With Sara Watkins — of Nickel Creek, I’m With Her and Watkins Family fame — there isn’t any way of knowing… which direction she is going, as Gene Wilder might say. For 2021, she’s taking a perhaps surprising turn toward children’s music with the forthcoming release of “Under the Pepper Tree,” an album of family-suited classic material that runs the gamut from the Disney catalog to vintage cowboy songs to Rodgers & Hammerstein and Nilsson. For the project’s first preview track, she’s picked “Pure Imagination,” from the film “WIlly Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Variety has the premiere of the new track and video (below).
“What a song, man!” says Watkins, calling in to discuss the album, which comes out March 26 on the New West label (and is up for pre-orders now). “We did our best to pay tribute to to the soaring tempo dynamics and emotional dynamics in the original version with Gene Wilder’s vocal. His version seemed like a feat of magic to me — but nonetheless, we took it on. I have to really give a lot of credit to (producer) Tyler Chester for his work on this song. We came up with our own ways to pay tribute to that original arrangement and orchestration as best we could, because it’s just so gorgeous, and the song needs to have that momentum and those soaring tempos where it pushes and pulls — these qualities that we remember from the original recording that are so in us and our expectation of the song.”
Other tracks on “Under the Pepper Tree” range from “Blue Shadows on the Trail” — which marks Nickel Creek’s first official reunion in the studio for many years — to “The Second Star to the Right” to “Edelweiss” to Nilsson’s “Blanket for a Sail” (which features a harmony vocal by Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith).
The mostly vintage material may have appeal for sixtysomethings as well as, you know, six-somethings. So, the inevitable question for any usually grown-up-focused performer who takes on a family-oriented project with broader appeal… would it be ghettoizing it to call it a “children’s record”?
“I have gone back and forth” on that subject, Watkins admits. “At this point, I embrace it as a children’s record. I think in other eras of my life, I have thought about children’s records as for children and not for me, if I’m not a child, so that was part of my reluctance in calling it that. But I’ve realized that I wouldn’t have made this record if I wasn’t a mom and I wasn’t experiencing the music of my childhood in a new way, through the life and times of my daughter. I would be so honored if this record became a part of children’s lives, in a way that they brought with them into their adulthood. And so I think my only reluctance in calling it a children’s record would be, like, ‘Well, maybe a grownup would like it too!’ But maybe that’s just me talking in terms of ego and hoping that a couple of grownups who I respect would listen to it, even though they don’t have kids. And it’s a silly thing. I do think that because a lot of these songs have been around for a long time, the familiarity might lend itself toward older generations, in that it’s something they recognize and has probably held some place in their life at some point, in a distant memory, if nothing else.”
She does have another, perhaps rarer genre in mind to describe “Under the Pepper Tree”: It’s an evening album. As opposed to a “lullabys” record. “There’s a lot of imagination in these lyrics,” Watkins says, “and a lot of beautiful imagery that I think really helps usher in a dreamy part of the day.”
The singer/virtuoso multi-instrumentalist explains the origin of the album, which began during lockdown: “It was kind of oddly kick-started by one of those Instagram Live series that I was requested to do, from a magazine that wanted ‘calming songs to send you into the evening.’ And I started thinking about ‘Blue Shadows on the Trail’ and ‘La La Lu’ (from ‘Lady and the Tramp’). I kept thinking about songs that I grew up with as a child that have that resonance with me. And I started thinking of them as instruments to help the transition to the evening time.
“You know, we’re still doing this (in lockdown), but especially then (last spring), we were really struggling to find the rhythm in the day. And throughout the year I’ve realized that this daily rhythm is really nice to have, and just small things that kind of signify a place in time in the day. Having never lived at home for more than a few weeks at a time, or for a few months at the most, this was a whole new experience for me, to just discover what my daily rhythms are like at home. And I have a 3-year-old now, so this is all relatively new to me, the home life rhythm. It was really interesting and helpful to have these moments that help divide the day up in ways that are useful for kids and for family life. And I found that after dinner, there would be a little bit of time before we start the bath and the bedtime, and oftentimes we would just put on a record and do some relaxed, calming play.
“And for us there were a lot of records from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were made for children, with beautiful artwork that my toddler loves to look at while we listen to it. So my personal family experience really influenced everything that went into making this record. It influenced the songs that I chose – (Nilsson’s) ‘Blanket for a Sail,’ which has always seemed like a children’s song to me, I love that one. And it influenced how we made the record in a lot of ways, because I realized very quickly that I didn’t want to have every track separate. I wanted the tracks to flow together and be continuous and let each side of the record flow very naturally, like one piece rather than five or six individual tracks. So we recorded the whole record with that process in mind, with with all the transitions built in to that sequence and to the way that we were envisioning this whole record.” She also planned the vinyl artwork to resemble the colorful and elaborate LP packaging she remembered from the records of her childhood.
Watkins’ two bands get featured slots on this solo album.
“It was really special to me to have both Nickel Creek and I’m With Her on the album because they’re huge parts of my life. And this record is so personal, especially, I mean, it’s a concept record basically. But you know, since I was 8, I’ve been in Nickel Creek, and we’ve spent so much life together. And a lot of that life was watching ‘Three Amigos.'” She laughs.] “And for a couple of years, we fell into this very specific niche of cowboy songs. . I knew I wanted to record ‘Blue Shadows on the Trail,’ but I also knew that I didn’t want to do it unless I was doing it with Sean (Watkins, her brother) and Chris (Thile). It wouldn’t feel right. So I emailed them, and they were both super-excited about it. We had to do it at a distance – Chris was in New York — .but we collaborated as much as we could before putting the parts down. And it was just wonderful and made me so happy to get to hear both of them on that.
“And I’m With Her is my other life span. I love this band so much. In our touring life, when our album came out, Aoife (O’Donovan) and I were able to bring our daughters out with us. For the first two years of their life, they were on tour with us as much as we were, and it was just an incredible experience to have with a band. And I’m so grateful that that was how it went, and everybody was so gracious and welcoming and supportive of that. And because this is an album inspired by and dedicated to families and kids — I keep saying ‘families’ as a way to, like, buffer it — it made so much sense to me to have Aoife and (Sarah) Jarosz on this record, singing with me — doing a Sons of the Pioneers song, which we had never done before.”
Returning to the evening theme, Watkins says, “The whole record is really about transitions. When I was in the studio, I was talking to my friend David Garza, who played on a few tracks, about my vision for the record. And he said something to the effect of, that’s what music does. It helps us with transitions: Transitions in and out of relationships. Transitions into new phases of life. Transitions for everything. And certainly for times of the day, right? And that’s really what this record is hoping to do, is help that transition from day to night, from real to surreal, from actual, tangible things to the imaginary. And at its best, that’s what evening time is for. So that was my great hope for the album.”