At the heart of Nickel Creek, you have three innovative acoustic musicians who are like family — the kind of family that can effortlessly pick up a conversation where they left off years ago. With Celebrants, their first new album together in nine years, the trio of Chris Thile and Sara and Sean Watkins brought their own families to a house in Santa Barbara, California, for a session of songwriting, singing, and simply catching up. A few years earlier, in 2020, they’d done an interview about the 20th anniversary of their debut album and soon realized that they needed to look forward as well. They recorded Celebrants in Nashville’s RCA Studio A in 2021 with producer Eric Valentine and bassist Mike Elizondo.
“There’s no substitute for time spent together, you know?” Thile says. “Take these old instruments we all play. Mine was built in 1924, so sound has been vibrating through it for almost 100 years. You can make a mandolin or violin or guitar now with the same care and skill and materials, but there’s no substitute for what age and use does to the wood. That’s what Sara, Sean, and I have together. We started this band in 1989, and at this point, music just vibrates through us in a different way than I’ve experienced in any other collaboration.”
Sara Watkins continues, “It’s cheesy to say, but it feels like coming home when we are together. But what is so valuable to me in my life about this band is it’s never about recreating something that happened when we were kids. Nickel Creek continues to be the most challenging musical experience that I’m engaged in. It is invaluable to have the comfort and the history and the deep appreciation for the life we’ve shared so far, and to be making music that feels unique and challenges me in new ways to be a better musician. You can’t have growth without a little resistance.”
“We have this crazy connection that’s lasted so many years and we’ve seen each other through so many different phases of life and been able to stay relevant in an honest way,” Sean Watkins adds. “We’re not trying to keep this alive. It honestly is just alive. We nurture it, but it’s just there. I think the older I get and see how many bands are dysfunctional, I appreciate what we have. And then on top of that, musically, it’s 100% fulfilling. As we’ve matured as a band, we’ve leaned on our strengths more. It’s just so fun. For me, singing three-part harmony with Sara and Chris is the best feeling. When we’re really doing it right, it doesn’t get better than that.”
Celebrants follows acclaimed albums such as the self-titled project in 2000 (produced by Alison Krauss), This Side in 2002 (which won a Grammy), Why Should the Fire Die? in 2005, and A Dotted Line in 2014. As other collaborative collections have appeared, all three members have been gracious with their time. (For example, we’ve interviewed Chris Thile about his newest solo album, his intriguing work with Goat Rodeo, and of course the always impressive Punch Brothers. Sara and Sean have chatted with us too, about Watkins Family Hour, the power trio I’m With Her, and Sara’s delightfully dreamy children’s album.) We’re pleased to say that we’ve conducted individual interviews with all three members of Nickel Creek for our Artist of the Month series, with those Q&As rolling out in the weeks ahead.
Until then, look for the band on tour. This month alone, they’ll deliver a kick-off show in Cincinnati, continue with a run of dates in New England, play three sold-out nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and close out the MerleFest lineup on Sunday, April 30. The family reunion doesn’t stop there, as shows are scheduled through October with a couple of European dates for good measure. Until then, enjoy our new BGS Essentials playlist for Nickel Creek.
Photo Credit: Josh Goleman