All Growed Up
Mutation proves key in Nickel Creek’s longevity
TAKIN’ IT EASY: Sara, Chris and Sean age gracefully.
The trendsetting newgrass ensemble Nickel Creek is from the South…of California. But unlike those poser salsas made in “Neew Yow-erk City!” this trio does justice to roots, grass and folk as well as any native Southerner. Their winsome melodies, vocal harmonies and old-fashioned pickin’ have won Nickel Creek high critical praise, not to mention quite a following, despite its recent gravitation away from its original sound.
Brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins first met Chris Thile when all three were but tots, in tow of their twang-loving parents at bluegrass shows near their homes in the Golden State. They quickly began playing together and since then, the band’s initially grassy sound, featuring the classic mandolin/fiddle/guitar combo, has pushed into rock and avant garde folk territory. The three musicians, all still in their 20s, have been playing together for 16 years, surviving this long in part because of that audacity to experiment.
The band’s original songs have a diverse range—from sugary lullabies to angsty rants, incorporating musical elements from the hodgepodge of the members’ eclectic tastes. The trio is just as likely to whip out a Radiohead tune onstage or record a less rocky, but more plucky version of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” (on NC’s second disc, This Side ) as it is to play traditional folk tunes we remember our grannies singin’ (see “The Fox” on the self-titled debut).
Despite Nickel Creek’s success, Sara Watkins’ self-deprecating nature might almost have you believing she’s nothing special. The fiddle virtuoso calls her instrument “a mocker. It mocks me every day. It mocks my incompetence. There’s just so many ways to suck at it—you can be out of tune, out of time, out of soul.” Then she retreats, “But I love it very, very much.” And just for the record, she doesn’t suck at it— her wispy-sweet voice is the only reason you’d ever wish her to stop her fervent fiddling.
Self-loathing aside, Watkins says she plans to follow in her bandmates’ footsteps and will begin recording a solo album in January. Big brother Sean has two albums that spotlight his guitar-work as well as endearing folksy songwriting. Thile, a veritable mandolin prodigy, released his first album at age 13, and has since done three more, which are progressively more self-aware and eccentric. As the most prolific songwriter of the bunch, Thile, whose last album, Deciever , was laden with unorthodox nuance, might be seen as the force steering the band away from convention.
But the threesome is undoubtedly stronger united, as is evidenced by its latest release, Why Should the Fire Die? Charging open with the Celtic-infused “When in Rome,” it’s clear that this is going to be a take-charge, don’t touch the volume (unless to crank it) kind of album. The harmonies on “Eveline,” which pares down James Joyce’s short story into a 16-line horror-lullaby, just might have calmed the heroine’s distress if it weren’t for the eerie sonic discord that at times swallows up the vocals like a ship in the sea’s vicious spoils. Watkins taps into a teasing 1920s sound with “Anthony,” in which she mourns a lover’s
Though bluegrass disciples may find it heretical, Why Should the Fire Die? does more to solidify Nickel Creek’s style as one that appeals to a wide range of music fans. Perhaps that style is calculated, but it’s more likely the natural result of the band’s longevity and converging creativities. “It’s not really a risk,” says Watkins, on refusing to be pigeonholed into a certain style. “I don’t feel like we have this identity to prove. This record is definitely the truest, most honest record.”
If the band’s three albums were love letters, Nickel Creek would be the one written by a smitten sixth-grade boy, winning over his girl with whimsical imagination and fairy-tale innocence. With This Side , the boy grows up, flirts with jealousy, dabbles in poetic sentiment, and starts listening to rock. Why Should the Fire Die? sees the boy become a man, diversifying his musical tastes to suit erratic moods, learning that life ain’t no bed of roses, telling that young girl to get lost because he’s got somewhere to be. Where, he doesn’t know yet. Maybe the answer’s on the next album.
Who: Nickel Creek