Sara Watkins has come of age with Young in All the Wrong Ways. Her third album, which dropped in July of 2016, is the charm. The gifted fiddler/vocalist from the progressive bluegrass act Nickel Creek, which reunites on occasion, has made her first album with a unified theme. There is welcome continuity, which her prior releases lacked.
"This was a different album for me," Watkins says on a call from Kent, Ohio. "It's the first album I co-wrote all of the songs. There is a common denominator there. The music suits the lyrics, which I think is a really good thing."
Watkins, 35, proves to be a good storyteller throughout Young in All the Wrong Ways. The soft-spoken multi-instrumentalist knows the formula when putting together a gripping yarn. "You don't have to be miserable to write songs," Watkins explains. "That's something a lot of people believe, but it's not true. You need conflict and resolution. I think that's the way it's always been in entertainment. I think that's the way it will always be."
A great deal of the album was inspired by Watkins' personal tumult. "It's relatable," Watkins says. "Everybody has ups and downs. I think the fans who support me relate to what I wrote for this album."
It helped that Watkins, who performs Wednesday at the Plaza Live, wanted to challenge herself: "I had to take a step forward with this one since I didn't want to be a complacent musician. Everything can't just be all right. We have to strive for much more. I've felt like this for years, well before this crazy and aggressive presidential election."
Give Watkins credit for taking some chances while making her latest album. She could have gone the route traveled by many of her peers, but she wanted to take a chance. "I could have just stayed in my comfort zone," Watkins offers. "But why do the same thing again and again? I grappled with the personal tumult in my life and just went in another direction, which I think is healthy."
Watkins straddles the line between bluegrass and indie folk, moving from bittersweet ballads to rollicking barn-burners. "It's certainly a balancing act," she agrees.
It helps when you have ace tunesmith/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Beyoncé) around. "He's such an amazing musician," Watkins enthuses. "He just kept turning up so we decided to keep him. He definitely made an impact on this album. I'm really happy with how this album turned out. I'm in a really good place as a solo artist."
So where does that leave Nickel Creek, Watkins' initial band, which formed in 1989 and went on hiatus in 2007? "Well, we did get back together [in 2014] and all is good," Watkins clarifies. "But since we got back together, things are different. Nickel Creek is no longer the focal point of our lives. It will never be the focal point. I'm sure we'll do stuff together and that's all good. But when I look at the future, Nickel Creek will never be everything to us like it once was. Nickel Creek will just be one of the projects that we do. In the future, I want to challenge myself as much as possible."