Sara Watkins Puts a New Spin on Classic Family Songs in an Artful Kids’ Album, ‘Under the Pepper Tree’

Sara Watkins Puts a New Spin on Classic Family Songs in an Artful Kids’ Album, ‘Under the Pepper Tree’

April 4, 2021

Family has almost always been a big part of what Sara Watkins has done; she rose to acclaim with her brother Sean as a member of the pop-bluegrass group Nickel Creek, then, as that band has mostly been on hiatus, has continued on with him as part of another beloved SoCal Americana troupe, the Watkins Family Hour. But now her concept of family is extending downward as well as laterally, with Watkins having a 3-year-old daughter that was largely the inspiration for her blissful new solo album, “Under the Pepper Tree.”

Most of the material is of a vintage that it’d fit comfortably into the playlist of a mom, grandma or even great-grandma: pop classics from Nilsson and the Beatles, a little Mancini in the night, two Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes, a couple of cowboy songs old and not-as-old, and, maybe inevitably, four pre-1960s Disney songs. In other words, accompaniment by a toddler is only suggested, not required. But Watkins says she’s embracing the “kids’ album” tag rather then resisting it, even if it’d be likely to find as much favor with her everyday fan base or appreciators of the Great American Songbook as with rattled parents looking for something to soothe the savage preschool breast.

It’s a beautiful piece of work, anyway, whether you appreciate it as a nostalgic boomer or as someone with an enforced 8 p.m. bedtime. Speaking of which, it fits into a very specific niche of children’s music: not a lullabys album per se, but one that Watkins has specifically targeted for that cooling-down mid-period between dinnertime and bedtime. Watkins also hopes many listeners will experience it as an LP, not just for the sake of vinyl fetishism but because of the deliberate, conceptual sequencing and because 12-inch jackets are just more more fun for kids to look at and hold.

Watkins spoke with Variety about how this unusual project came together over the last year.

VARIETY: It seems this might’ve been underway before COVID, because it sounds a pretty elaborate project, in terms of the instrumentation and guests.

WATKINS: Believe it or not, it didn’t start before the lockdown. It was kind of oddly kick-started by an Instagram Live series, where I was asked to do something for a magazine that wanted “calming songs to send you into the evening.” And I did “Blue Shadows on the Trail” (from “The Three Amigos”), “La La Lu” (from “Lady and the Tramp”) and a couple songs that didn’t make the record. Then I kept thinking about songs that I grew up with as a child that have that resonance with me, and thinking of them as instruments to help the transition to the evening time.

Especially then, we were really struggling to find the rhythm in the day. And throughout the year I’ve realized that it’s really nice to have — just small things that signify a place in time in the day, or a year, or whatever. Having never lived at home for more than a few weeks or a few months at a time at the most, this was a whole new experience for me, to discover what my daily rhythms are like at home. I have a 3-year-old now, so this is all relatively new to me, the home life rhythm. It was really interesting and helpful to have these moments that help divide the day up in ways that are useful for kids, for family life. I found that after dinner, there would be a little bit of time before we start the bath and the bedtime, and oftentimes we would just put on a record and do some relaxed, calming play. And for us, there were a lot of records from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were made for children, with beautiful artwork that my toddler loves to look at while we listen to it. So my personal family experience really influenced everything that went into making this record.

It influenced the songs that I chose – like (Nilsson’s) “Blanket for a Sail,” which has always seemed like a children’s song to me. And it influenced how we made the record, because I realized very quickly that I didn’t want to have every track separate. I wanted the tracks to flow together and be continuous and let each side of the record flow very naturally, as like one piece rather than five or six individual tracks. So we recorded the whole record with that process in mind, with all the transitions built into that sequence.

So it really is designed so that people will listen to the whole thing as a flow, rather than calling up a track at a time on streaming?

It’s designed to listen through. There are certain tracks that are separate; they have their own start and finish. And certainly for people streaming the record, each song is identified by a track name. But when you press play on the second track, which is “The Second Star to the Right,” you’re hearing a start point that we chose to make sense, but it’s not like a clean start. It’s a moment that is attached to the previous song. It’s not impossible to listen to it track by track. You can absolutely do that. But a huge part of what made this record something I wanted to do was this clear vision of people being able to put it on and have it just flow right by. People don’t have to listen to it on vinyl, but I do love the idea of just getting to put on a record and not having to worry about what to choose next.

I don’t know how you feel, but I’m really tired of making choices right now! I choose everything I watch from a zillion things that are available in the world. Or from all the songs that are available on streaming platforms, I’ve got to choose the song that I want to hear every time, and I’m to expect that it’s the one thing that will satisfy me. And I’ve found myself listening to the radio again, because I just want somebody else to make some choices for me. [Laughs.]

I find that vinyl is really nice, because I do get to choose the record, but then I just put it on and listen to it and I don’t have to worry about “Oh, the song’s ending, what am I going to listen to next?” Or it’s on shuffle — what if I don’t like the next song, then I’ve got to get my phone out and skip the song. Maybe that’s not something that everyone feels, but I’m sure that people are feeling this decision fatigue in their own lives, in their own ways. And this was one way that I’ve found some relief. I put on a record and I just let it play. It stops, I turn it over and I listen to it, and it’s what the musician wanted me to hear, and I can trust them and enjoy that ride. That’s my very long way of saying: Yeah, you can listen to individual tracks if you want to, but it was designed with the transitions from song to song, to be heard that way.

People are afraid of making albums that actually have song transitions anymore, because of how that’s not how people consume anymore.

The whole record is really about transitions. When I was in the studio, I was talking to my friend David Garza, who played on a few tracks, and he said, “That’s what music does: It helps us with transitions — transitions in and out of relationships, transitions into new phases of life, transitions for everything. And certainly for times of the day, right? That’s really what this record is hoping to do: help that transition from day to night, from real to surreal, from actual, tangible things to the imaginary. And at its best, that’s what evening time is for.

There’s a small history of albums that tread the line between being a “children’s album,” and then being something that families would experience together, or that even if you’re an adult and you just want to chill out a little bit, you might listen to without children. Do you think of this as a children’s album or do you resist that?

I have gone back and forth. At this point, I embrace it as a children’s record. But I think in other eras of my life, I have thought about children’s records as for children and not for me if I’m not a child, and that was part of my reluctance in calling it that. But I’ve realized I wouldn’t have made this record if I wasn’t a mom. I wouldn’t made this record if I wasn’t experiencing the music of my childhood in a new way, through the life and times of my daughter. And that’s what it’s for — it’s for kids. If this record became a part of children’s lives, in a way that they brought with them into their adulthood, I would be so honored. I think my reluctance in calling it a children’s record would be, “Well, maybe a grownup would like it too.” But that’s just me talking in terms of ego and hoping that a couple of grownups who I respect would listen to it, even though they don’t have kids.

And it’s a silly thing. In all truth, this record was made for kids and families in mind. I think that because a lot of these songs have been around for a long time, the familiarity might lend itself towards people from older generations, just in that it’s songs they recognize that probably held some place in their life at some point, in a distant memory, if nothing else.

What kind of balance, if any, did you strive for in song choices? Obviously, with a record like this, you’re going to go to Disney at some point, but you don’t want it to be all that.

I really tried to not have as much Disney on the record. But I just kept coming back to these songs that are attached to me and these beautiful melodies and harmonic shade shifts that happen in the old Disney songs. The lyrics are just so beautiful and hopeful, and I just kept coming back to them. “When You Wish Upon a Star,” I’d never really paid attention to the beautiful lyrics on the bridge before.

Ultimately I just realized that I wanted the album to be balanced in terms of flow more than original source material. I wanted each side to be balanced. It starts with a little bit of like bigger sounds and more energized songs, and each side brings it down and comes to a resting place — side A and side B do — then it sends you off to a final good night at the end of the record.

Also, there were a few songs that were new to me. (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s) “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” I knew that song frpm an Elvis Presley gospel record that I have, but it didn’t grab me. And Tyler Chester, who produced the record, reminded me of it by just playing it on guitar and hum-singing the melody, and I thought it was just gorgeous. And we listened to a bunch of other versions by people who have recorded it because it’s been recorded so many times, and none of those versions grabbed us. Production would be over the top; melody and lyric would be lost in the drama of it. I’m sure there are great versions out there that people have done, but I didn’t come across them in my little search. I’m really glad we recorded it. Also, I’d kind of forgotten about (the Beatles’) “Good Night” for a while. That was a song that I haven’t heard in a long time, not for any reason other than just somehow at the end of the White Album, sometimes I kind of get distracted, or turn it off, around the “number nine” point. [Laughs.]

We think of you as sort of usually coming to us in one of four components or transfigurations, all represented here: as a solo artist, as part of I’m With Her, as part of Nickel Creek and then a part of Watkins Family. With Nickel Creek, I think is your first new studio recording as a group in a good number of years.

It was really special to me to have both Nickel Creek and I’m With Her on the album because they’re huge parts of my life. Since I was 8, I’ve been in Nickel Creek, and we’ve spent so much life together. And a lot of that life was watching “Three Amigos” [laughs], and singing cowboy songs in general. I knew I wanted to record that song, but I also knew that I didn’t want to do it unless I was doing it with Sean (Watkins) and Chris (Thile). It wouldn’t feel right. So I emailed them, and they were both super-excited about it. We had to do it at a distance – Chris was in New York — but we collaborated as much as we could before putting the parts down.

And I’m With Her is my other life span. In our touring life, when our album came out, Aoife (O’Donovan) and I were able to bring our daughters out with us for the first two years of their lives, and it was an incredible experience to have with a band. I’m so grateful, so grateful, that everybody was so gracious and welcoming and supportive of that. And because this is an album inspired by and dedicated to families and kids — I keep saying “families” as a way to buffer it — it made so much sense to me to have Aoife and (Sarah) Jarosz on this record, doing a Sons of the Pioneers song (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), which we had never done before.

The song, “Pure Imagination” (from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) has not been covered that often, for its level of popularity.

What a song, man. What a song. We did our best to pay tribute to to the soaring dynamics, tempo dynamics and emotional dynamics in the original version with Gene Wilder’s vocal. Man, that song is just so deep. I’ve thought about the ins and outs of the original recording of it, how they must’ve done it.  I am just so curious about it. It works so well that it seems like a feat of magic to me. But nonetheless, we took it on. [Laughs.] I have to really give a lot of things to Tyler Chester for his work on this song, because it was his idea to basically start the process of recording by using the original as a foundational map for tempo and all of that stuff. The song really needs that same kind of movement to have the soaring quality that the original has, where it pushes and pulls, and Tyler and I wanted to try and give our version a similar motion and momentum that listeners want to hear when they hear that song.

Where does the album title, “Under the Pepper Tree,” come from? (The title track is an instrumental.)

Pepper trees are all over Southern California. And growing up in my childhood home, there was one that went over my dad’s shop, and my brother and I would climb it all the time and hammer 2×4 steps to make treehouses. My grandparents who lived up the road about a mile had a big one, too, that we all had picnics under when there were family reunions at my grandma’s house. Just the smell of peppercorns leaves this wonderful, soft blanket on the ground to walk on, so you can be running around in bare feet and it’s just this soft, cushy mulch. And it’s a sheltering tree. They’re everywhere. I was just out on a hike, and there’s this beautiful sheltering pepper tree on a loop near my parents’ house that has a swing built in it. Over the years, this tree has always been a place where I remember being a kid and seeing teenagers hanging out under there, getting some privacy. I think people have probably lived under that tree at different points in time. We went in and spent a couple hours under there recently. You really have this sense of shelter.

So that’s why I called it “Under the Pepper Tree.” It sounds really corny to say, but this tree doesn’t care who’s under it. It’s just there to offer shelter to people, and animals, and it’s there for anybody to go under that tree and feel safe and isolated. I feel like it’s a wonderful thing that trees offer us. Pepper trees in general have this willow shape that I think you can be under one and feel like it’s your whole world. It’s incredible for imagination.

The full “Under the Pepper Tree” track list:

1. Pure Imagination
2. The Second Star to the Right
3. Blue Shadows on the Trail (featuring Nickel Creek)
4. Edelweiss
5. Moon River
6. Under the Pepper Tree
7. When You Wish Upon A Star
8. Night Singing
9. La La Lu
10. Tumbling Tumbleweeds (featuring I’m With Her)
11. Blanket for a Sail
12. Beautiful Dreamer
13. Stay Awake
14. You’ll Never Walk Alone
15. Good Night

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