Sean Watkins: “Poetic but direct”

Sean Watkins is undoubtedly best-known as one-third of Americana trio Nickel Creek, and likely second-best know for Fiction Family, his duo which has him alongside Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, but...

Sean Watkins is undoubtedly best-known as one-third of Americana trio Nickel Creek, and likely second-best know for Fiction Family, his duo which has him alongside Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, but recent years have had him most focused on his solo career (which actually began in 2001, with solo debut Let It Fall, but which remained somewhat in the backseat to his other projects until 2014’s All I Do Is Lie.)  Last week saw the release of his latest album, What to Fear, courtesy of Thirty Tigers. The album encompasses a blend of introspective folk pop, almost-‘90s-alt-rock-singing/songwriting, and that brand of country that fit oh so perfectly on college radio in 1991.  This Saturday, March 26th, Sean Watkins has an album release show at Largo in LA, which will kick off his upcoming (nearly-two-month) tour, which includes a stop at Boot & Saddle next Friday, April 1st. He and I recently got to chat about his latest work, his solo career in general, and just what he thinks about the time he’s spent in Philly over the years.

Izzy Cihak: Since this is a Philadelphia-based publication, I have to ask your thoughts on our city.

Sean Watkins: I love Philly! I’ve always had really fun shows there, both solo and with various bands. It’s a great city for music, the audience is always attentive and fun. I’ve played a lot of different venues and they’re all great in their own way: Electric Factory, World Cafe Live (both stages), Tin Angel, and Theater of the Living Arts.

Izzy: You have a new album, What to Fear.  How do you feel like the album compares to previous releases, both in sound and your process of writing and recording it?

Sean: I tried to be more clear in my writing for this record than any others. I spent a lot of time on the lyrics changing and tweaking them, in some cases right up until it was time to mix the record. I wanted them to be poetic but direct. I also used some players that I’ve never recorded with before: Mike Elizondo, Matt Chamberlain, the band The Bee Eaters are all people who I’ve known and played live with over the years but never in the studio, so it was really fun to get some new blood in the mix, sonically. I just remembered that Matt played on one Nickel Creek song but that was an overdub. Also, Tristan Clarridge (of The Bee Eaters) played cello on one song on my last record but that was an overdub too. This time we were all playing live in the studio. It was a blast.

Izzy: What would you consider to be the album’s most significant influences, whether musical or otherwise?

Sean: Life, honest self-reflection, love, finding myself in the middle of an amazing relationship. Musically, I can’t really point to one thing or another. Making this record was an experiment of sorts. I was going for an even balance between strings and rhythm sections. Having the new acoustic string band The Bee Eaters on songs with the rhythm section of Mike Elizondo and Matt Chamberlain was so fun for me. I love putting musicians together who might not otherwise cross paths.

Izzy: So this is a personal question, but “Last Time for Everything” is one of my favorite ballads I’ve heard in a long time: How did that particular track come about?  It seems like the perfect intersection of balladry of both the Americana and Southern Rock persuasions.

Sean: Thank you!! I had the title first. I heard someone say, “Well, there’s a last time for everything” somewhere and I thought it’d be cool as a song title but then I thought surely there must already be a last time for everything song. So I looked it up and didn’t see one. This one is pretty autobiographical. The obvious thing to do with the title is to do something sad about sappy loss or death but I wanted to take a more positive approach. I knew what I wanted the three verses to be about but it took a while to get the write words. The second verse, in particular, came together pretty late in the game.

Izzy: This is kind of a weird question, but I’m inclined to ask since you’re quite well-known for playing in a plethora of successful bands: What have been some of the highlights of your solo career, specifically?  Any experiences or reactions that you were especially moved by?

Sean: My solo career is pretty short at this point. I didn’t tour for my first three records. I really only started touring solo a year and a half ago. I’ve been so happy with the people that are showing up at the shows. But yes, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make music with so many great musicians and singers over the years, people I’ve looked up to and admired. I feel like it’s a highlight each night people come to a show of mine.

Izzy: You have a pretty large handful of upcoming live dates.  Are there any cities or venues you’re especially excited to visit or revisit?

Sean: Well, Philly of course! All the cities, and venues more specifically, are places I’ve been to many times over the years and I look to all of them in different ways. I always look forward to playing NYC, Asheville, Nashville… but really I like all these places I’m headed to on this tour for their own individual things that make each city unique.

Izzy: You’re going to be playing our very own Boot & Saddle in the very near future.  What can be expected of the live experience this time around?

Sean: I’m very excited to play the Boot & Saddle. I believe it’ll be my first time there. I’ll be doing songs off my new record, What To Fear, some off my last record, All I Do Is Lie, maybe a Nickel Creek and Fiction Family song or two. Little bit of everything. Also, Petra Haden and Jessie Harris will be opening up the show. They’ll likely be a fair amount of musical collaboration. Really looking forward to these shows.

Izzy: And how are you hoping and planning to spend the remainder of 2016, after this batch of dates wraps?  Anything fans should be looking out for?

Sean: I’ll be doing some shows here and there over the summer as well and then will be doing another big tour this fall. Also in the summer when I’m home I’m going to be producing a couple projects here in LA. Staying plenty busy!

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.