Around this time last year, just about everyone was blindsided by the COVID pandemic. It’s hard to imagine that a year later, we’re only starting to get better, but that’s where we’re at. Here at SPIN, we decided to make the most of it and put together a livestream called Lullaby Sessions where musician parents would quietly help fans put their kids to be bed by singing quiet songs.
One of our first performers was Sara Watkins, who took things to a whole different level. Following her session, Watkins decided to make a new album comprised of quiet, lullaby-type songs. Titled Under The Pepper Tree, it is the Nickel Creek musician’s first solo album in five years and is produced by Tyler Chester.
“I thought it was a nice little challenge! I needed a task and something to focus on,” Watkins tells SPIN. “It gave me an opportunity to think about the songs that I love that fill that space without actually being lullabies. The way that I remember the Lullaby Sessions being pitched is it was for songs for the evenings. That’s when I started thinking about ‘Blue Shadows on the Trail’ and a few others. It was a nice little specific challenge to have.”
At a time when everyone was struggling, Watkins found the innocence of those songs served to a way to help cope with those challenging early days.
“With a few exceptions, I feel like all of these songs are just beautiful and realistic well-wishings. Maybe with the exception of the lyric ‘your dreams will come true’ from ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ – that’s youthful optimism. But there are some beautiful truths in these songs that are here for us at any time,” she says. “Once I did the Lullaby Sessions, that got me thinking about what other songs I would do. Pretty quickly, I started to put together an album and the whole thing started taking shape from there.”
Watkins enlisted a number of her friends, including Dawes‘ Taylor Goldsmith and David Garza, along with assorted bandmates Chris Thile, her brother Sean Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aofie O’Donovan to collaborate on the tender album. However, it wouldn’t have truly captured the spirit without the inclusion of her 3-year-old daughter, who she shared vocals with on “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.
As for the record itself, Watkins incorporated a pair of new songs along with a bunch of familiar tunes, like “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, “Blue Shadows From the Trail” from the 1986 film Three Amigos and the Beatles’ “Good Night.” “These songs offer reassurance and an invitation to imagine. Many of them are familiar to older listeners and I hope they bring happy memories of having experienced these movies and songs when they were children.”
Instead of being engulfed by the doldrums, Watkins used the pandemic to push herself as an artist while having fun in the process.
“I like a task, and it gave me something to focus on that I really enjoyed. A fun challenge, an excuse to learn these songs that I love, and to try and find a thoughtful way to perform them by myself.”