“A byproduct of cowriting with somebody is that you really get to know them in a new and deeper way,” said Sean Watkins.
The comment might seem a little odd; Watkins, after all, was speaking in part of working with his sister Sara Watkins on the most recent Watkins Family Hour album, “brother sister.” In the larger context of how each sibling collaborates in general, it makes more sense.
“Every time you co-write with somebody, you’re doing therapy on each other — at least in the way that we tend to write in our circle of friends,” Sean Watkins explained. “ You have to come into it and warm up. The quickest way to do that is to get pretty deep pretty quick. That usually, helpfully primes the creative pump for writing. That usually turns into fuel for a song. It’s a great way to reconnect with someone and catch up. Even though [Sara and I] are together all the time and we’re always working together, there’s still parts of your life that you don’t touch on unless you have a reason. Writing songs facilitates lots of conversations that we might not have had otherwise.”
“You talk about things that you’re struggling with in your life and the goal is to find a common outcome,” added Sara Watkins. “What are the things we agree on to write this song? It might be about common perspective, but it’s also about the craft. You have to find common standards and what satisfying in the same way. It’s a great exercise in having conversation with people. You’re talking about big stuff and you’re working your way through it. It’s a great way to connect with people.”
The siblings have had their share of collaborations, first rising to fame as two-thirds of award-winning progressive bluegrass act Nickel Creek (mandolin player Chris Thile was the other member). They’ve each released a series of solo albums and played in supergroups of one variety or another in the broad field of Americana.
“I think in writing, when you change any factor, it really makes a big difference,” Sara Watkins said. “Our goals for this album were specific enough that they affected the writing process.”
Some of those goals reflect the pair’s desire to show a new side of the project, which grew out of a regular show at the club Largo in Los Angeles that they’ve been doing for nearly 20 years.
“Traditionally, our shows at Largo are us with a band, and it’s a bit more loose and it’s more focused on covers,” Sean Watkins said. “That’s what the first album [2015’s self-titled disc] we did represented. A big part of the Family Hour for us has been that it’s a place and a venue and an audience where we feel safe trying out new songs and writing our own material, trying it out, either working it up for a Nickel Creek record or for us to do on solo albums. This record is more representative of that. It’s us writing our own material and trying something new.”
For the informal shows, the Watkinses tended to pick songs that were easy for colleagues to pick up quickly, and making sure the covers they chose could be learned easily was part of their strategy for the performances.
“We wanted to stretch our legs and write things that were more complex and involved, more through-arranged,” explained Sara Watkins. “We also wanted to write stuff that was pretty complete with a duo performance and not reliant on a full band. Those were things that went into the strategy of the music of the album. ... We just wanted to stretch muscles that we hadn’t exercised in the Family Hour format in a while.”
The pair brought producer Mike Viola into the process early. He’s best known for his work in pop and rock, but having someone like that involved suited the duo well.
“We like the idea of how somebody else sees what we do and what the strengths are we might not notice,” Sara Watkins said. “We like working with someone who comes from a completely different background. If someone who doesn’t come from bluegrass really sees the melody strength of this song, maybe it’s actually really good. They’re not following the same tropes that we grew up with. They’re finding values from their own perspective, which legitimizes it in a way. If you get it and it’s not just something hearkening back to the very specific musical background that Sean and I share, maybe there’s some cool stuff to mine.”
Viola helped, for example, find the lyrical hook for opener “The Cure,” an example of his great knack for finding the best part of a song.
With conversation, vulnerability, and open-mindedness, the Watkinses quickly developed their ideas into another strong record, this one more folk-inflected than some, and now, at long last, they’re ready to get back on the road for a proper tour.
Sara Watkins added that she’s particularly looking forward to “coming to Charlottesville in the fall and getting to pretend that we live there for a day.”