Interview: Sara Watkins’ Family-Friendly ‘Under the Pepper Tree’ Is Music for All Ages
Sara Watkins' new album, Under the Pepper Tree, would not exist if not for 2020.
"Definitely not. Definitely not," she tells The Boot a few weeks before the record's Friday (March 26) release. At home after the cancellation of a tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the singer-songwriter "experienced a different rhythm of life."
"It was different for me, anyway, and I realized the value of the rhythm of a day at home in a way that I hadn't before, because I was home for longer, but also because I have this new family life," says Watkins, now the mother of a 3-year-old daughter. The singer was herself just 12 years old when she released her first album, as a member of the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek; now almost 40, Watkins has also released three other solo albums and collaborated with a variety of artists, including as part of the trio I'm With Her.
"There's a wonderful art -- and kind of a sacred art -- to maintain each day that helps things go smoother ... and part of that rhythm is calming down in the evening," Watkins explains. "The fatigue of parenthood has taught me the value of not quite sleeping, but getting to that place where you stop thinking and you're only in this kind-of twilight state of mind, and it's restorative ... It's like a magical time in your day."
Under the Pepper Tree is meant for those moments. The 15-song collection aims to soothingly inspire imagination and offer dreamy music for quieter times -- for children, yes, but also for the adults listening with them.
"Hopefully [the adults listening will] be able to enjoy a good deal of that sort of calm wonder that most of us don't give ourselves time to have anymore," says Watkins, whose daughter has helped her re-discover that part of her personality. "It's a wonderful thing to be reminded of things that are beautiful and special, and to not be so jaded and dismissive of the things that we think we understand or maybe stopped taking notice of."
On Under the Pepper Tree, listeners will find not only songs traditionally considered children's music -- "The Second Star to the Right" and "When You Wish Upon a Star," both classics from the Disney canon, for example -- as well as "Pure Imagination" for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the Breakfast at Tiffany's song "Moon River" and the Beatles' "Good Night."
"I wanted to make an album of songs that really meant something to me and my childhood, and many of these songs ... I've connected to them at several times throughout my life," Watkins explains. "And they serve me in different ways. And they have this kind of timeless amount of play in them, and this this quality that I think can resonate with with people in all different stages of their lives."
The album also offers two original songs, and several collaborations, including with her Nickel Creek and I'm With Her bandmates. Watkins' daughter sings with her, too, on "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music, by what Watkins calls "total luck."
"I had hoped that it would happen, but I imagined that [what became the final recording] was a practice swing ... She had never heard her voice through a microphone into headphones before, and she didn't really know the song, either," Watkins recalls. "If you listen to her solo track ... you would just hear her eating the microphone halfway through. She's just getting louder as she gets closer and closer to the microphone.
"It was a cute little moment, and I wasn't able to get her again without her talking in the middle of a take or, you know, being a toddler," Watkins adds. Her daughter now listens to the album's songs often, and will ask for them by name.
Taking cues from some of her daughter's vintage children's records, Watkins paid extra attention to Under the Pepper Tree's song sequencing and packaging, including an intricate album cover designed by Adam Sniezek. "We wanted it to be this kind-of surreal thing, where you're playing with textures and images from different perspectives, and in different areas and colors ... and I feel like that's something you can look at forever," Watkins says.
"That's just something that I really hope is instilled in my daughter -- and I hope that it's something that I continue to do -- is just keep noticing things," she continues. "I think there's so many fun things to just pick up on and imagine your way through."
Just as her daughter has put Watkins back in touch with her inner child, so, too, did creating Under the Pepper Tree. The record, she says, "was such a joy to work on": an opportunity to look at something she's been doing for years -- creating music -- in a new light.
"In the rhythm of a touring musician, in all of the joys and all the wonderful ups and downs -- I feel like I've gone through the cycle several times," Watkins muses, "and it's really fun to do something different."
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