical, creative, and logistical choices, to do it on my own. I'd grown up a band that was a team and we made decisions together. I felt like I'd been protected from having to make my own decisions for a little bit longer than a lot of people. I found it really satisfying to be on my own. Whatever I did, whether it worked or not, it was mine, and that was a good feeling. "

Fiction Family

The second full-length partnership of Jon Foreman (Switchfoot) and Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek, Works Progress Administration), “FICTION FAMILY REUNION” sees these two distinctive artists once again offering up their idiosyncratic blend of folk flavor, classic pop arrangements, and expertly etched songcraft. Where 2009’s self-titled debut was almost entirely self-created by the two musician/songwriters working in their own home studios, the new album finds the duo joined by touring bassist Tyler Chester and drummer Aaron Redfield, both now full-fledged Family members. With Foreman and Watkins leading on vocals, guitars, and any other instrument that might happen to strike their fancy, Fiction Family have conjured a remarkably rich collection defined by its collaborative chemistry. Songs such as the tender “Damaged” and the soulful first single, “Up Against The Wall,” reverberate with lyrical resonance and sonic ingenuity, the extraordinary natural sound of a gifted band in full flight.

“FICTION FAMILY REUNION” was recorded at Switchfoot’s Spot X Studio in Carlsbad, CA over a series of sessions spanning 2010 to early 2012, the lengthy process necessitated by Foreman and Watkins’ always busy schedules. A family in more than just name only, the band was joined on a number of tracks by Nickel Creek fiddle player Sara Watkins and multi-instrumentalist John Mark Painter.

Fiction Family will celebrate the release of “FICTION FAMILY REUNION” with a major North American tour presented by To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA’s “Heavy & Light Tour” is slated to hit 15 cities across the U.S. and Canada, beginning in mid-January 2013. Full details will be announced shortly – please visit www.twloha.comfor more information.

Foreman and Watkins first became fast friends when Switchfoot and Nickel Creek shared the top of the bill at their hometown music festival, San Diego’s famed Street Scene. E-mail addresses were exchanged and the duo began writing songs with little goal other than that of two friends sharing the joy of making music together. Recording proved the obvious next step and in 2009, Fiction Family’s eponymous debut album was released to both popular success and critical fanfare. “(Foreman and Watkins) make a pretty solid team,” noted Paste, continuing, “Foreman is an excellent writer, singer and arranger, and Watkins’ accompaniment on harmony vocals, guitar, bass, keys – even mandolin, ukulele and 12-string – lighten the intensity and add a rich earthiness.” NPR’s Ken Tucker praised “FICTION FAMILY” as “delicate, industrious and intricate,” with Billboard hailing its songs as “richly crafted and intriguingly rendered.” Slant commended “the duo's intricate vocal harmonies…and stately chamber-pop arrangement(s),” while the Washington Post ruled the album to be “a solid set of near-duets from two diverse, accomplished musicians.” “Foreman and Watkins have been able to produce something truly different from what they have done in the past,” proclaimed AbsolutePunk.net, applauding “FICTION FAMILY” as “a collection of finely-crafted, well-thought out tunes (from) one of music's most talented guitarists and one of its most gifted songwriters.”

Newark, NJ-based Rock Ridge Music has signed Fiction Family to a label deal and is now set to release the band’s eagerly anticipated sophomore album (with distribution via ADA). “FICTION FAMILY REUNION” arrives in stores and all DSPs on January 29th.

Kris Orlowski

Though I call both Bellingham and Seattle home, I’ve always loved to move around. I get restless if I’m in one spot for too long. Shifting from town-to-town, meeting new folks, and trying out a variety of lifestyles and opportunities appeals to me. I think that it stems from relocating so much as a kid, or perhaps simply I’m a child of the A.D.D. generation. I’ve always blamed the artist within me for my fickle attention span, but keeping things fresh and interesting has strengthened my songwriting.
 
I’ve noticed the songs that I write reflect those experiences and take-on their own lifestyle change. After eight years of traveling to perform, these songs have gone on their own tour with various types of exposure, from an intimate telling at a Polish pub, to a grand performance in a world class theater backed by a seventeen piece orchestra. I’ve enjoyed the raw, amplified sounds of playing as a five-piece band, and adding a quartet or orchestra to any given show to provide notes of emotional depth and cinema.
 
As we march into the New Year, the band remains focused on the evolution of the song. There is a new spirit to our vantage as we approach the creation of a full length album. While I still hear collective notes of hope, reflection and discovery, there seems a shift, another voice emerging – one that grows louder as we take to the road.

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Sara Watkins, Fiction Family with Kris Orlowski

Thursday, May 9 · Doors 8:00 PM at Bootleg Theater

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