Media outlets have been telling Americans what to fear for a long time, and it’s in the ever-increasing fearmongering that singer/songwriter and Nickel Creek member Sean Watkins found inspiration for the namesake song off his newest solo album, What to Fear. “Ever since I was a kid, I remember watching the local news, and they were just trying to scare me, but at the end it’s just, ‘Oh, you’re fine …,’” Watkins said, calling the constant terror-stoking followed by commercials “really misleading” and “just infuriating.” The new work, he said, isn’t so much abjectly political as it is a critique of “the strategizing that the media outlets do just so they can get advertising dollars.”
A member of the hugely popular Nickel Creek, Watkins, who plays sans bandmates Sara Watkins and Chris Thile at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Tuesday, May 10, uses his solo outings to sing about subjects that fascinate him. With the flames of media-maintained fear seeming to rise ever higher in the rhetoric surrounding the U.S. election and recent European terror attacks, Watkins’s newest album is a prescient one, even though the song title was in Watkins’s head long before its release.
He hopes the song and others on the album inspire thoughtful rumination on subject matter that, last decade, may have been totally taboo in the Clear Channel–curated folk-country realm. “With music, you can dive into and talk about lots of things that would otherwise be off-limits,” he said. “I never really want to preach. I just like to write about things that I think are interesting, and maybe someone hears it and thinks about something in a new way.”
Song titles often serve as the starting point for Watkins’s earnest and endearing folk-country tunes. The title and subsequent lyrics for another piece on the album, “Last Time for Everything,” about the fleeting nature of things, was pulled from an off-the-cuff remark overheard at a bar. The song, he said, is about “the good side of endings” and appreciating moments, possessions, and people before they’re gone.
Nickel Creek appeared to call it quits almost a decade ago when they embarked on their 2007 Farewell (For Now) Tour, for which Santa Barbara songsmith Glen Phillips joined partly. The band returned two years ago with a new album, a year when Watkins concurrently released All I Do Is Lie. The breaks from band life have served to strengthen their musicianship, Watkins said. “Anytime after we’ve done things separately, when we come back together as a band, we’re better, and we have more tools and more ideas. We’ve just generally matured,” he said. Their individual efforts lead to stronger group efforts. “It’s always exciting after you’ve done something to go back into a familiar band situation to see how the sound can evolve and has evolved. You’re not the same person you were, and that’s a good thing.”
With What to Fear, Watkins is stepping into full-on solo mode for the first time in earnest. Whereas his previous efforts were released in between Nickel Creek tours, this is the first time he has the time for a “proper release.” The new album is very much an individual statement. “I hope people realize that this record is very me,” he said. “I try to be very honest with myself and really try not to do things that I’m not good at. I want to distill what it is that I do well and try for something new.”
Increasingly, Watkins is feeling happy in his soloist skin. “It’s new and exciting to me and fun to have ownership of it and feel independent,” he said. “Even if it’s just a small audience, it’s my audience. I stand up and do whatever I want and feel good about kind of owning a night. It’s really great, really fun, and rewarding, and I’m learning a lot.”
Sean Watkins plays at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10, at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) For more information, visit sohosb.com.