Singin’ no lies
Nickel Creek guitarist hits his songwriting stride
Part way through our conversation, Sean Watkins took a break to see if the Vietnamese soup he was cooking was ready.
“Nope,” he said, “gotta give it a little bit more time.”
The same could be said for Watkins with respect to the recent release of his fourth solo CD, All I Do Is Lie. Watkins began writing and recording the songs for the album—released last June—all the way back in the summer of 2012, so it took some time for him to get everything just right. But the notion of time is applicable to Watkins in another way.
The singer, songwriter and guitarist is most familiar to people as one of the members of bluegrass favorites Nickel Creek, and to a lesser degree as one half of the indie-folk duo Fiction Family, which pairs him with Switchfoot singer Jon Foreman. But it took him much of his 25-year career—whether solo or as a part of the aforementioned bands—to get to a point where he could make a record like All I Do Is Lie, which is deeply personal and yet sees Watkins at his most confident.
“Once I got to my early 30s, I started writing songs that I felt a lot more comfortable with,” said Watkins (now 37). “I felt like I was ready to put my name on something I wasn’t ashamed to write about.”
And the confidence he now feels comes as a result of choosing to go his own way, creatively, rather than trying to do something in response to others’ expectations.
“My first few solo records were a way for me to get ideas out apart from Nickel Creek, to experiment with electric instruments,” Watkins said. His last solo record, Blinders On, came out in 2006. “It was a bit more reactionary. And the reason I’m excited about this record is it’s not that way at all. I just wanted to do something that was purely me and do a record of songs that represent who I am, versus reacting to what band I’m in.”
The 10 songs on the album run the gamut of emotions and feature Watkins at his most honest and conversational. The Americana ditty “Since the Day I Was Born” details the painful unraveling of a lifelong friendship, while the swelling country-folk track “The God You Serve” insightfully examines the push and pull of faith and how it is viewed in light of what people see in the lives of other Christians. The title track, however, proved to be the most difficult for Watkins, and not just because of its unswerving self-examination of Watkins and his foibles. It’s the only song on the album on which he wasn’t able to sing and play his guitar simultaneously.
“When I wrote it, I had this idea for this fast, looping, finger-picking guitar thing that was in 7/8 time, but it was just really hard to play and sing at the same time then,” he confesses. “But I’ll be on-point for the shows.”
So, again, it was all about time. Watkins has learned how to step out of the shadows and be confident in his ability to lead, not just support, a project; he has taken the time to craft a solid record that is arguably his most authentic work to date; and he has managed to meet the challenge of writing difficult songs head-on, which is something he could not do before.
“I wanted to get to that point where I thought, ‘maybe this is too personal,’ because I think that’s when you start writing good stuff,” Watkins said. “In the past when I wrote something I thought would be too hard to sing about, I would just cloak it and make it a really cryptic song. But with a lot of these songs, once I felt like I got to something that I felt ‘maybe this is too much,’ I would just lean into it and do more of that.”