Nickel Creek – It’s about the music
Nickel Creek are young, talented, successful, and stylish. And good.
James Joyce’s classic short story “Eveline” gives us a character who is bound to her family, yet falls in love with a man who wants to take her across the ocean for a new life. Her mother’s deathbed wish is for Eveline to take care of her father, but once Eveline gets a taste of what true happiness can really be, she goes so far as traveling to the docks to board a ship with her man. Ultimately, however, she cannot break her promises or the bonds of family. Eveline is among the most tragic characters in literature, and hers is an allegory about the dangers and beauties of loving too much. In the end, Eveline is not able to follow her own happiness because she knows one kind of satisfaction will sacrifice another. And she cannot accept that.
Luckily, the three members of Nickel Creek — Chris Thile and Sara Watkins, both 24, and Sean Watkins, 28 — had no such quandaries. All three always knew what they wanted: to play music. All three were lucky to be born into families that were able to support that desire. And all three were encouraged by their parents to go and live, and enjoy.
After sixteen years together as a band, they’re doing just that. And they’re performing songs that sound more like poetry than money, especially the one about Joyce’s heartrending character. “Eveline” is one of fourteen tracks on their new album, Why Should The Fire Die?
Less than a month before the album’s August 9 release on Sugar Hill Records, Nickel Creek is performing at Nashville’s venerable Station Inn. The place is packed with a mostly young crowd. Outside, a line of less fortunate folks snakes down 12th Avenue South and around the building. A drunken man lets out a slurred demand to “Let those people in!” over and over, but his cries go in vain. The crowd inside is patiently waiting for the band to come on. A cashier constantly barks into a microphone at the counter: “Jacobson, your pizza is ready.” Five minutes later: “Jacobson, I’m eating your pizza.” Five minutes later she starts hollering for another customer.
Chris Thile is in the tiny men’s room, just trying to wash his hands while everyone talks to him. He is built like a plank of lumber, with a wild shock of hair that he seems to comb only with his fingers. He appears surprised that people have recognized him and as he squeezes between the door and the sink he winks back at everyone gathered there. “Don’t listen too close, all right?” he says. “These are all new songs, so we might mess up.”
They don’t. This is the first time the band has presented the entirety of the new album, and they’re playing the songs in sequence. Their performances are flawless, interrupted only by brief explanations of how the songs came into being, or bantering with the crowd. Chris makes fun of all the pre-show warnings (“No flash photography,” “No recording,” “Pick up your pizza now”) by announcing to the crowd that in addition to these rules, it’s also “not cool to hit.”
By the time the band has launched into its fourth song, a rousing instrumental, the crowd is fairly mesmerized. When the song is over, all three (plus bassist Mark Schatz, who played on the record as well) hoist votive cup shot glasses of whiskey in the air, and Sean announces: “That song is called ‘Scotch And Chocolate’, two of our favorite things.” And they all take a sip in jagged unison. (By the end of the show none of the glasses will be empty.)
As a prelude to another song, Chris looks over to his parents, seated near the stage, and says: “Dad, are you ready to get rocked?” Since his father used to be Nickel Creek’s bass player, he seems pretty agreeable to whatever they want to do, rocking or not. And then they launch into a face-melter by way of acoustics, playing so hard that one expects Thile’s fingers either to spontaneously combust or at least start spurting blood. Sean picks so furiously that he breaks a string on his guitar.
They have always been a confident bunch, but there is a new sense of assuredness about Nickel Creek now. No longer is Chris the main focus of everyone’s attention with his wild dancing and contagious glee. Now Sean — who looks like the quiet one but is actually quiet only in carefully formulating his thoughts or jokes — occasionally jerks back across the stage when the music hits a high frenzy, like a Pentecostal caught up in the spirit with his eyes closed and his body arching inward, cradling the guitar to him like something that might guide him straight to salvation. Sara saws on her bow with enough strength and determination to cut right through the strings and the wood, too. She uses her whole body to play the fiddle, firmly planting her feet widely apart as she sways back and forth to the beat of the music. When she sings, she looks at everyone in the audience with large, expressive eyes, pulling her voice from deep within.
Chris still comes off as the wild man who is so moved by music that he can’t contain himself, but he’s sharing the stage nowadays. He head-bangs, his fingers move in a blur across the mandolin strings, his legs suddenly kick up into the air. Before the night is over, several people in the audience are mimicking his unique movements. Not to mock him, but because they’ve subconsciously understood that he knows where every beat lies, he knows that music is something that can make you feel good enough to lose all inhibitions and just move.
All three sometimes become transfixed during their respective vocal deliveries. Sara seems completely to become the characters of the songs she sings, her eyes wet with compassion when she sings “Sabra Girl”, her face flushed with heartbreak when she performs Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”. Sean closes his eyes tightly on his solos, sometimes shaking his head along with a character’s frustration or satisfaction. Chris seems inhabited by the characters of the songs he fronts, his entire composure changing depending on whether the song’s point of view is from a cuckold or a cad.
The trio plays off of each other so well that at times they seem to be one entity, three people who are so attuned to one another that they predict the other’s next sentence or movement. And it is obvious that the bond between them is not just a matter of having grown up together. It’s music that joins them.
This bond is observed and explored during a lengthy interview held in the squat, strangely green Victorian house in East Nashville that’s home to Nickel Creek’s management offices. Conversation ranges from the band’s obsession with coffee to Chris’ blind date later that evening (Sean wonders what would happen if the blind date were actually blind), and everything else in between.
Sara looks completely comfortable with her bare feet pulled up under her on the couch, her face freshly-scrubbed and looking even younger over the purple Harry Otter (an otter with Harry Potter glasses) T-shirt she wears. Sean sits on the edge near her, often participating in some friendly sibling rivalry with a deadpan face. He seems like the sort of guy whose respect one would want to earn, and is described by Sara as “honest” and by Chris as “introspective.” Chris stretches out like a long, blue-jeaned accordion in a stiff chair nearby, joking one minute and completely caught up in dissertation-worthy discussions of books the next.
When these three were very small, their families frequently went to see the band Bluegrass Etc. at a small pizza parlor in San Diego. “We started going down there when I was about two,” Sara says, her head lying against the couch arm, as if she’s acting out her next sentence. “I’d fall asleep every night about 8 on this big long bench, right in front of a speaker.” There were always around 70 of the same people, and the families quickly got to know everyone, including the band. “When I was 6 I requested that the band play ‘Long Black Veil’, because I just really loved that song, as many people do, I later found out,” she continues. “And so, eventually, they asked me to come up and sing it with them. I only knew the chorus, but I sang it with them. I remember standing there with my hands behind my back, feeling like the stage was ten feet off the ground.”
The Watkins family was not very musical. Their father played what Sean calls some “folkish guitar,” but their musical education was mostly limited to records of early Dylan, folk music, The Band, and Celtic instrumentals. They were, however, a family that fostered creativity and independence in their children. Their father was a middle school teacher, while their mother stayed at home. “We had great parents, a good, good family,” Sara says.
“Sara and I actually started getting into bluegrass before our parents ever listened to it, so we discovered it together. We all just really took to it,” says Sean. Once the Watkins kids started showing an unnatural knack for music, their parents made sure that they got around to as many festivals, shows and music camps as possible.
“They did everything in their power to help us with the music,” Sean says. “They would buy these motor homes –“
“Motor homes plural?” Sara says, cocking her head and arching her eyebrows.
“I think we had a couple.”
“I think we had one,” she laughs.
“Brother and sister,” Chris says.
“Well, anyway,” Sean continues, “they went everywhere they could, they’d pile everything into the motor home and go where we needed to go. For us.”
“And my mother and I would sing Linda Ronstadt and the Trio album and lots of older country music on the way,” Sara says.
“It was very social music, great for meeting people, very communal, people take you under their wing, showing you songs,” Sean adds. “It’s a very friendly musical atmosphere to grow up in.”
Before this turn to bluegrass, the Watkinses had encouraged Sean to play piano, and he started taking lessons when he was 6. He did that for seven years, often playing in tense, judged performances. “It was really stressful, but good. It helped my ear to develop,” Sean says. They wanted Sara to learn flute, but she was adamant about the violin. (Sean: “Thank God.” Chris: “Yeah, I don’t think the flute would’ve worked out as well with this band.”) Sean also wanted a different outlet: “I was bummed because there was a serious lack of personal expression happening with piano,” he says.
That all changed when one of his piano teacher’s sons, John Moore — who also fronted Bluegrass Etc. on mandolin and lead vocals — turned him onto the mandolin, and the pizza parlor. His love affair with the guitar wasn’t far away.
Chris began to take lessons from Moore as well, and says that his parents were “incredibly supportive.” His earliest memories all concern music. He has a vivid recollection of sitting in front of a stereo while Flatt & Scruggs played “Cripple Creek”; he remembers the banjo as having “this magical, miraculous sound.” By age 2 he was composing theme songs for his toy dinosaurs. “Bom-bom-BOM-bom,” he mouths, holding up an imaginary T. Rex. “At home, there was so much support and the feeling of, ‘You can do whatever you want, you can succeed if you want it badly enough.’ It was a severe and great outlook on life, and it turned me into a — I can’t think of the word. It’s a good phrase, though.”
The room falls silent as Chris tries to capture his thoughts. Then, a ripple of laughter begins with Sean, who seems nothing except completely pleased by his friend. After a long moment of study, Chris finally bolts up in his chair, one finger thrusting into the air with his first seven syllables. “An unflagging idealist! That’s what I am. See, it’s a good phrase.”
Eventually, Sara’s parents talked Bluegrass Etc.’s fiddle and banjo player, Dennis Caplinger, into teaching Sara fiddle. “It took some persuasion, but Dennis finally agreed to teach me,” she says. The lessons were sporadic, since Caplinger was a touring musician.
Gradually, the three children began to play together, joined by Chris’ father, Scott, who played standup bass. A bluegrass promoter suggested they form a kids’ band, and they did so in 1990, touring various festivals and competing in contests. They won a regional championship at the 1994 Pizza Hut International Bluegrass Music Showdown, and garnered several other regional prizes. By age 15, Sara had won the Arizona State Fiddle Championship and was attending Mark O’Connor’s Fiddle Camp. Sean, at 16, was a finalist on mandolin and guitar at the National Flatpicking Guitar Championship. By the time he was in his mid-teens, Chris had already been a finalist for the IBMA’s mandolin player of the year award several times (he took home the prize in 2001).
In 1991, the group recorded a children’s album of cowboy music titled Little Cowpoke, the mere mention of which arouses a chorus of groans from the band.
Chris: “It’s creepy, that record. Creepy that it’s there.”
Sean: “It has all this extraneous noise that’s happening. They were very nice people we worked with, but –“
Sara: “But we were over it while we were doing it.”
Chris (straightening in his seat again): “Even at like 12 years old, we knew that it wasn’t the artistic statement we wanted to make.”
They are, however, proud of their first real record, a self-released album called Here And There, which came out in 1997. “There are some serious growing pains, but you can hear our sound coming together on there,” Chris says. “And there’s some nice instrumental stuff on there that I still really like.”
“We weren’t singers, then,” Sara says. “I don’t think I’m a very good singer now, either, but back then, we definitely weren’t. We weren’t able to improvise and make our voices go the way we needed them to.”
“It took us awhile to realize we actually had to practice singing,” says Sean.
“Yeah, like some of my favorite singers, like Tim O’Brien, he just opens his mouth and that beautiful sounds comes out,” Chris says. “I can’t do that. I open my mouth and it just sounds like I’m trying really hard to sing.”
Despite all their concerns about singing, on the day of our interview, the self-released album’s opening bid on eBay was $102. This is further proof of their phenomenal success, which started to really gel when Alison Krauss saw them opening for a “super group” featuring Dan Tyminski at the Ryman in 2000.
“We had already signed with Sugar Hill by that time, and after Alison came backstage at the Ryman and acted really enthusiastic and encouraging, we thought she’d be a great person to ask about producing our album,” Chris says.
“Basically,” Sean says, cracking his slow smile, “we asked Alison and she said yes and we were really, really happy, so we went out to her house and ate a bunch of cereal and ice cream.”
The album was a huge success, earning Grammy nominations, selling nearly a million copies, and cementing Nickel Creek’s reputation right out of the gate. The media coverage was explosive: there was a spread in The New York Times, and Time magazine named them as one of the musical innovators of the 21st century. Their videos received heavy rotation on CMT.
However, the band was quickly stickered with as many labels as journalists could throw at them. Among them: newgrass, youthgrass, bluegrass with an edge, accelerated bluegrass, postmodern bluegrass. At the same time, some fans of traditional bluegrass cried foul, saying the band was bastardizing the form. Country music wanted to claim them as part of the hat family, too. According to the band, all this talk affected their follow-up disc, 2002’s This Side, even though it didn’t hurt their sales or popularity.
“I think that album was possibly, slightly artificially pop-colored or rock-colored or whatever,” Chris says, raking a hand through his disobeying hair. “We were reacting too violently to how strongly people were categorizing us as a bluegrass band or a country band. Certainly we feel very little if any ties to country and ambiguous ties to bluegrass. That’s just not who we are. People made assumptions about us and I think it affected our creative output.”
“It was slightly conceived,” Sara agrees.
Sean has been thinking throughout all this, so he offers his take on it: “I don’t understand — well, I do understand, but that question comes up so much: ‘How do you categorize yourself?’ I guess a lot of bands do consciously decide what they want to be. But we don’t. We just want to make music, period.”
The whole surge of popularity also led to Nickel Creek often being deemed the leaders of a new wave of music, a new generation of people who were revamping or updating old forms, a notion they reject. Instead, they say that the whole “renaissance” of acoustic music happened because of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Since they came onto the national scene at about the same time as that soundtrack was released, they got some credit for the new wave of interest, especially since they were seen as an update of the form.
“I think O Brother made the people with money in the industry realize that there was money in music like that,” Chris says. “I do cringe when I think that Americans might be thinking, ‘Oh, how quaint. Our roots, how sweet.”
They believe that other bands at the forefront of acoustic music — namely Old Crow Medicine Show, the Be Good Tanyas, and the Duhks — all completely believe in what they’re doing, and haven’t jumped on any kind of bandwagon. “I don’t think people go into this kind of music to be part of any kind of scene,” Sara says, suddenly sitting upright and sliding her bare feet into the flip-flops parked in front of the couch. This is something she seems to do anytime she feels passionate about what she’s saying.
“We don’t feel we’re bringing roots music to a new generation. Because we can’t care about that or think about that,” Chris says. “What we we’re on fire to do is create something lasting. I’m envious of a band like Radiohead, a band that’s always looking forward and trying to create. We identify with that desire, and obviously you have to be mining the past for influence and inspiration.”
“And there’s always that idea of a musical truth,” Sara says. “Especially a musical truth that’s lasted for generations, like the music we draw on.”
Among the elements of the past the group drew on for the new album is literature. Chris says that while writing and recording this record, he had in mind particularly books such as Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, a cynical look at love, and Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, a meditation on taking things too far.
This is a band, after all, that seems to get more excited about literature than partying, and that thanks booksellers in its liner notes. The mere mention of reading sets Chris off on a discussion of the best books he’s ever read. He says that literature feeds their music. “Reading illuminates the events in my own life,” he says. “Experiencing life can be so much more vivid if you have that story rolling in your head, if you see a page with description and dialogue for everything you’re experiencing.”
Sara claims to be a slow reader, yet rattles off a list of recently read books. Sean says that they all love to read (among his favorite authors are Twain and C.S. Lewis) but claims he’s been in a slump lately, mostly because he devotes every waking moment to music.
Back to that thing about partying. Sara says that they don’t party much, but Chris interrupts to quietly disagree. “Well, sometimes we party.”
“We’re not like dying of a hangover the next day. We don’t party like that,” Sara says. “We don’t have any kind of consistent agenda of playing a show and getting wasted.”
Although they don’t have a problem with partying, a discussion of country music does make them cringe.
“Well, I feel a part of it, but I don’t feel I’m swimming in it,” Sara says, pushing her hair out of her eyes. “Mainstream country radio doesn’t excite me at all. I don’t even listen to it. And I have no idea what’s going on in the country music industry.”
They do feel a debt to CMT, which they think is one of the major places that sales-based discoveries of them occurred. But the CMA Awards are a different story. Having received four nominations altogether from the Country Music Association, they were once invited to play on the awards show. They ended up being one of the few acts to play live, which troubled them to no end.
“I mean, it’s country music, and it’s supposed to be about honesty,” Sara says, “and here are all these people lip-syncing.”
“The problem is, you have people calling themselves country who have no idea. The label has shifted,” Sean says. “It’s not country anymore. It’s all these people walking around trying so very hard to look cool, and it’s just…frustrating.”
“Country is so image-driven,” Chris says, “And it shouldn’t be at all. It’s disheartening.”
Some critics within the music world have suggested that Nickel Creek is image-conscious, too. After all, they have The Look. However, when a list of journalists’ quotes on their beauty is read off (“stunningly good looking,” “beautiful,” “sex symbols of bluegrass”), the room is filled with uproarious, knee-slapping laughter.
“We never think about that,” Chris says. “If you’re young and people think you’re trying to look hip, then they’ll unconsciously turn against you as they’re listening…”
“I’ve done that to bands,” Sara says. “I admit it. Like Kings Of Leon.”
“Yeah, I did to the Strokes, I think,” Chris says, after serious thought. “They’re so cool-looking and they have these big long rock star names and somehow the hype played against them, was a little too perfect. And it’s a great record, I love their music, but that’s in the back of my mind.”
The members of Nickel Creek are so self-deprecating that it’s easy to believe they don’t try to look a particular way, even though publicity photos of them are often incredibly slick and — along with those booksellers — stylists and groomers are also mentioned in their liner notes. What saves them is that it’s clear they care more about putting out music with true dignity than they care about their outfits.
Later, at the Station Inn show, the band does not look hip. Instead, they just look like normal twentysomethings. Sara is wearing a shirt that reads DOLLY FOR PRESIDENT with jeans and heels. Sean looks as if he rolled straight out of bed and pulled on whatever he found with sleepy eyes while yawning and sticking a hand into his closet. Chris wears ancient-looking dress pants with a Chicago Cubs t-shirt. What’s most attractive about their appearance is that they all seem completely comfortable in their own skins. And what’s even more appealing is that it’s painfully obvious they spend a lot more time thinking about their music than their wardrobe. In the end, that shines through more clearly than anything else.
More than literature, more than Scotch whiskey, more than friendship, Nickel Creek is driven by music, by the idea of creation. Every single conversation comes back to that somehow, no matter what. Even as children, they rarely, if ever, had to be told to practice. All of them were home-schooled at some point in their education (Sean spent only his junior and senior years not in school). But they say they never felt left out of anything because of their music.
“When I was going to school, I’d get up two hours early so I could practice,” Sara says.
“A day of relaxation to me would be that I’d get up, go get some coffee, come back to the house and go into my garage that I’ve just got filled with amps and pianos and guitars and stand there and think, ‘Sweet, now I can just play all day long,'” Sean says. “It all goes back to music, for all of us, I think.”
“Relaxing really stresses me out,” Chris says. “But I never look at playing music as work.” He knew he wanted to be a mandolin player by the time he was a toddler and has never looked back since. In fact, he says that music is a life-force. Recently divorced after 18 months of marriage, he believes music got him through that rough time. “To be able to bury myself in music has saved me, has helped me deal with the end of a serious relationship,” he says. “It’s a healthy way to face those kinds of demons, both in your input of musical information and the output of it.”
Sara and Sean say they don’t have any major painful experiences to claim, and they realize how lucky they are.
“I’ve definitely been grateful to have a place to put my emotions,” Sean says. “There are times when you’re afraid or uncertain or trying to figure things out, and I’ve been glad to be able to write songs that allow me to analyze myself, help me decide how to handle a situation.”
Sara sits up, slides her feet back into her shoes, and rubs her hands together as if very cold. “I’ve not had any huge shakeups that couldn’t be comforted within a couple of weeks by parents or friends,” she says, quietly. “Music has made me comfortable being myself because I’ve had something to work for, people around who challenged me. So I’ve been lucky. I mean, I’ve never been divorced, or had anything that absolutely flattened me. Not yet. I’m sure I will. But seeing Chris go through his divorce made me think about life differently, about songs differently. Music seems like this huge vein in my life. This vein that runs through everything, and it’s hard for me to separate any one part of my life from music.”
Faith has also played an important role in all three of their lives. While one of their most beloved numbers, “The Hand Song”, helped to identify them as a band that was faith-based, they’ve also been open to doubt and questioning, and haven’t been pigeonholed as a Christian group by any means.
“We grew up in a Christian home, but our parents believed that we should figure out what we believed ourselves,” Sean says, his tone and face more serious than they’ve been the entire evening. “They taught us that religion was between us and God, so lately I’ve been figuring out what I believe. Everybody has to do that; it’s a part of being honest with and about yourself.”
“I was raised to know what you believed and to live life through what you believed,” Chris offers. “There was nothing more important. Still, though, I have to figure out my whole belief system. It’s upsetting for an unflagging idealist like myself to have doubt, and that’s one issue we’ve tackled on the new album.”
It’s one issue among many that make up one solid, beautiful record — clearly the best of Nickel Creek’s career so far. Why Should The Fire Die? is filled with character studies, rousing and complex instrumentals, slow-burning and aggressive explosions of song that defy categorization, and ballads delivered with such vocal clarity that their power can’t be missed. It’s also their most mature album, lyrically, musically, and overall.
“We felt like a new band when we went into record this album,” Sara says.
“We had finally accepted who we are and we’ve accepted what kind of music we make,” Chris says. “Our roots are in assimilation. Having grown up in California, that’s a patchwork quilt society. A melting pot among melting pots. It’s like Cal-Asian food. If you eat it and separate everything out and think, ‘Well, that tastes good, and so does this,’ you lose the overall flavor of it all coming together. You should just think, ‘I don’t know what the hell this food is, but it tastes really great.’ We’d like to be that, music-wise.”
“Having been raised in California helped to foster that adventurous spirit we have about music,” Sean says.
The album was recorded in Los Angeles with producers Eric Valentine and Tony Berg. They used classic analog equipment and single-stereo microphones, often incorporating sonic touches such as 1940s wire recorders or vintage reverb. The band says the use of tapes made them feel as if they were recording “a real record.”
“It felt really cool when they’d say, ‘OK, we’re rolling,'” Sean says. “You feel differently when you’re putting something on tape. When working with computers, you feel as if you’re just making a file. So somehow, this felt more real.”
There are many reasons they like the use of tape recording. They believe it lends immediacy, and that it changed the way they played in the studio.
“You know you can’t edit the hell out of it, without a serious headache,” Chris says. “So, in some way, it makes you play better.”
There were no hard feelings between the band and the famous producer of their previous two albums, Alison Krauss. All parties knew it was simply time for a change, time to move on. They met with Valentine, who had worked with Queens Of The Stone Age and Smashmouth, shortly before recording the album, and they knew immediately he was the right man for the job. Valentine wanted to bring a second set of ears on board and invited Berg, who had previously overseen projects by Edie Brickell, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn.
All three band members contribute songs on the album. There’s also a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”, which Sara has been performing for awhile on the road. Her treatment of the tune is haunting, deceptively simple, and beautiful. During the Station Inn show, everyone seemed transfixed while she breathed out each syllable as if individually realizing and relishing the beauty of not only the music, but also the words.
Sara doesn’t have so much faith in her voice, though. “I’m not half as prolific as the boys,” she says, “so I have to really look around for songs that work for my voice. We ended up using this song because everything just came together nicely on it,” she says, segueing to give someone besides herself credit. “Sean did this beautiful guitar part and Chris gave it this wonderful mandolin treatment. It’s just sad and pretty, and it took me a while to figure out how to do it well, to sing it honestly.”
Three instrumentals are interspersed throughout the album. “Stumptown” is a tribute to Chris’ favorite coffee shop (in Portland, Oregon), but is the most Appalachian-flavored on the record. “First And Last Waltz” is among their most beautiful compositions; they wrote half of it at a soundcheck and later finished it “in a fury, ten minutes before a show,” so that they’d have a new song to open with. Chris is especially pleased with the way the producers treated his mandolin on the song; he’s playing with a felt pick and is accentuated by reverb. The aforementioned “Scotch And Chocolate” may be among their most complex songs and is a definite crowd-pleaser; it caused everyone at the Station Inn to erupt in cheers and applause.
Some tracks are best described as wonderful aggression. First, there’s “Helena”, in which the music builds and builds to a detonation of mandolins, guitars, piano, bass, and even drums. “The music keeps gaining tension and it has to explode at the end,” Sara says. Chris agrees: “We hadn’t planned any of that, but it felt as if we’d be ripping the listener off if we didn’t relieve the tension with this explosion of music at the end.”
Sara’s voice, so sweet and soft on previous albums, shows a new intensity on another aggressive track, “Best Of Luck”. She belts out the song in a voice that sounds surprisingly close to that of an angry Cyndi Lauper (which is a good thing, since we all know that Lauper is the true best pop vocalist of the ’80s, not Madonna).
“The music on that song was actually a rather violent reaction to being backstage at the CMA Awards,” Chris says.
If Sara’s vocals have improved, so have bandmates’. It’s hard to say anything bad about Sean’s delivery on “Somebody More Like You”, which goes from soft to angry and back again, flirting with both acoustic and techno rhythms. Chris is in high form as well, especially on “Helena”, “Doubting Thomas” (a meditation on questioning faith), and “Can’t Complain”, where he takes on the point of view of a character who has resigned himself to being a jerk.
Chris also fronts “Eveline”, which may or may not be the most fatalistic track on a dark yet strangely joyous album that is saved from complete darkness by ultimately being shot through with light and hope on such songs as “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and “When In Rome”. The latter is to be their first single and video, perhaps chosen to announce the sonic uniqueness of this album, with its rollicking chorus and intense vocals.
Then, too, there’s “Anthony”, which seems a polar opposite in its simplicity and quietness and seems destined to become a fan favorite. Sounding like something out of the 1920s, the song finds Sara plucking at a ukulele while Chris and Sean can be heard stumbling in to join her. “They had had a little wine that day,” Sara says, “And you can hear it in the drunken whistles midway through the song.” Onstage they perform the song in vaudeville fashion, gathering around a single microphone and holding their instruments up high on short musical interludes, looking skyward with a smile on their face, but not on their lips. The song was also recorded around one mike, as was the title track, which offers a completely new sound from Nickel Creek in a tight three-part harmony.
“What I’m most proud of is the songwriting,” Chris says. “We’ve created some interesting characters and some unique situations. And it’s a cohesive album. The lyrics match the chords and the production. It just all goes together and forms a complete package that we’re very proud of.”
They’re also proud of having been together for sixteen years, even though none of them have yet reached the age of 30. It’s easy to see how close they are. Sean goes to get coffee for everyone and reaches particular cups out to his sister and friend. “I guess you want the Hogwarts mug,” he says, and Chris takes it eagerly. “Good old Hogwarts,” Chris says, petting the side of the cup dramatically. They feel free to interrupt one another, yet are innately polite enough to apologize to the other about it later. Whenever Sara and Sean argue about a fact that they both seem convinced of, smiles never leave their faces while Chris sits back and watches with amusement. They seem to have pulled off the strange and vicarious balancing act of retaining their own individuality while also being a complete part of a unit that is almost telepathic in nature.
“We grew up together,” Sara says. “We went through transitions together, found our individual roles together, so there are no egos competing against one another. We knew each other before there was a chance for an ego to be created.”
She grows reflective, almost melancholy. “Everything has changed so much and that has brought some frustrations with it, but then we’re outside playing basketball as friends and we were always able to get through the challenges together.”
“We’re completely aware how lucky we are to be in this situation, to have each other,” Chris says. “So any little nagging problem that might exist is worth overcoming because of the advantages we have as a group.”
“We give each other a lot of freedom, and that’s the key,” Sean says. “If you only have one outlet it’s easier to get frustrated, but when you have a lot of different outlets, it all works out.”
Sean has just finished his third solo album, Chris is beginning work on one, and Sara will start recording her first solo effort in January.
Chris sits forward, interlocks his fingers, as if about to announce something of the utmost importance. “We can intuit so many things about each other, whether it be onstage or in the studio, or writing together. We’re aware that this is something we’ll never find again, and we appreciate that. There are some really really deep-seated connections here.”
It’s plain to see that he’s right. Literature, coffee, Scotch. All these things join them, but the real thread that runs between them is music. And really, in the end, isn’t that all that matters?
ND contributing editor Silas House’s latest novel is The Coal Tattoo. Spending two evenings with Nickel Creek convinced him what a truly bad musician he is.