Some people go to the pizza parlor for the food. Singer-songwriter Sara Watkins
went for the bluegrass.
“It was a regular thing,” she says in a recent phone interview. She performs on Jan. 24 at the Kent Stage
. “Every weekend, we’d see this band Bluegrass Etc. play at a pizza parlor."
She says music was "a normal part of life" while growing up in Northern San Diego.
"My dad played guitar, and we sang a lot," she says. "We started taking lessons and met other kids who were playing music as well. It became something we spent a lot of weekends doing. Dad played guitar, and my mom sang. They wanted music to be involved in our lives somehow. We became part of a community of people who played, something we really loved doing.”
Watkins would eventually join the acclaimed folk/progressive bluegrass act Nickel Creek. That group released six albums between 1993 and 2006; its Alison Krauss-produced self-titled effort received a slew of Grammy and Country Music Association nominations.
“We had the advantage of growing up together,” she says of her time in Nickel Creek, which disbanded in 2007 but reformed two years ago. “We learned to sing together and learned how to play together. Over the many years of writing and arranging and being a band, we were lucky to have something under our belt before we made the self-titled record that people first took notice of.”
When Nickel Creek took that break in 2007, Watkins began to pursue a solo career. Her brother had played in Los Angeles with the Watkins Family Hour, a residency that the group now hosts every month. Playing with that group helped her ease into her solo career.
“That was a great transitional band to be in,” she says of the experience. “It opened up my writing. To have a casual local residency helped me write in different ways and for different instrumentation. It opened up music for me a lot. That helped the pivot to the solo record. You just have to do it. I had been working on another project before, and we put the band on the shelf. It was great timing. It was something we were ready for as much as we loved that band. We had farmed that ground for a long time and it was good to let it lie for a while.”
She issued her self-titled solo debut in 2009 and followed it with 2012’s Sun Midnight Sun
. Last year, she returned with Young in All the Wrong Ways
, an album that suggests a new start to her solo career. The poppy title track opts for a radio-ready sound and downplays the bluegrass influence as Watkins belts out the refrain "I've gone the miles and God knows I've got the fight."
“I hope that every album feels a little like a debut album,” she says when asked about whether the album signifies a fresh start. “I always want there to be something new on every album, and I want it to reflect that I’m constantly updating my worldview and thoughts on everything. That comes out in the lyrics and music. I always hope the newest album feels like a renewal in some ways.”
Watkins says she didn’t “try out” the songs with her backing band much before heading into the studio. As a result, the songs have a real immediacy to them.
“I wanted them to take shape for the first time with these musicians,” she says. “I had arrangements in mind that were that were in place and the rest of the guys brought it home. I’m so happy I got to record with that band. I don’t want to be specific, but I will say that the album is about how we all go through these phases in life when you can sense a turnover. You maybe get a new job or move to a new city or your social circle shifts a little. You might just graduate to a new phase in life. I can look back at a year before and see that I didn’t intend to be there for so long. Or I don’t identify with that person anymore. We all go through those things. It’s speaking to that.”
A theme about change runs through many of the songs.
“I was going through that transitional time in my life and meeting it head on,” she says. “I wanted to keep moving forward and not stay comfortable for the sake of staying comfortable. Any discomfort is a sign that you’re making progress.”
Given all the changes in the business side of the music industry, sustaining a career hasn’t been easy, but Watkins says her love for music keeps her plowing ahead.
“It’s just what I do,” she says. “It’s how I process things. It’s what I love. The relationships with other musicians and the camaraderie provide It’s the lens I get to see the world through and share experiences of being a musician with other musicians. It’s very special. It’s just what I do. And also, I am not qualified to do anything else. I have no other skills to contribute to the world.”
Sara Watkins, Liz Longley, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $26, thekentstage.com.