Sara Watkins records comfortable music, fashioning the kind of plaintive tunes that breed familiarity.

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins

A young veteran, the twenty-something prodigy has already earned her stripes as one-third of the platinum newgrass band Nickel Creek, but it is Watkins' personal interpretations—featured on her self-titled solo debut releasing this week—that earn her comparisons to folk matriarchs Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. The Grammy award-winning songstress spoke with Christian Music Today about her faith, life after Nickel Creek, and how yet another Led Zeppelin alum invests his credits in folk music.

Given the record business' tendency to focus on bottom lines rather than creative expression, how do you keep music the focus during recording?

Sara Watkins: I've never been good at guessing what other people want. My big fear is that I would be wrong. I had strong opinions and musical understanding [while recording]; I didn't have a reason to go out on a limb and pretend I was something else. A lot of people don't have that luxury. If you're doing it because you feel like you should, it's always disappointing.

Robert Plant paired up with Alison Krauss, and now John Paul Jones produces your record. What is it with these ex-Zeppelins?

Watkins: Sean [Watkins], Chris [Thiele] and I [the three members of Nickel Creek] had made a record with Glen Phillips [of Toad the Wet Sprocket] years before [called The Mutual Admiration Society]. We decided to tour it a couple weeks and John played bass, which was a huge surprise and a really good time. 

A few years later he saw Nickel Creek play and talked to me about producing my record. I was surprised and stoked—and a little doubtful it would actually happen. A few months down the line we were still talking about it and realized we were both really into the idea.

With John Paul Jones in the studio

With John Paul Jones in the studio

What was the dynamic like between the two of you?

Watkins: Fistfights and lots of nunchucks. [Laughs] He's very good at encouraging. I didn't feel like I was making a record based on a style that he had preset. It felt very natural. 

You recently got married. How has that played into your career?

Watkins: He's my biggest teammate on the solo thing. I'm very grateful for that. Touring when you're in a relationship always sucks. Your personal life, your home life, is always suffering when you're not there. It's hard to live both at home and on the road over the phone. After a couple of weeks you start to detach a little bit mentally. So you just have to figure out how to do it. And we're still doing that. 

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How did you come to know Christ?

Watkins: I grew up in a Christian home. At different stages I remember realizing different levels of what [being a Christian] means. You ask God in your heart when you're four. Then you do it again when you're eight because somebody tells you, "You better be sure or else you're going to hell." As you learn more about life, I think you learn more about your reliance on God. I feel like every four years or so I come to a place where it's so impressed on me, a bigger realization kind of hits me. 

Did you know this record is being sold in Christian retail?

Watkins: It's funny to me that Christian bookstores would want it. I'm totally comfortable with it. I was just surprised. I never thought that was an option for me. I like it.

What role does faith play in your music?

Watkins: My musical life is just part of my life, so it plays the same role as it does in every other part. I try to stay as aware of my faith when I'm touring as when I'm at home.  At home it's more consistent and you can figure things out a bit easier. You try being aware of your faith at all times.

In what ways do you make yourself aware?

Watkins: I don't really feel like that needs to be talked about. 

It seems you and your brother [Sean Watkins] often turn up in some new band derivative. How do these side collaborations take away from your solo ambitions?

Watkins: There's only one side project right now, which is the Works Progress Administration [with Sean Watkins, Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and members of Elvis Costello's band]. I'm a small fraction of the band. There are eight of us, for crying out loud! [Laughs] I don't imagine it will be too much of a distraction.

How does it add to what you are doing with your solo stuff?

Watkins: For me, a healthy dose of variety keeps me excited. It's fun to be a front person. It's fun to be a supporter in a band. And it's fun to be a member of a band. Those are all very different roles and they provide a little relief for the other ones.

With Nickel Creek in 2007

With Nickel Creek in 2007

You have been on stage since you were virtually a child. How has living in a perpetual spotlight affected your life offstage?

Watkins: It's hard to say because I've only done it this way. The spotlight, as you put it, was very dim. [Laughs] Toward the end [of touring with Nickel Creek], people who had been coming to the shows for a long time, they know about your life and they've seen you since you were 15 playing on stages, so you do feel like you've been in a spotlight in their lives. But it's nothing compared to what real celebrities go through.

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The biggest thing was being gone all the time.

Any regrets?

Watkins: By and large I love how I grew up. From the great years to the challenging and growing years, I've learned a lot that will help me as I continue this career. I needed to grow up this way to feel as comfortable with myself as I do—to be familiar with knowing when I'm pushing myself too hard or putting myself in unhealthy situations.

I could have made some nicer decisions toward other people, but live and learn.

Do you miss being in a band?

Watkins: At first I was a little freaked out by the idea of being by myself. But it's really good for me to have to step up, to figure out what I like and why I like it. I have a lot of friends that play with me, so the reality is I'm not really alone. It's not nearly as isolating as I thought.

What do you miss about Nickel Creek?

Watkins: I don't miss a lot. I miss the guys. It was fun playing for large crowds and being on the bus all the time. But then again, it was a pain being on the bus all the time. It was both great and really hard. We were playing some relatively large shows toward the end. One thing I'm happy to have back is playing for smaller rooms, where I feel like if I stayed long enough I could talk to everybody and have a normal conversation.

Many fans are still wondering: Why did Nickel Creek break up?

Watkins: Because we had done it for 18½ years and needed a break. In order for that band to work we had to tour or write and record at all times just to keep the motor running and keep that income and keep people remembering. We wore ourselves out the last two years.

I have enjoyed being home. It's the first time in maybe seven, ten years, and I really love it. [Nickel Creek] was a great period in my life. I wouldn't mind going back some time. But for now, I'm really enjoying this other side of things.

For more on Sara Watkins, check out her website.