Sara Watkins concluded her gently self-assured 2009 Nonesuch debut with a wistful, self-penned ballad, “Where Will You Be?,” about the slow fade of a romance. With Watkins standing on the brink of a solo career, the question in the song title took on significance well beyond its lyrics, though: it marked the end of an album and the jumping-off point for a whole new life. Watkins had spent most of her younger years, nearly two decades, as singer and fiddle player for the Grammy Award–winning, bluegrass-folk hybrid Nickel Creek, a trio she’d started performing in when she was a mere eight years old, alongside her guitarist brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile. Now, for the first time, she was stepping away from that marquee name, alone. Watkins may have felt trepidatious, but, as old fans and new listeners could attest, the transition felt effortless, natural. As the BBC put it, “Watkins’ time in the spotlight is a triumph with her agile playing and the kind of voice that gives your goose bumps the shivers.”
After two formative years on the road fronting her own band—making stops at such events as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, and Glasgow’s Celtic Connection along the way—Watkins returned to Los Angeles to record her second Nonesuch disc. Produced by guitarist, songwriter, and Simon Dawes co-founder Blake Mills, Sun Midnight Sun offers both sweetness and a certain swagger; it has an appealingly rough-hewn quality. There’s a bracing rawness to her rendition of “When It Pleases You,” a song she nicked from composer Dan Wilson, co-writer of Adele’s recent hits, and an equally fiery back and forth between Watkins and guest vocalist Fiona Apple on a surprisingly dark-around-the-edges reimagining of the Everly Brothers’ staple, “You’re the One I Love.” The album title suggests the daily passage of time or, perhaps more to the point, the transition from light to dark and back again, much like the moods of the disc itself. Watkins brackets the album with two of her most upbeat tunes, opening with “The Foothills,” a fast-paced, Celtic-flavored fiddle number co written with Mills, and closing with her own “Take up Your Spade,” a hopeful, part-sing-along/part prayer that could have been taken from a Carter Family songbook. Homey backing vocals come courtesy of Apple and another old friend, Jackson Browne. At the heart of the disc, though, are affectingly plaintive numbers like “Be There” and the waltz-tempo-ed “Impossible,” in which Watkins’ lovely fiddle line echoes the heartbreak in her voice.
Though Sun Midnight Sun sounds more off the cuff in execution than Watkins’ debut, the production is actually a more traditionally multi-layered effort. On Sara Watkins, producer John Paul Jones, the former Led Zepplin bassist and formidable song arranger, led Watkins and a stellar group of L.A. backing musicians in extensive rehearsals before capturing live-in-the-studio takes of all the material, with very little overdubbing or edits. This time, Watkins built the tracks around a core trio consisting of herself, multi-instrumentalist Mills, and her brother Sean, with whom she has been co-hosting the Watkins Family Hour for the last nine years at L.A.’s eclectic club Largo whenever the pair is in town. It was at Largo, in fact, that keyboardist and frequent Family Hour guest Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers introduced Watkins to Mills, who had previously worked as sideman/muse to such artists as Jenny Lewis, Julian Casablancas, Jeff Bridges, Delta Spirit, and Nora Jones.
Says Watkins says of Mills, “He sat in on the Watkins Family Hour and it was really fun to play with him. He added to every scenario. I loved his songwriting and his taste in songs, and he’s especially thoughtful in the way he backs up singers. We were at Largo and, after doing some show in the little room there, I asked him if he would produce a few songs and he agreed. After that I just thought, screw it, let’s do the whole record—and we did.”