NPR listeners first met fiddle player Sara Watkins in Nickel Creek — the trio of prodigies that brought a youthful spirit to a bluegrass world that reveres its elders. Once she started making solo albums, however, she figured out what maturity sounds like for her.
Gary Paczosa engineered the pair of Nickel Creek albums that put the band on the map, both of which were produced by Alison Krauss. Paczosa remembers Krauss remarking on Watkins's place in the Nickel Creek dynamic, which matched her with her friend Chris Thile and brother Sean Watkins.
"She was definitely with her big brother and with Chris Thile," he says, "and they were best friends, and that it would be a really tough situation to be with teenage boys, you know?"
Watkins stayed the path with her bandmates until they'd all reached their mid-20s.
"When you're in a tight community like that — I think that's one of the reasons people go away to college," Watkins says. "You know, you get to leave behind this high-school thing where everyone knows everything about you, and you can start over in a way and decide who you wanna be and try things out."
One thing she decided she wanted to be was a serious songwriter. With Nickel Creek, she'd mostly just dabbled.
"I was writing little things, trying out ideas, for a few years when I was a teenager," Watkins says. "I remember just kinda running them by friends. Sometimes it was Chris and Sean, just like on the airplane, just have them read through something. They'd be like, 'I really like this or this. I don't understand what you're talking about, though. What is that?' I was being very vague. I couldn't really put my finger on what I wanted to say, or I didn't know how to say it in a way that didn't seem super corny. I was learning."
She kept learning through her two previous solo albums. Young in All the Wrong Ways marks the first time she's written or co-written every track. Watkins says she also worked on expressing more through her singing.
"I realized I'm not a particularly meek person," Watkins says. "I'm a sentimental person for sure. I appreciate the history of musicians and tradition. I think that comes from growing up in a traditional music, where what lasts, what's time-tested, is really where you identify the quality. But I'm also just living today, and I really want what's happening in my life right now, I want to dig into that enough that I have stuff to say about it."
Since she started playing professionally, Watkins has always had some sort of backup: a band, a label, a manager. But she had none of that when she decided to record this time. So she called on some old friends, including Gabe Witcher, her Nickel Creek bandmate, who now plays in Punch Brothers alongside Chris Thile. She and Witcher grew up going to bluegrass festivals together and competing against each other in fiddle contests. (Witcher always beat her, she says — but they've always stayed friends.)
Gary Paczosa says he's tried to keep an eye out for Watkins. When she and I visited Minutia Studio, where Paczosa has been recording her music since she was 17, he told her so himself: "It's been a thrilling thing for a lot of people just to see you completely open up and find yourself, after you already had done this great thing in this band, but then on your own to really take it somewhere else."
For Watkins, it's been fun to do. But, fun or not, she's had to work at owning the role of frontwoman.
"When it's your show, it's you for two hours," Watkins says. "I think in the past, I have felt reluctant or greedy or selfish if I indulged in that too much, if I even acknowledge that that's what's happening."
Sara Watkins no longer feels the need to apologize for standing on her own.