At the ripe old age of 39, Sean Watkins could be considered an old timer in the music business. He got his start playing guitar in the progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek when he was only 12; his sister Sara was on fiddle and Chris Thile was on the mandolin. Multiple Grammy nominations (and one win) later, Nickel Creek took a seven-year hiatus while its members pursued other musical projects. Thile went on to form Punch Brothers, and Sean and Sara put out solo albums.
Along the way, the siblings began playing regular shows at the Largo (its original location on Fairfax), and each time the duo played, the crowd grew. Big musicians turned up, too, and not just to watch: John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heart Breakers, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, and superstar session drummer Jim Keltner all joined them onstage. And so The Watkins Family Hour was born—an outlet for friends to play music when they were not out on tour. The group released their debut album last year, and the other Watkins collaborations and mini super groups born out of those nights at Largo—think Mutual Admiration Society (with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket) and Works Progress Administration (with members of Elvis Costello’s band)—are true L.A. stories.
Now, Sean (henceforth referred to as Watkins) has spent time honing his craft as a solo artist, and his fifth release, What to Fear, drops March 18. He calls this his second official solo record, because it’s the second where he’s felt like a leading man. “I turned a corner creatively that got me out of working in band situations & collaborations and focusing more on putting my own material out there under my name,” he says.
His newfound comfort is undeniable. Musically, the album is impressive and lovely. Watkins is a remarkable flat picker and mandolin player, and his tenor voice has surprising range. It doesn’t hurt to have a roster of talented friends backing him up, including his sister on fiddle. But don’t let the folksy acoustic feel fool you—he’s got a lot to say on this record, and for the first time, he’s allowing himself to say it. “I figured out who I was, writing about things in a clear way instead of just throwing things at the walls and seeing what sticks,” he says.
Another first? Writing from other points of view. The title track, an apropos theme song for this election year, channels a “fear mongering newscaster-type person,” he says. “I Am What You Want” is sung from the perspective of a murderer (he calls it a “sort of a feminist murder ballad”—just go with it). Of course, the album is laden with personal melodies like the apology tune “Too Little Too Late” and the ode “Where you Were Living,” dedicated to “people that get stuck in a way of life, afraid to think outside the way they were raised, that sell themselves short and miss out on a lot,” he says. There’s also a nod to his instrumental bluegrass roots in “Local Honey.”
It’s not a stretch to say that Los Angeles—and the warm, welcoming musical family here—has been integral in Watkins’s success. “I love a lot of things about L.A.,” he says. “I love the pool of musicians here; it’s really amazing and eclectic. And I just don’t know any other place where that appears in America. There are so many really great and sweet people, like Benmont (Tench) and Greg (Leisz) and all the people in the Family Hour that have these amazing careers but are also just looking to play. It’s hard to find that. In Nashville, there are so many amazing musicians, but they don’t want to play unless they are being paid for a session. It’s a different vibe. I love the music scene here. It’s surprisingly friendly and non-competitive.” His work in music has even created opportunities in Hollywood: He recently finished composing his first indie movie score. “It was really fun and lots of work,” he says. What’s tough about it is there’s so many possibilities—with computers and technology, you can make any sound you want at any time, and that can be daunting. Once you figure out the vibe, it’s a lot easier. Having done one, I’m hopeful it will open the door for more.”
Sean will gather some of these sweet musical friends to back him up at a record release party on Saturday March 26, at—where else?—Largo at the Coronet.