A few things stand out when you listen to Sara Watkins' latest album, Sun Midnight Sun (Nonesuch): heartbreak and heartache are plentiful, her famous friends are out in full force (including Fiona Apple, Jackson Browne, and Benmont Tench), and for a fiddle virtuoso coming off 20 years as one-third of famed folk band Nickel Creek, she sure does love to let her pop star shine.
Watkins knows this new record is a departure from her 2009 eponymous solo debut. It's all part of the new reality she's been cultivating — growing up, getting outside her own mind, and challenging herself.
"The first record was establishing a home base, collecting the sources, the places I came from musically," Watkins says, speaking just before the start of a summer tour with Browne. "A lot of my past is represented on the first record. I knew that's what I was doing, establishing a base camp. Making my second record, I got to enjoy stepping away from that, and I got to enjoy collaborating with some new people, namely Blake Mills [from Dawes], who produced the record. We could explore and discover each song as we were recording it."
Watkins says Mills was able to push her well beyond her comfort zone, allowing Sun Midnight Sun to evolve in ways she couldn't fathom.
"He brought some fresh ears to a lot of the songs," Watkins laughs. "I'd brought the songs to a place I was comfortable with, but I wanted to be a little less comfortable with them. I wanted to have outside influences on my songs. So much of those songs just came out of my brain, which can be really boring. I wanted to have the kind of collaboration that I grew up with with the band. Blake, being not as familiar with the ruts that I had gotten in, he heard these songs with a lot more potential than I could see and I got to benefit from his creativity."
Watkins met Mills through mutual friends at the famed Hollywood venue Largo. Watkins had spent years there co-hosting the Watkins Family Hour, a monthly musical showcase with her brother Sean, also of Nickel Creek. She credits Largo with fostering the partnerships that made Sun possible.
Largo is also where Watkins developed relationships with Browne and Apple, and both add touches of brilliance to Sun. The standout is the blistering duet between Watkins and Apple covering the Everly Brothers' "You're the One I Love." It's a tense, invigorating number — the vocal equivalent of a smack to the face — that leaves the listener breathless by the end.
"Good!" Watkins laughs at the suggestion. "We were breathless, too."
The creative community that's arisen around the venue, paired with her years as a driving force in the folk music scene, have made the 31-year-old a sought-after collaborator, including stints with the Decemberists and A Prairie Home Companion, among countless others.
"I'm very lucky," Watkins says, still awed and humbled by her good fortune. "I feel like I've been in the right place at the right time on many occasions. My whole life, maybe."
Apple and Watkins had sung the song live a few times in the past during the Watkins Family Hour, but this was their first attempt at recording it — and very likely their last.
"We each had our own microphones and were facing each other in this small room and we sang it eight or 10 times," Watkins recalls. "It's a short song, but it thrashes our voices. The last four passes through the song, we got into a pretty good groove and it got more and more intense and more fun to sing. We knew what our last pass was for sure. It was the last two tracks, right back to back, and I'll never forget the feeling after that last pass. I was elated. And she and I just started laughing and we were like, 'OK, we're done.' "