The bluegrass trio reunites with a new album that defies categories  

Grammy-winning Nickel Creek took an indefinite hiatus in 2007 to pursue solo projects. Now the trio—mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins—has returned with a new album, A Dotted Line, which coincides with their 25th anniversary. Featuring eight originals and two covers—Sam Phillips’ “Where Is Love Now” and Mother Mother’s “Hayloft”—A Dotted Line is a clever amalgamation of alt-country, bluegrass and folk. “It all came together so quickly and easily,” says Sean Watkins, who filled in details on how the group rediscovered their old magic.


Why did you reunite? 

We all wanted to get together and write songs to mark the occasion of our 25th anniversary. We thought it might turn out to be an EP or something. Last June we went to Chris’ place and started writing. There was way less stress this time compared with past albums. We know that we can take the individual things we do and put them together. For example, we realized the three-part harmony was something we were good at, and tried to do that more often.

Did the solo projects offer inspiration?

I’m sure they helped in some way. When you listen to someone you respect, you end up learning from them—whether that was Chris’ and Sara’s solo albums or our Watkins Family Hour shows at the Largo in L.A. I know that Chris and Sara have both become better singers and have gained a lot of confidence. Putting ourselves in these different musical situations has made us better.


How’d the recording go?

It was all a very comfortable process. The album was produced by Eric Valentine [Queens of the Stone Age, Smash Mouth], who also produced our last album, Why Should the Fire Die?. We recorded at his studio, and he really brought the best out of each of us. It’s the right combination. We completely trust him to guide us so we can focus on the music. He helps us see the bigger picture. And the recording took such a small amount of time compared to our other albums. We went in later to put down some parts, but it was little more than a week.


Did the time off help?

The break helped us mature. I think we all individually have grown up a lot and evolved. I feel like lyrically I know more about what I like and what I don’t like. Not that I’m not proud of what I wrote before, but it’s different now. It’s easier to analyze why I like songs and why I don’t.


How has your process changed?

You learn to pick your battles. There’ve been times in the past when we got too caught up in the little details, and our wheels would spin. Now when we’re writing, we get down the skeleton of the song and then figure out the lyric later. We’ve cut out a lot of the extraneous stuff and put those questions aside. It’s made the songwriting process a lot easier. I know I’m better now at communicating why I like something and being direct about it. It’s a lot more efficient.


Does your music fit a genre?

It’s a question that doesn’t really accomplish anything. We never set out to record a certain style. When you try to do that sort of blending or genre melding, it can end up sounding affected. We don’t bother putting a bunch of adjectives on it. To us it doesn’t matter the label you put on our music. We leave that to the journalists.

–Blake Boldt

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