Sean and Sara Watkins on Songwriting and Surviving as Brother and Sister
Photo by Jacob Boll
The cover of Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins’ new Watkins Family Hour album, brother sister, shows the siblings in a fit of giggles at a table in Sean’s backyard.
It’s a moment captured by photographer and Watkins friend Jacob Boll amid a day of professional portrait-taking. There were posed photos here, serious faces there, but for the moments in between, Boll brought along a disposable camera, and that’s what ended up taking the album cover shot.
“I don’t know, what do siblings laugh about?” says Sara when asked to recall what was happening in that moment. “It was just some stupid sibling moment, I think, and he took a picture with that little disposable camera and it ended up being what we thought was a great photo that encapsulates this brother-sister vibe.”
Brother sister, the second Watkins Family Hour album and the first of original songs that Sean and Sara wrote as a duo, “very much felt family-ish in lots of other ways,” says Sean, who is four years older than Sara (read ND’s review here). The siblings, who live about 20 minutes away from each other in Los Angeles, wrote songs at Sara’s house while her toddler napped, and their dad did the handlettering on the album’s packaging.
The Watkins Family Hour project itself stems from a family-style live show they launched at Los Angeles’ Largo club in 2002. Their periodic shows there often feature their friends and sometimes surprising musical guests, and they captured the free-wheeling feel of the residency on 2015’s self-titled Watkins Family Hour album. That album was all covers, though; for brother sister, Sean and Sara decided to sit down and do something new: write songs together.
While both siblings are seasoned songwriters, both solo and with others (Sara with I’m With Her, Sean with Fiction Family, and both along with Chris Thile in Nickel Creek), they’d never written together for themselves before, and the songs that resulted showcase both their instrumental and lyrical strengths, along with sibling harmonies that weave it all together.
Their long relationship as siblings and musicians helped move the songwriting process along and polish the songs to perfection (with help, they add, from their producer, Mike Viola).
“The main thing, whether you’re related or not, is communication,” Sara says. “Sean and I have learned to communicate pretty well and clearly in that we trust each other’s opinions.”
The closeness that girds that trust can also restrict songwriting,
For much of their lives, though, the siblings lived essentially parallel experiences as they grew up together and toured together, which is why songwriting collaboration before this point in their lives might not have come off as well as it did now, Sara muses.
“In the past we’ve had a lot of redundancies in terms of life experiences,” she says. “It’s convenient in some ways because it can aid in the shortcuts of communication, but in other ways it doesn’t lend itself toward an expansion of thought.”
But in recent years, as happens when siblings become adults and launch lives and families of their own, Sean and Sara had spent more time apart, which meant they had a lot to write about when they came together.
“On this record the timing was really good for us to blend those advantages of a shared foundation and way of communicating and familiarity combined with spending a lot of time apart from each other, and writing with [other] people and working with other people and just living separate lives,” Sara adds. “And I think that range of life experience has lent itself to a much more interesting songwriting than would have come out of us, say, five years ago or 10 years ago.”
Brother sister came out last Friday, which happened to be National Sibling Day, so in addition to talking about the album, we also wanted to get to know them as brother and sister. Here’s the conversation that ensued (edited for length and clarity):
SEAN: I feel like with the quarantine that’s happening right now, so many people are planting a garden. What’s in your garden that’s growing that you’re excited about?
SARA: We cleaned out the cellar and I found a bag of potatoes that’s been in there for I don’t know how long. And so I chopped a bunch of potatoes and planted those to see if they’ll grow. And I planted sort of haphazardly — my toddler helped me plant some seeds for carrots and green beans, and then I’ve got a pepper and a couple of tomato plants and some berry bushes and fruit trees as well that have been there for a while in the yard.
SEAN: What kind of berries?
SARA: I think I actually found olallieberries, which is the same berry that our Grandma Nordstrom had, she had a berry patch that Sean and I frequented growing up and they were olallieberries, which is a lesser-known blackberry.
I’ve been taking advantage of all of this time to get my hands in the dirt and plant and weed and all of that stuff. It’s springtime. It’s good. It’s a good time to be doing all of this. The ground is soft and it’s a good time to kind of turn everything over. I feel like there are always so many great metaphors that I come back to with turning over the ground and weeding and getting your hands dirty and tending to things. I even remember my Grandma Nordstrom talking about how — she would very often let the weeds grow a little bit and not pull them right away because you don’t always know what they’re going to turn into. Even though you didn’t purposely plant the seeds, it might turn into something that’s good or that you like. And I think about that a lot with people and personalities. You don’t always know exactly how people are going to develop or how thoughts are going to develop and it’s not always best to criticize or jump on people when you don’t necessarily know how someone’s going to evolve or their thought process might evolve.
SEAN: I was texting with Benmont Tench — he’s a big part of the Watkins Family Hour, he’s a musical hero of ours but also a really good friend — yesterday and just checking in, and he said he’s just trying to learn all he can during this time. Is there anything that you’ve learned because of having to be home and not work and everything that we’re doing that you feel like you’ll take with you going forward?
SARA: I was thinking today, like, if Instagram didn’t exist, would I just put my phone away and hang around the house and just do stuff and not be on my phone? Would I just be fine without it and probably be better off? Not even just Instagram, just like my normal, semi-productive internet routine sometimes if it’s distracted by, say, a human being, gets me cranky. And so I’ve been thinking about just, like, hiding my phone from myself all day long and trying to just be in the moment as much as possible with my thoughts and the people who are in my community and in my house. So I think it’s the basic hang-up-and-hang-out kind of lesson that a lot of us are learning right now.
Sean, have you worked on anything musically that you wouldn’t have worked on if we were on tour right now?
SEAN: Yeah, I definitely have. Like a week ago I decided to make a daily musical journal, basically, and just sit down in my home studio and record whatever comes to mind, usually instrumental, and then also say something. So I did, starting April 1, I just sat down after dinner. The idea is just to sit in front of the microphone with no plan and then just see what happens and then move on and not get too precious with it, not work on it too much.
So [on the first day] I said, “I’m going to start off playing pump organ.” And then I played something on pump, I added a guitar thing, and then I added a mellotron thing, and then I just left it. And then I’ve done that every day since. It’s been fun. And at the end of the month I’ll have something. Who knows if it’ll be useful for anything, but at least there’s like little songs starts, you know? And then at best there’s a cool little thing to have. I don’t know if anyone would want to listen to it or if I would want anyone to listen to it, but I’m just trying to take advantage of this time and the feelings that are happening.
SARA: I was asked to do a little performance in a few days, like a lullaby Instagram live thing. And I like the idea of a specific assignment instead of just playing a couple songs. And so I’ve been working up a bunch of lullaby kind of songs, including “Second Star to the Right,” which is from Peter Pan. It’s really beautiful. And I’ve been messing around with it on fiddle. The whole singing and playing fiddle thing is always challenging, and it’s been really sweet to be able to have a specific, fun, kind of gorgeous challenge to try and figure out.
ND: I want to ask you guys a few questions about each other, going way back in your history as brother and sister. First, what was something your sibling did that drove you crazy when you were kids?
SEAN: Well, lots of stuff, but what phase, you know? There’s all these different phases.
SARA: Pick one!
SEAN: Well, one thing that Sara used to love is when I would write a song and have her record or sing on it with my little recording device, whatever it was, and as she would play, I would stop as soon as the note was dissatisfactory to me in some way and I would cut her off and be like, “Nope, start again. Nope. Nope, Nope.” Until she got so frustrated she usually would throw off the headphones and storm out of the room, and I would be like, ‘What’s the problem? We’re just recording. This is how you do it, right?”
SARA: Ug, terrible.
SEAN: Yeah. (Laughs.)
SARA: The thing that I think I bugged you about in the first house, like when we were younger, I know that I followed you and your friends around so much. I just remember following you guys and doing anything I could do to earn my keep as a tagalong.
SEAN: I don’t remember being annoyed with that at all!
SARA: We had this little orange grove and I remember you and your friends would have “orange wars” where you would just throw oranges — rotten oranges off the ground — at each other and you’d hide behind plywood boards that were around. I was the go-between to get ammo for you and your friends. You would just throw them at me, and I didn’t care! I was glad to earn participation.
SEAN: I’d forgotten about that! Yeah. We would throw the oranges at you while you were kindly getting oranges for each of us to throw at each other, Yeah, that was real nice. Good brother. (Laughs.)
ND: Let me end it by asking something nicer. Is there a trait in your sibling that you admire?
SARA AND SEAN: [Long silence.]