Unlike some of the more enthusiastic Nickel Creek fans who are about to burst at the seams with excitement over the band's spring and summer tour, singer/guitarist Sean Watkins has a Zen-like calmness about him while chatting about the trio and the buzz of activity surrounding its new release, "A Dotted Line."
"It feels good, and it feels fun to be back at it," Watkins says. "It's seems very normal, but it also feels a little bit strange - in a cool way."
Sean Watkins, his younger sister Sara Watkins (fiddle/vocals) and bandmate Chris Thile (mandolin/vocals) formed Nickel Creek when they were all preteens in the San Diego area of Southern California.
As teenagers, the three core members of Nickel Creek developed their name on a sound as handsome and intriguing as any in the modern bluegrass and Americana scenes.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, they released five solid studio albums, as well as a "best of" album, and toured heavily around the world as one of the more progressive and innovative acoustic-based Americana acts on the circuit. Their 2002 album "This Side," a bold collection that blended elements of classical music, classic rock and modern/progressive jamgrass, snagged a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
After releasing its fifth album, "Why Should the Fire Die?" in 2006, Nickel Creek announced an indefinite hiatus and performed what they called the Farewell (For Now) Tour in 2007.
Over the past few years, Thile formed a new group called Punch Brothers and explored various styles of roots, folk and Americana with great success. Sara Watkins recorded solo material and worked with the likes of John Paul Jones (formerly of Led Zeppelin), Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne. Sean Watkins split his time between a side project called Fiction Family (with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot) and various collaborations in California.
"We've all explored different areas of music in recent years, playing solo shows and collaborating with various artists," Watkins says. "We've had to hold our own in different ways vocally, and that's led to us becoming better singers and musicians in general. I think it's easier for us to sing harmonies now, and we're enjoying it a lot more."
Now, seven years after their soft goodbye, the Nickel Creek three are back together, celebrating their 25th anniversary, making melodic music and singing in rich harmony.
More mature sound
Nickel Creek hooked up with Nonesuch Records and released the silky smooth, acoustic-based "A Dotted Line" in late March before hitting the road for a series of club dates and late-night TV performances.
"We know a lot of time has gone by since the last tour, so we're trying hard to figure out what old and new songs to feature," Watkins says. "We haven't come up with any hard left turns or anything. We're just trying to give fans a lot of what they want while introducing some new stuff. We capitalize on our harmonies a lot more now, and the new record reflects that. Whenever we could add a three-part harmony, we tried to do it. It still feels very natural for us, and it seems a bit easier somehow."
It's one thing for a serious musician to push themselves to perform as flawlessly and technically on the mark as possible while performing on stage, but it's another for them to simply ease back and try to enjoy the overall sound being created in the moment, regardless of how tight or loose the situation may be.
Nickel Creek's optimistic mood and tone might come from a cheerful new sense of maturity.
In a recent press release, Thile put it like this: "There's a joyful aspect to Nickel Creek no matter what we're doing. Things just steer themselves into that sort of place. We will go poke around in the dark corners but always with a heavy dose of optimism."
Sara Watkins chimed in, as well. "Having grown up singing together, there is something natural about our voices and it's really fun to harmonize," she says. "Our voices have come to match each other's really well. Sean and I are siblings, and Chris is about as close to a sibling as you could get."
As the eldest member and rhythmic anchor of the trio, Sean Watkins can easily appraise the technical proficiency of the band, but as an individual songwriter, he feels more confident than ever.
"I started writing songs that suit my voice better," Watkins adds. "I think I've become better at that. I realized a few things about myself in recent years. You know, when you're in your 30s, you start to feel a lot more comfortable in your own skin. I feel that way, musically and personally, and it's really nice. In general, I have a better handle on what I can do well, and I try to focus on that."
Mixing it up
Nickel Creek's spring and summer tour dates across the U.S. range from relatively small music clubs and roomy theaters to massive outdoor events such as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York.
"We still love doing shows for both small and large audiences," Watkins says. "Obviously, we'd like to play for as many people as possible while on tour, but make a conscious effort to do both large and smaller shows. We pick venues based on the ones that we like to play rather than just the size of the places."
The band welcomed bassist Mark Schatz as a special guest member for the current tour. As a quartet, they've been touching on a variety of old-school fan favorites and newer songs at every show.
"It's great to come back to these old songs and not feel like they define us as who we are; they're pieces of who we are," Watkins says. "We can play them and be happy and not worry about it. Each old song is a piece of our past, and we can celebrate that without worrying that people might judge us currently as musicians by the old songs.
"At the early shows on this tour, we've been pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction by audiences to our new songs," he adds. "There is definitely a mix of material in the sets we're playing on this tour. We want everyone to hear songs they'd like to hear. We can't do everybody's favorites, but we're doing our best to find a balance in the interest of the greater good."
So far, "A Dotted Line" has earned high praise from fans and critics. A review in The New York Times says, "The most striking feature about 'A Dotted Line' is the sheer strength of the singing, and the frequency with which it takes flight in three-part harmony. The signature Nickel Creek blend comes across loud and clear."
Despite the buzz and celebration over the new recordings and reunion show, Watkins says the band has no grand plans for the rest of 2014 and beyond.
"We're really just dealing with things this summer," he says. "That's all we can see at the moment. We'll be done in August, and we'll be doing our own separate things from there. You know, we'll always be a band, but we're not making huge plans beyond this year and this record. The stakes aren't so high, so it's a low-pressure situation, which I think allows us to be ourselves more these days. It's ideal, natural and easy."