SPOTLIGHT: Sara Watkins Offers Space to Imagine and Dream ‘Under the Pepper Tree’
Photo by Jacob Boll
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Watkins is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for March 2021. Look for more about her and her new album, Under the Pepper Tree (out March 26), all month long.
The pepper trees that grow in Southern California loom large in Sara Watkins’ childhood memories.
“Growing up, there was a pepper tree that reached out over the shop and my brother and I would hammer scraps of wood into it and make a treehouse, just climb all over it,” she remembers in a call from her current home in Los Angeles, where a pepper tree leans in from a neighbor’s yard. “There’s another one at my grandma’s house, we did family reunions under it. The leaves and the little peppers drop and they create this really smooth mulch, it’s great for barefoot running. … The tree itself is sort of willowy in that the branches drape down and it creates this shelter. And so it can feel like you’re in your own little world when you’re under it. It’s a great place just to be and imagine.”
That’s the setting Watkins wanted to recreate sonically with her new album, Under the Pepper Tree, out March 26 on New West Records. Its 15 songs, gathered both from her own childhood favorites and through the lens of being a mother to her 3-year-old daughter, provide a soft space for children to be themselves.
Absent from the track list are well-worn classics of the children’s genre — no “Old MacDonald” or “Wheels on the Bus.” What stood out to Watkins, then and now, were cultural touchstones like “Pure Imagination” (from the 1971 Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory movie), “Moon River,” and Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
“These songs are all songs that I’ve carried with me and have served me as a grownup as well — and that’s something that was very important to me,” she explains. “I wanted to record songs for families. I wanted it to be songs for children, but not the typical children’s songs. I’m always interested in holiday songs that don’t say the word ‘Christmas’ in them, but that feel Christmasy to me. And that’s sort of what I was looking for in this category as well.”
Rhythms and Routines
As the pandemic shelved plans for tours and travel, Watkins found a new focus on the routines and rhythms of home — all the more important with a young child in the family. After dinner, but before her daughter’s bath time — for however long that time might last — Watkins’ family has developed a ritual of making music together to wind down the day.
“It’s been a really special part of the day,” she says, and Under the Pepper Tree sets out to share a little of that magic.
She recounts a conversation with singer-songwriter David Garza, who plays on the record’s rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer,” that pointed to how music can carry kids and grownups alike through turbulent times, even if the turmoil is simply brought on by bedtime.
“He said, ‘Oh yeah, it makes total sense,’” Watkins remembers. “Music helps us with transitions. It helps us when we’re transitioning into love, transitioning out of love, transitioning into different times in life, transitioning into the unknown. And this is a record that sort of transitions from your reality of the day and everything that happened to the imaginative place that we all go just before we go to sleep.”
The album is split into two sides, with the songs flowing seamlessly on each — just the right span for a pre-bedtime listen, perhaps. While listening, a child could spend a lot of time with the album’s artwork, whimsical collage work in bright natural colors by Adam Sniezek, with lots of tiny surprises tucked in. And their grownups might find a lot to like in the album credits. Supplementing Watkins’ soaring voice and expressive fiddle playing are an array of guests, including her Nickel Creek bandmates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins on ‘’Blue Shadows on the Trail,” a cowboy song from the 1986 comedy The Three Amigos, an old favorite of the band when they themselves were children. Another band reunion comes on “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” with dreamy harmonies from I’m With Her’s Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith duets on Harry Nilsson’s “Blanket for a Sail,” but the most delightful guest vocal appears on “Edelweiss,” as Watkins’ daughter is heard singing along shyly at first, and then with more heart, as if recognizing the song as a familiar friend.
“She came down from a nap and she saw my computer out and the microphone and stuff, and she had never listened to her voice through headphones before,” Watkins remembers of that recording session. She’d been editing some demos at home, but she decided in that moment to indulge her daughter’s curiosity and have her join in on a song she knew from repeated viewings of The Sound of Music. “I only got one pass and then she started goofing off. And so it was just going to be a little practice run, but it turns out it’s the only time I could get her to sing it, so that’s the one you hear.”
One Thing at a Time
As she gets used to making music amid being a mother (Brother Sister, her 2020 album with her brother, Sean Watkins, was made largely during her daughter’s naptimes), Watkins recalls words of wisdom she received from legendary producer Don Was, who’s often juggling multiple bands, events, and recording projects.
“I said, ‘How do you do all this stuff?’” she recalls. “And he was like, ‘Just do one thing at a time. Whatever you’re doing, focus on it completely. And then when it’s time to do something else, focus on that completely.’ I think about that a lot. Multitasking is a great skill to have, but it can also feel pretty endless and ultimately unsatisfying. So I find that when I can focus, when I can block things out — if I can manage to block things out — that’s my favorite way to operate, to just be doing one thing at a time.”
For Under the Pepper Tree, Watkins’ one focus was to invite listeners into a soft place to sit and wonder and dream, but she had more than one audience in mind.
“I feel like there’s this very hopeful message in these songs that we often offer to kids, this optimism, this hope, this benefit-of-the-doubt kind of mentality that we give to kids,” she says, “but we don’t give it to ourselves very often as adults. I think that’s the part of the record that makes me sometimes reluctant to just call it a kids record. Not to diminish the value of a record that’s just for children. But to me, I also hope that older listeners will be able to receive some comfort from the love that’s in these songs and the kindness that’s in these songs.”