Cayamo, the week-long "Journey Through Song" aboard the Norwegian Pearl, is all about artist collaboration. Logically, then, if everyone wants to play with you, you're perfect for Cayamo. Sara Watkins certainly fits that bill. Since the hiatus of Nickel Creek, the list of Watkins collaborations is long - she is highly sought in the studio and on stage for her fiddle and vocals. It works both ways, as a great lineup of artists drop in to play the monthly Watkins Family Hour (think California ramble here), hosted by her and brother Sean Watkins.
Watkins was a member of Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning progressive bluegrass trio (Sean and Chris Thile were the other members), from 1989 until 2007. In addition to their own catalogue, Nickel Creek covered everything from old fiddle tunes and gospel to new pop on stage. The first time I saw them, I got goose bumps listening to a completely unplugged version of Be Thou My Vision at the end of a barroom show as the crowd gathered close to hear and slowly started singing along. It was a powerful moment, as if we'd been transported back in time. A year or so later at Telluride, Nickel Creek covered Britney Spears's Toxic. No goose bumps there, maybe a grin as we realized what they were up to, but they made it sound good. In the past few years, I've seen Sara Watkins play solo, with WPA and as a temporary member of The Decemberists. Her post-Nickel Creek success caught the attention of Garrison Keillor, who invited her on tour and asked her to be the first guest host in the history of A Prairie Home Companion.
Watkins released her first solo record in 2009, a fine album produced by John Paul Jones. Record number two is recorded, and will be released this Spring.
Although I felt like I'd met her before (watching someone over that many years will do that), my first chance happened on Cayamo 2012. We spoke on the last full day of the cruise (I also had the privilege of speaking to Rhett Millerand Glen Phillips) as Watkins was getting ready to perform her last show.
ML: So tell me about the new record.
SW: The new record is going to be on Nonesuch Records again. Blake Mills produced it, he's out in Los Angeles. I live in north San Diego County, near L.A., and go up there quite a bit. It felt good to do it in my own back yard, you know. Even though it was my friend Tony Burns's back yard that we actually recorded in!
ML: Literally, you recorded it there?
SW: Yeah, he's got a top-notch studio, a proper studio, but it does happen to be in his yard. We recorded it over about three weeks. We started the songs with my brother Sean and I playing the versions that I had written and we had arranged. We played them for Blake and each song took on, sometimes a very different feel and went to a very new place and sometimes the songs ended up being supported as they were, as I had written them. But it was really fun, and that will be out in late April.
ML: Did you bring some folks in to play?
SW: A couple people but mostly its just Blake. Sean plays guitar, I play fiddle and strings and sing. Blake plays all the drum stuff and the bass and alot of extra kind of sounds. Benmont Tench came in and played keyboards and piano on 5 songs, I think, and then we had some guest singers. Jackson Browne sang, as did Fiona Apple. She and I do a duet.
ML: That's pretty cool. Looking forward to hearing that. Well, talk to me about Cayamo. This is your second cruise?
ML: What's different about this experience from your typical festival?
SW: What's different is the duration itself, the fact that we're all here on the same place for a week. I was reading some of the dry erase boards that people put up on their doors, which I totally love! I read them every time I walk down the hall to my room. You get to see what people are excited about seeing and what has just been really fun for them. Sometimes it's the beaches and sometimes it's a certain show but other times it's getting to meet somebody new. There's all kinds of stuff, even going down the slide!
Seeing these amazing artists . . . what I realized walking back to my room this last time was that it's the shared experience that is really fun, the realization that you're on this boat with your favorite artists! It's a simple concept but basically they're living in the same world, we're eating at the same places and we're walking around together and running into each other and becoming familiar with each other. I've been running into a lot of the same people over the last several days. You get to recognize each other and that's something that you don't have when you go to a normal festival where, generally, the worlds are kept quite separate. There, you see bands on stage and you might see them at a lunch table or something, but generally it's artists in one world and festivarians in another world.
[Cayamo] is a little bit more of a common ground for a lot of these people and for all of us. And it's really fun. Lyle and John Hiatt have been on this boat so many times. John Prine, Emmylou have been on this boat. If you're agreeing to go on a cruise which is not the typical "safe" environment as a musician. You're agreeing to put yourself in this spot where people have access to you. That's really special for a lot of people and it also, I think, lends an implied generosity by the artists to the fans.
Another thing is that you see the collaborations that might not happen at other festivals because people are getting to know each other here. With the repetition [each artist plays several sets during the week], you get to actually see things at a nice pace and really get to dive in as much as you want. I got to see Iris Dement for the first time. That was a huge for me, I was really looking forward to seeing her above anyone else. And I was delighted to see the show in the Spinnaker when she was just playing the piano and singing songs. It was beautiful. I really loved that show. I think that was my highlight.
ML: As an audience member?
ML: And I lost count with you on stage at 8 or 9 times.. I don't know how many gigs . . .
SW: I haven't really been keeping track but it's been something up like that. It's been fun.
ML: And really front-end loaded too. The first day or two you played a lot!
SW: Yes, so I didn't get to see alot of the shows at the beginning of the week but I've been making up for it at the end.
ML: So what's your collaboration moment so far?
SW: I think Buddy Miller last night. We did the Watkins Family Hour on board, which is something that my brother and I do in Los Angeles once a month and a lot of the guys in the band are in the Family Hour so it was nice having them there. We did the Family Hour the first year that Shawn and I were on the boat. Sixthman let us kinda let us just throw the show together with like 5 hours notice that first time [Family Hour was on the formal schedule this year]. Buddy sat in with us then. That was the first time I played with him and it's the only time I'd played with him until last night. I think another highlight [last night] was Greg Leisz, the great pedal steel player, who has sat in with more people on this ship than anyone else.
ML: He may have you beat.
SW: Oh I'm sure. He definitely has me beat.
ML: He was even with Loudon Wainwright.
SW: Yeah, and Lucinda. So he sang "Sing Me Back Home" with Buddy and it was pretty awesome. I liked that a lot. Greg's got a great voice and he's such a top-notch musician. I loved doing that with all those guys. That was my favorite. And again, I got to be an audience member on stage. That was my favorite because I got to see this thing happen.
ML: Right . . . got to see it unfold. Well, thanks for your time. I know you have to get ready for your last performance.
SW: Yes, thank you. I do want, if it's ok, to mention that we have a podcast we have a podcast of The Family Hour that we put up. It's free on iTunes or available on my website. We have three up right now and we're going to work on a fourth. Hopefully we'll have some stuff up from the cruise up on our podcast in a few weeks.
All of Cayamo's collaborations aren't on stage. Here's a late night (early morning) collaboration in the elevator lobby. Sara Watkins shows up with her fiddle and sings Dig A Hole In The Meadow:
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines. Sara Watkins is, too @sarawatkins.
Photo from www.sarawatkins.com.