Sara Watkins is no stranger to Santa Barbara. In recent years, the singer, songwriter, and fiddle player has frequented stages throughout the 805 as one-third of the bluegrass hit makers Nickel Creek, alongside brother and recurrent musical partner Sean Watkins, and as part of the folk-inspired supergroup Works Progress Administration. A gifted solo artist and passionate collaborator, Sara Watkins has also spent a good deal of her “off time” onstage at L.A.’s famed Largo, a venue known as much for its laidback atmosphere as for the impassioned musical community that rallies around it. This Friday, March 21, Sara and Sean Watkins return to the Lobero Theatre under the guise of The Watkins Family Hour, a rarely roving musical revue that the pair has put on at Largo for more than a decade. For its Santa Barbara appearance, the show will feature special guests Benmont Tench and Glenn Phillips, as well as openers Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Below, we chat with Sara Watkins about the long history of The Watkins Family Hour, as well as the upcoming and long-awaited return of Nickel Creek.
It’s crazy to think that you and Sean have been doing The Watkins Family Hour for more than a decade now. What do you think has kept it going? I know. But it’s also so important to me that I can’t imagine not doing it. Mark Flanagan, the owner of Largo, has always made us feel so welcome there. There’s a big group of musicians and comedians around that place who really create this feeling of community. Especially when you’re touring, to have this home community of players and writers is really important. It’s also just really valuable to have a space that’s safe for songwriting, a place to try stuff out and experiment and have fun. There’s a great balance of this appreciation for craft and performance and an appreciation for those half-written songs that you want to try out. It’s hard to find that kind of audience any old place. They’ve really developed a good home for that sort of performance at Largo. It’s something I really value.
As a touring musician, have you found other clubs like Largo on your travels? Yeah, definitely, but it’s all dependent on the owner, the guy who is the tastemaker of the venue who makes you feel welcome to stretch and grow. [Mark] gave my brother and I a show when we first started coming to Largo. He said, “You know, I don’t care if 17 people come. Come and play your songs,” which is so valuable because the pressure’s off, we don’t have to worry about drawing a big crowd, we can just do what we do and have fun with it.
You’re also putting out a new Nickel Creek album next month. That’s got to feel a little surreal. It’s really exciting. Throughout the career of Nickel Creek, we had gotten into this cycle of write, record, tour really hard, write, record, tour; the cycle never really stopped. This is the first time that there has been a break — a long break — and now we have this tour, and we know almost every date, and the album is done. It’s this little compact picture. The writing took place in June 2013, and I think the last show is in August of 2014; and then it’s over, and we go back to our normal lives. That’s kind of exciting and fun. [Laughs.]
What brought you guys together to start working on music again? Over the years when Sean and Chris and I would go out for a drink, or get together and play, or sit in on each other’s shows — it’s not like we didn’t talk for seven years — we maintained relationships and were a huge part of each other’s lives. There was always this open conversation that this was going to happen at some point. Last year, Sean and I started talking about putting something together, and I called Chris and asked what his timing looked like, and he said that [this year] looked great for him. Largely it was a timing issue. It just so happened that all of our record cycles were over last year and we could have the time to write, record, and dedicate a tour to Nickel Creek.
Were any of you working on songs with a full band in mind prior to that? I don’t think anybody was writing with the idea of pitching it to Nickel Creek, but we had some pieces — “song starts” is what we call them — that either hadn’t found homes or hadn’t been finished. Some of them we didn’t grab on to, but a lot of them we did, and those became parts of the record. … It all came very naturally, and all the pieces came together remarkably well, remarkably easily. At the same time, we were able to put our heads together and work in a great way when we needed to. We all contributed really complementary things to the songs, and to each other, I feel like. It was a really fun process.
Was the process really different than you remember it being 10 years ago? Yeah, definitely. I think we’re a lot more grown-up now, to use an extremely child-like term. I think we’re more complete individual people. Towards the last five years of the band, we spent so much time together that we were starting to grow into each other in a way that wasn’t playing to each of our strengths. I think it did us a whole lot of good to work on our own over these years, so that we could be better team players. And that has a lot to do with communication, and it has a lot to do with your actual skill as a musician, and it has a lot to do with your creativity. It affects all of those things for the better.
Sings Like Hell presents The Watkins Family Hour featuring Sara and Sean Watkins at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Friday, March 21, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.