Joining Nickel Creek as a pre-teen, Sara Watkins literally grew up in public. Then, after 18 years together, the Grammy-winning progressive bluegrass trio began an indefinite hiatus in 2007 to give their creative ambitions free reign.
Watkins has barely had time to look back at those early days. She's released two solo albums, supported them with concerts around the world and toured as a member of the Decemberists and in "A Prairie Home Companion" road show.
During a phone interview, she discussed her journey to gaining the confidence in her self-penned material and discovering what did and didn't work.
Recalling her initial compositions, she said, "I would be listening to other songwriters who would be really vague and you don't always know exactly what they're singing about but you feel convinced of something. So, I had all of the vagueness but none of the quality."
At first her Nickel Creek bandmates - Chris Thile and brother Sean - became her harshest critics and best teachers. "They would find a few lines that were intriguing to them. 'Oh, I like this one. This is great. I have no idea what you're singing about here. No idea what these lyrics are about. This line is interesting.'
"So, one thing that I still have to be aware of is knowing what I'm saying, what I want to say and being able to say it. If you want to change the analogies around or if you need to refocus the actual topic that you're singing about, then go right ahead. I was a teenager, and I didn't really know exactly what I wanted to say. I was beating around the bush a lot, and I finally started having some songs to sing when I was in my early to mid-20s and lived a little bit of life and listened to songwriting a whole lot and figured out what I like about it.
"Then, I started thinking, 'OK, I should head in this direction because this is what I love about songs.' That's when I started writing songs that I would actually record."
All of those past writing and performing experiences came to influence the acclaimed singer and fiddle player's current solo album, "Sun Midnight Sun," which includes understated yet catchy folk pop originals, covers of Willie Nelson and the Everly Brothers and features guests Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes).
She attributes her growth as an artist to years of developing her skills as well as a result of co-hosting the Watkins Family Hour (WFH) live show and podcast with Sean, who remains a frequent collaborator.
Since 2002, WFH offers musicians a no-judgment atmosphere to play new material and perform in special one-of-a-kind groupings at the intimate confines of Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles. Past participants include Browne, Thile, Apple, Tench, Dawes, Michael Nesmith (The Monkees), Grant Lee Phillips and Buddy Miller.
"When I pictured the Family Hour, I was feeling more comfortable writing because there was an outlet that was not a Nickel Creek audience. It was like 50 people in a room who would hear a song for about three minutes and then that was it. I could play it, be done with it. Let's move on. Let's try and write a better song next time. And that was the process for quite awhile. Those things that I was proud enough of that I could put on a record, that's when the first record came out.
She continued, "Each record documents a time and where you are at that time. You can't always make the best record in the world but all you can do is try and make the best record that you can at that moment."
And right now, "Sun Midnight Sun" finds Watkins shining as a songwriter and solo artist.