Watkins Family Hour Interview: ‘Brother Sister’ Is the Album Sara + Sean Watkins Have Always Wanted to Make
The siblings have played music since they were children: solo, together (Nickel Creek) and in separate groups (Sara in I'm With Her, Sean in Fiction Family). They even released a covers album as Watkins Family Hour in 2015. But with their new album, out Friday (April 10) on Family Hour Records, the Watkins are finally doing something they never have before: exploring their potential as a songwriting and recording team.
Despite all of the other artists and friends with whom they’ve collaborated -- and loved collaborating with -- the core of Watkins Family Hour has always been two people. “At the basic level, it’s always been Sean and me," Sara Watkins tells The Boot. "And we really wanted to explore that and ... try our hand at maximizing it."
Her brother agrees: "This was just really fun to focus the two of us just being where we’re at now musically, and how that would sound if we just did something the two of us, which is an exciting idea."
The Watkins have wanted to focus on the potential of their duo for years, in fact. "Every few years, or every single year, at some point, Sean and I just kind of end up wanting to do a duo show and own it: wipe the slate clean and focus back in on intricacies that can be better controlled when there are only a couple of people onstage,” Sara Watkins explains.
"And it’s something that we’ve gone back to over and over again," she continues, "and we just simply had never really dug in this much in terms of arrangements and, specifically, opposition."
Even though the two have performed and recorded together for decades, they had never written songs together. "I think we’ve been secretly curious about [writing together] for a really long time,” says Sara Watkins.
The Watkins' focus while making Brother Sister was to ensure that the album was truly a duo-centric record at its core. While there are a few songs on the project for which they brought in some additional support -- be it Matt Chamberlain on drums, Alan Hampton on upright bass and even actor John C. Reilly on vocals and bones -- the goal was always to make songs that could be performed, and well, live by only two people.
“A definite factor in the way this record sounds is that Sara and I have both learned from making solo records with a lot of people, is that ... you make a big-sounding record, and then you tour solo, and it doesn’t sound anything like the record," Sean Watkins reflects. "Which can be fine ... We’ve both done that, but I think this was an opportunity to kind of work backwards."
Ultimately, he explains, they decided, “Let’s make songs that sound good if it’s just the two of us."
“It’s a very duo-centric album,” Sara points out, ”because that was the focus in the writing.”
Sara and Sean are natural songwriting partners, but that doesn’t mean the process was an easy one. “I hate it when people say the song writes itself,” she says with a laugh, “because I have never felt that way in my entire life."
"I have always felt like this song is hiding from me, like it’s just like this annoying little, like, dog that won’t be caught." she shares. "It’s just running down the street and running under cars and stuff. I have to coax it out and trap it."
Eventually, however, the siblings successfully coaxed out and trapped an entire album’s worth of songs. The result is delightful: The 10 songs on Brother Sister are three covers and seven originals, including “Snow Tunnel” and “Bella and Ivan,” two instrumentals that showcase the virtuosic guitar and fiddle talents of Sean and Sara, respectively.
There’s also “Just Another Reason,” a standout track that exemplifies everything about the musical partnership of Watkins Family Hour: impossibly precise instrumentation; tight harmonies; pop sensibilities; a bright, cheerful melody; an unexpected left turn at the song’s close; and Sean and Sara trading verses all the way through.
But it’s “Miles of Desert Sand” that may be Brother Sister's standout track. Its long instrumental introduction blooms into a story both timely and timeless, about traveling across desert sand in search of a better life. It’s a song, in short, about immigration.
“We were just thinking about how [immigration has] always been something people have talked about and argued about,” Sean Watkins reveals. "It’s always been an issue, and there’s always been art and songs made about it. So much art has to do with the migration of people, immigration."
Watkins Family Hour don't typically make “political” music, in large part, Sara says, because she simply doesn’t see it as her strength. “There are people who do it really well,” she says, “and I don’t think my voice is unique in terms of what I would say.”
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Sean interjects.
But they both see “Miles of Desert Sand” less as a political statement and more as a story about people -- one that’s been told, in different ways, for thousands of years.
“I think the reason I love this song so much is because it’s not political as much as social,” Sara Watkins reflects. “It’s about people, and it’s a story that is incredibly challenging now ... but it’s been incredibly challenging since people were in tribes.
"Since all people lived in tribes,” she emphasizes.
It’s a song the Watkins probably wouldn’t have written before now; in fact, both siblings agree, they likely couldn’t have made this entire album any sooner than they did.
"Having spent a lot of time apart, having struggled with different things, having learned lessons in different ways, we actually can now collaborate in a way that combines different ideas and is a true collaboration." -- Sara Watkins
“There was a time where, if we had written together, it would have been super annoying, because a lot of our life experiences were redundant,” Sara Watkins admits, “and I think having spent a lot of time apart, having struggled with different things, having learned lessons in different ways, we actually can now collaborate in a way that combines different ideas and is a true collaboration.”
That time apart led the Watkins back to the recording studio with the right combination of trusted foundations and new ideas.
“We spent a lot of time in recent history not playing together, and that’s the interesting part,” Sara continues. “The time we have spent apart has made this writing process much more interesting, because we’re introducing different ideas to each other."
Adds Sean, "We both have strong opinions, which is good, because that adds to a partnership. But that only works well when you trust each other."
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