Sara Watkins Moving on from Nickel Creek

By John Benson

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to hear singer-songwriter and fiddler Sara Watkins prefers playing Kent over, say, the Rock Hall City.

“Generally, I have a fond feeling of going to Kent,” Watkins said. “When I saw that on the schedule, I was like, ‘Oh, great, going to Kent.’ It seems like the shows have always been fun there for some reason. Particularly, I always like the suburbs a little bit better than the cities.”

First as a member of critically acclaimed and Grammy Award-winning bluegrass trio Nickel Creek and now as a solo artist, the California native always has gravitated away from the big-city lights, instead fitting comfortably into a small scene. That trend continues when Watkins returns to Northeast Ohio for a Wednesday show at The Kent Stage.

Since Nickel Creek called it quits in 2007, Watkins has been quite busy. She released a 2009 self-titled solo debut album, which was produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. After touring that project, the highly sought-after musician guest-starred as fiddler and/or harmony vocalist on albums by Bela Fleck, the Chieftains, Ben Lee and Dan Wilson. Watkins also spent time touring the world as guest fiddle player and vocalist with the Decemberists, as well as most recently touring overseas with Jackson Browne.

Now she’s back with her sophomore effort, “Sun Midnight Sun,” which is produced by guitarist-singer-songwriter Blake Mills. The project is definitely a different feel from her debut and includes guest appearances by Fiona Apple, Jackson Browne, Benmont Tench and brother Sean Watkins.

“The first album was my first-ever nonband album, so I was trying to establish a home base,” Watkins said. “I didn’t want to go in any crazy direction or make any giant leap that I wasn’t sure would be something I wanted to stand behind in three or four years. I didn’t want to make some record that would be considered, ‘This is a country record’ or ‘This is her crazy pop record.’”

As far as “Sun Midnight Sun,” Watkins feels it’s more of an adventurous album that was handcrafted song by song in the studio. Her favorites include the finger-picking style of “You and Me” and the instrumental “The Ward Accord.”

She said, “There’s a lot more grit to this album. It’s a little bit uglier than the first record in a really honest and fun way.”

Being honest is something Watkins is familiar with, considering her time spent in Nickel Creek, which definitely came of age during the early ’00s with the wave of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” interest in Americana music.

Whereas many artists who leave behind popular groups look to separate themselves or create their own niche, Watkins said she doesn’t have time for such petty thoughts.

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