Not many bands can claim to have played together for well over 30 years—while its members are in their 40s.
Nickel Creek, formed back when Chris Thile and Sara Watkins were seven and Sean Watkins was 12, is a special case. Chris and Sara were still teenagers when the band released the seminal 2000 album Nickel Creek, produced by Alison Krauss, which merged the sounds of bluegrass and Celtic music with contemporary song craft and went platinum. In the decades since, the trio has taken extended breaks while all were busy with other projects—Chris with Punch Brothers and hosting the public radio show Live From Here, Sara and Sean with the Watkins Family Hour, Sara with I’m With Her, Sean with solo albums, and more. Every time Nickel Creek gets back together, though, they not only rekindle their connection but explore new territory. And that’s certainly the case with their remarkable new album, Celebrants, released nine years after A Dotted Line.
Celebrants was very much shaped by the pandemic shutdown, both in its themes and in the way it was made. With touring on hold, the trio found extensive time to create together—Sean estimates 75 or 80 days of collective writing for the album, and then they had a month in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B to record with producer Eric Valentine. The result is an hourlong journey through 18 connected songs, each with intricate instrumental arrangements and layers of vocals. Though no other guest musicians appear alongside Chris (mandolin, mandola, bouzouki), Sara (fiddle, high-strung guitar), and Sean (standard and baritone guitars) aside from Mike Elizondo on bass, the soundscape they create is vast and incredibly dynamic—from hushed, hypnotic tracks like “Holding Pattern” to the blazing odd-meter instrumental “Going Out…” and the blues-rock blowout “Where the Long Line Leads.”
On the verge of the album release, I spoke with the trio on Zoom from their respective homes in Southern California (Sara and Sean) and Brooklyn (Chris) to learn more about this new chapter in the Nickel Creek story. In addition, Sean explained the guitar craft behind some of the album’s standout tracks.
You all are involved in so many projects and bands. What does Nickel Creek draw out of you as players, writers, and singers that’s special to this trio?
Sean: I mean, it’s a unique thing to be in a band this long and still feel as challenged and excited about it as ever. Because we trust each other so much, when an idea is put forth that is outside my comfort zone, I tend to say, that’s great—let’s see this through and I’ll learn.
Chris: For me, this band has a voice that is so distinct. It’s like an existing palette of colors that we can rely on as creators for whatever we have to express. That was particularly useful for this project, where we got pretty ambitious and tackled a pretty big subject.
You know, we’ve been in this band now for 34 years, so the palette we’re using is well defined. Though it’s constantly evolving, it’s evolving from a place that is very solid and dependable, and I think that’s invaluable.
Sara: Right, there’s the uniqueness of the foundation and the constant of the history, but in order for us to want to make an album, there has to be a reason. There has to be enough new that we’re all bringing to the table, or enough new in life, that we are able to make music we haven’t done yet.
This album feels really big to me—a lot of songs, a lot of ideas, so many layers, all sort of bursting out of the confines of conventional song form. What drove that ambition?
Chris: As Sara was saying, we wanted to get back together and make something, and we pointedly wanted it not to be like a class reunion—but rather like the class is coming back together for a major research project.
And so, we were on the phone talking about “OK, if we’re going to do this, let’s do something we haven’t done, not just with each other but anywhere with anyone.”
Sean: We all felt like this was an opportunity not to redefine ourselves, but to reframe. You know, we started talking about making this record, gosh, almost three years ago, and our last record came out in 2014. Especially with Covid, it felt like a slingshot had been pulled back, and the intention to create and do new things was made even stronger because of what we all had to live through. Everything happening at that time made us want to take a much bigger swing than we have in the past.
When I first I heard the lead track, “Celebrants,” I felt like I was listening to the opening number of a musical, introducing the themes and the cast. Does this music feel theatrical in that way to you?
Chris: Totally. You’re always drawing on other mediums for inspiration, of course, and we have talked a lot about narrative. It’s still abstract narrative—it doesn’t tell a point-A-to-point-B kind of a story necessarily. It’s more vignettes, but they are all pointing at the same topic or a very related core of topics—an arc. It’s a meditation on togetherness, and it does have a beginning, middle, and end, despite the fact that it’s not told sequentially or definitively.
Also a thing we talked about is this collective feeling that music is better at asking questions than providing answers, and that the art we gravitate towards provides the listener with a springboard to go explore themselves as opposed to being a slideshow of where we’ve been exploring. It’s like an arrow pointing off into the woods: like, hey, we think there’s some cool stuff this direction, maybe you should come check it out.
Sara: I agree. We’ve been thinking about curiosity and how a lot of times that’s the way to find hope, when you’re in a very pessimistic society and not necessarily sure of what to be hopeful about. Especially among our peers and our age group, there’s a real tendency to say the world is screwed and everything is bad except for me and my friends—we’ve got it all figured out.
The thing that I hope people get out of these songs is a sense of that curiosity that we strive for. A lot of the songs were brought by genuine conversations of catching up and wondering about each other, and ideally, art makes people curious.
Did you avoid working on songs individually beforehand so you could really start from scratch?
Sean: Yeah. One way that we’ve done it a lot the past is that we all show up with songs that are mostly done and the other two add to it what they can. In that case, I love the analogy Sara uses: one person’s fingerprints are all over it, and then there are some spare fingerprints from the other two.
With this album, we wanted everyone’s fingerprints to be on everything as much as possible—also extending to Mike Elizondo, who played bass on the album. We left a lot unfinished because we wanted his fingerprints on it as well, which proved to be crucial. He’s such a badass and a hero of ours, and he really helped shape the songs in a special way.
Chris: When you write a long-form composition, you have to be really comfortable with all the balls being in the air for a long, long time. A record like this, or a long piece like this, is like a tent; the thing doesn’t look like it would do anything for you until all of a sudden it’s a whole tent.
That [type of writing] doesn’t get done collaboratively a lot because it’s nerve-wracking to be in a room with musicians you really respect with a bunch of unfinished stuff lying around. It’s hard to share that vision of the completed project. It’s still a raggedy canvas tent lying on the forest floor, and you’re going, “No, no, you’ll see, it’s like a dome, and you’re gonna be able to be in there and it’s waterproof! You’re gonna love it!”
Sara: To do it as a group, you need to have a certain amount of time together. We had the luxury of two weeks living together and then the following two weeks living very close together and spending all day together. We were able to have united focus for that amount of time. So we were able to remember everything we were working on and all the hypotheticals and the like, “Oh, but remember this other section that was going to go there?” It’s all invisible and just in your audio memory or whatever outline you’ve written in your head, so it behooves you to do it quite quickly or in a dense period of time if you’re doing it as a group.
Chris: And then, of course, you dream something so much crazier when you have the strength of three imaginations instead of one, as long as you trust and respect each other. As someone who’s sitting around in his room making stuff all the time, it’s just so fun to see what happens when you open yourself up to the visions of others around you.
To get a bit more of a sense of the process, let’s drill down into a few specific songs. First, “Strangers.” What do you remember about how that started or grew?
Chris: It’s the oldest piece of music on the record. Sean brought it to us like five years ago.
Sean: We were going to try to write a new Nickel Creek song for Live From Here. That was one idea that got thrown around but never developed. We ended up doing a different song. But it was saved in a Dropbox folder or something called Nickel Creek ideas.
That one had a real small germ. I love Lindsey Buckingham’s fingerstyle stuff where he’s really aggressive and does things in an unconventional way, like in “Never Going Back Again.” I was thinking about him when I was playing that fingerpicking part.
Chris: And you had the melody [sings]. Sara and I came up with the echo, so that was the kernel: that driving but hypnotic fingerstyle thing and a call and response. And then it went from there. That song also might have had the most arduous composition experience. We had some very fully developed false starts. False starts that got all the way to the end.
Sara: Like the middle section, that instrumental.
Chris: It was a real problem child. But we were all so attached to the idea and really believed in it. Had we not, I think the whole thing would have ended up as scraps on the floor. We kept pressing on, and it went through a lot of versions. It was as long as six minutes at one time.
Sean: It went through like four different demo versions, and there was maybe a month before we recorded what is now the chorus.
Chris: Yeah, that’s what showed up right at the very end of the process. But you know, that first mover, the guitar figure with the call and response thing, is what suggested the lyrical material. That provided the north star for the song.
How about “Holding Pattern”? I gather that started from Sean’s little circular fingerpicking part.
Sara: I remember being in the house and Sean played this demo of the two guitar parts together [regular guitar and high-strung], which is unchanged. That was the foundation from the beginning. There was a verse melody and the chorus melody, though different lengths.
Sean: I had verses, but they got changed—thankfully. The original verses were so weak compared to what they ended up being, and it really points to the power of the band and trusting each other. I remember it was early on in the process, maybe the first couple of days when we were looking through our notes or voice memos and just being like, is this a thing? And that was one I’d forgotten about and found, and I remember Chris was like, “That’s cool. What if I sing it and I have an idea for a different verse melody?”
Chris: That was almost the opposite of “Strangers” in terms of the form, and everything almost came down in real time. When you played that demo it was like, “It goes like this.”
Sara: The snaps [finger snaps on the backbeats] were part of it from the get-go.
Sean: Conceptually, we wanted the holding pattern vibe to be there, and part of that was, “This is going to be a very circular song that doesn’t take you into any new keys.” So we had that as a map.
Chris: Yeah, that’s one where the content dictated form. That’s a Stephen Sondheim thing: Content has to dictate form, or else it just starts to smack of insincerity—or you are being contrived or forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Sean had that holding pattern idea, and that suggested those crazy routines we all got into during the early stages of lockdown, where we wore holes in our floors and were existing with the people that we share space with in such an intense way. That became the springboard lyrically.
Tell me about “Where the Long Line Leads,” which has such an explosive sound and vocal from Sara. It has a blues-rock feel but not a typical blues chord progression.
Chris: I wanted us to have a rager. You know, there are a couple ragers on the record, which is fun. I played the little germ of an idea [on mandolin] for Sara and Sean, and Sara was like, “Hey, can I sing that one?” And we went from there.
Sara: One of the things I love the most is that in order for me to sing it, it had to be in a different key. It just happened to work out perfectly for the mandola [tuned a fifth lower than the mandolin]. We haven’t had that kind of a song on mandola yet, and I feel like it really puts it in a different and heavier place for us.
Chris: I hadn’t thought about that, almost like the way metal bands tune down.
Sara: It’s our version of tuning the guitar down to C.
So as you worked on these songs, were you charting anything out or just doing it by ear?
Sara: There were a lot of voice memos going on. And we shared digital lyric notes. We’ve never employed that kind of technology before, where we were able to see everything in one place and to try out ideas on each other in real time.
Sean: I remember like a week into [the writing process], we were staying at a friend’s house in Santa Barbara and we were all in different rooms. We’d been working and talking about lyrics, and when we’d go to sleep, I’d get a notification on my phone that the notes have changed. I open it up, and I can see Chris write in real time—type a word, erase it, then it comes back, erase. It was so fun to watch the process and the living document.
Sara: We all took personal notes. I actually think in outline form, so a lot of times I’ll just have very sparse notes that help me keep the song straight when a lot of things are changing. As Chris said, you have to be willing to have everything in mush state for a very long time. And so for me, it’s helpful to be like, “Oh, this is where we left this last time: We crossed off this whole section, and then this part went up here.”
Chris: Nothing made it into notation, despite that there’s some stuff that definitely could have.
Sean: I charted out stuff at times, especially when we got into the studio to take a practice swing with our producer, Eric Valentine, which is what he likes to do. We did that on Why Should the Fire Die? as well, where we recorded the whole thing, real rough sketches, just so we could look at the structure and see what it was.
Chris: Does it look like a tent?
Sara: Put the pole higher!
Thinking back on your history, how would you draw the line between what you played as kids—bluegrass and cowboy songs and all—to this music? What’s the throughline?
Sara: It’s funny you mentioned the cowboy songs, because there’s a moment in “The Meadow” where there’s this bent harmony [dipping down a half step and back up]. And we’re totally referencing Sons of the Pioneers.
Sean: In “Strangers,” too, the harmony.
Sara: Yeah, there’s this lilt that really feels like the stuff we heard from those cowboy singers we grew up hearing at the Western Music Association meetings of Old Tucson.
Sean: I also think that the throughline, to be more zoomed out, is the joy that we’ve always felt, and the curiosity about what a song could be. It feels the same to me, that joy and fun, even though the music sounds totally different.
Chris: When I listen to something like our first record on Sugar Hill, that’s the thing: As different as that stuff sounds when you compare it directly with Celebrants, what strikes me as being very similar is that it’s joyful, no matter how dark the topic is. There’s something about doing this in each other’s company that keeps it suspended somehow and optimistic. Not in a Pollyanna way, but in a “beautiful to be alive and to be able to make music together” way.
Sara: I think that it was sort of Pollyanna at first, like the first album, because we were super naive and we were kids. What’s interesting to me is that this album is about choosing to return to people, to sort through the mess and to find the beautiful and remember and celebrate. Now it might take a little bit of effort or deliberate intent, but in this band that does come more naturally.
Chris You know, there are myriad ways in which human beings suck and we’ve made it so hard for each other, but also myriad ways in which we’re the best. As long as we’re still here and we’re trying, then there’s hope. And I feel like that’s a defining characteristic of Nickel Creek’s sound.
What Sean Watkins Plays
Watkins’ main guitar on Celebrants is a 1949 Gibson LG-2 that was a gift from Jackson Browne. “I love it so much,” he says. “It’s just so warm and round from the low notes to the high notes, and it plays really well with Chris’ Loar [Gibson mandolin] on this album.”
Other core acoustics in his collection include his Bourgeois signature model, a Brazilian rosewood cutaway OM; a slope-shoulder Bourgeois dreadnought that he uses for low tunings; and a rubber bridge baritone from Old Style Guitar Shop in Los Angeles.
Watkins prefers D’Addario strings, typically nickel bronze .013s. “They sound great,” he says. “They don’t start off bright and then get dead. They start out medium and stay there, which I love.” His go-to flatpicks include the BlueChip TAD60, Wegen 1.2 mm, and D’Addario Chris Thile signature Casein.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.