Sara and Sean Watkins are a brother and sister duo who have been playing in bands together since before they were teenagers. They formed the Grammy award winning folk band Nickel Creek with Chris Thile in the early 90’s, and in 2002, The Watkins started hosting their own monthly musical stage show called “Watkins Family Hour” at the LA music and comedy club, Largo.
But the family hour wasn’t just for relatives. Sean and Sara would bring friends and other LA musicians -- like Jackson Browne and Fiona Apple -- and they would cover classic and traditional folk songs.
Now after putting on the live LA show for more than a decade, Watkins Family Hour has released its debut self-titled album and the band is going on tour.
The Frame's John Horn talks with Sara and Sean Watkins about why they decided to release an album now, their monthly shows at Largo and the dynamics of playing in a band with a sibling:
After performing together as the Watkins Family Hour for over a decade, why did you two decide to release an album now?
SEAN: We've always thought of the Watkins Family Hour as just a live show that we do at Largo. It's not recorded and now that's part of the beauty of it, like, going to play a show knowing that it's just going to happen that night and then it would just disappear. After doing it for 10 years, a friend of ours -- named Sheldon Gomberg who has a studio is Silverlake -- suggested we record some songs.
We had two or three days and we didn't know what we were gonna record until we did. We just did these covers -- picked a few covers that we liked -- and then Sara and I were talking with Fiona Apple who's a big part of the Watkins Family Hour, she was saying that she wanted to get out and play some shows. Somehow the idea of putting this record out and doing some shows around the states just came together.
How did Fiona Apple get involved with Watkins Family Hour and there's a number of different vocalists who were sitting in and doing songs with you guys. Is that pretty emblematic of the repertory that you were doing at Largo?
SARA: Yeah, everybody in the band sings on this record and we met Fiona at Largo when she was coming down a lot to sit in with Jon Brion when he had his weekly show. Most musicians we've met in town, we just kind of meet on stage and then you talk afterwards. But that's the kind of first impressions -- there's a lot of people who you just find yourself with and you get into it.
The people who've gone to Largo and seen Watkins Family Hour over the years, there's probably hundreds of songs you perform there?
SEAN: I would say maybe a hundred or a hundred fifty.
And you gotta cook it down quite a bit to pick the songs from the album.
SEAN: Well they come and go. I mean there's songs we did years ago that we've probably just completely forgot at this point. I was looking at old songs from 7 or 8 years ago and I didn't realize there were so many songs that we've completely haven't done in years.
SARA: And that's part of the fun of this band, is that you could do something once and that's fine. When you do a monthly show, you kind of have to mix it up and you have to bring new things to the table.
Or You'll go crazy.
SARA: Or you'll go crazy and the audience will get bored! You don't want them to have to see the same show every time. So you could play a show once and if it's good, maybe you'll play it again. If it was just kind of a fun lark then that's great, too.
So how do you pick the songs for the album?
SEAN: For the record, this was as loose as it could be. We literally just parked our cars and walked into the studio and said, 'What do you wanna do?' And one of us would say, 'How about this song?' The others would say, 'Great, what key?' And then we'll record it 4 or 5 times and listen back and pick the best take. All of the songs on the record are songs that stayed with us over the years. Like 'Early Morning Rain' is one we've been doing since we first started at Largo.
SARA: Very first show.
SEAN: Yeah, maybe the first show we did. It's fun to play on and it's just a beautiful song that sort of is timeless. So we tried to pick the ones that've been around and withstood the test of years of playing them.
SARA: A lot of these songs they won't be recorded on solo records or with other bands by us. They're just things that we do with the Watkins Family Hour. It was good to give those songs that have been with us for a long time, to give them a place.
As musicians who are playing together for so long, has that actually helped or hurt your relationship as siblings?
SARA: It's hard to say!
SEAN: Yeah! It hasn't hurt. I'm just really grateful, especially growing up, to have a sibling who is equally as into music. A lot of people don't have that. I dunno. What do you think?
SARA: I totally agree.
SEAN: Do you hate me?
SARA: [Laughs] It was really great to have just someone around who was into the same thing and it really helped when we were younger, because our parents would take us to bluegrass festivals and it was a family event. So instead of going on vacations, we just went to these things and it wasn't torn. There wasn't another kid who was interested in sports.
SEAN: And, you know, a lot of families -- there's one person who's really into music and another sibling who's kind of into it, but not as much. For us, it's strange because we're both equally as driven.
SARA: It was great to have company and even still if I'm writing a song, Sean's gonna be one of the first people who hears it. It's very common for us to play a song and be like, 'Hey, listen. I don't really need any feedback. I just need to play this for you.' And then maybe halfway through you just kind of like, 'Okay, thanks! Got it. I need to go work on it.'
When you guys have a disagreement or a conversation about music or about songs, are you having that conversation as bandmates, brother and sister or is there really a distinction between the two?
SEAN: We respect each other a lot musically. Honestly there's a lot of times when I'll like a song and Sara doesn't and she gives me a reason and I'm like, 'That's a great reason.' So I think we respect each other enough to talk about stuff and disagreements. We also totally argue like siblings on stage though. We're not afraid of that.
SARA: But the nice thing about having separate careers and then being able to come back together to do the Watkins Family Hour is that if something doesn't resonate with both of us, we can do it in a different situation and that's great. You know, this particular project -- Watkins Family Hour -- we've always wanted it to be a release and a celebration of commonality that we have with our guests who come and sit in. We encourage people to bring in cover songs that we might all know that we can we can celebrate and enjoy together.
The Watkins Family Hour's debut self-titled album is out now.