Nickel Creek: Three-Way Street
When Chris Thile sings the opening lines of Nickel Creek’s latest album, Celebrants—“My God/ It’s good to see you”—the words carry a weighty significance, beyond that of just a simple greeting. And that same sentiment resonates throughout the rest of the record.
The title kicks off the bluegrass/ folk trio’s first album in nine years. Like the best Nickel Creek cuts, the song is erratic and gorgeous, full of rapid-fire polyrhythmic changes and dynamic shifts, all underlined by a nifty recurring stomp-clap beat. Though the lyrical themes of reunion and reconciliation may seem obvious in the early postpandemic world, they hit especially hard for this particular outfit since Thile has only played with siblings Sara and Sean Watkins sporadically during the past decade.
But that break hasn’t diminished the lifelong bond between the bandmates, who first started Nickel Creek as childhood friends in Southern California circa 1989.
“Every time we come back together, it feels like the next day after the last night we hung out,” singer/guitarist Sean reflects, video-chatting from his home in northeast Los Angeles. “We were all pretty surprised that it’d been nine years, and we didn’t plan to wait that long. Life stuff happens.”
The members of Nickel Creek have grown accustom to navigating “life stuff” recently. In fact, just a couple of weeks earlier, the group was testing out their new album material during the first leg of a lengthy tour when singer/mandolinist Thile experienced a nasty combination of a sinus infection and the flu that caused some vocal-chord damage. Thile’s doctor instructed him to stay offstage—and even limit his speaking—to avoid further injury and the tour was temporally placed on hold. But the trio still got to wet their feet with the first few shows and, by all accounts, their audiences seem to welcome them back with open ears.
“They’ve been excited about the new material,” singer/fiddler Sara says, while checking in from her home in L.A., which is located not too far from her brother’s residence. “It feels great when you can see people singing along already and excited about intros that they recognize. We enjoyed getting the new material under our fingers and onto the stage.”
“It felt amazing, like finding an old pair of jeans in the back of the closet, except they fit and look better than they ever did before,” Thile adds, after shifting his interview mode to email in order to spare his voice while he recovers.
Sean likens the first few shows to “flying an airplane through a storm” and trying to land safely by the end of the set. But, night by night, they’re figuring out the best setlist combinations and gauging the crowd’s response.
Sean points to Celebrants standout “Thinnest Wall” as one selection that is garnering a positive reaction. The song, featuring Sara on lead vocals, is told from the perspective of someone attempting to get through to their partner, who is in a frustrated state and taking it out on the speaker: “I’m on your side of this honey/ And I’m on the other side of who caused you pain/ But you let ‘em have it while you’re talking at my face/ Just what are we fighting for baby/ What are we trying to cure with all of this heat/ You and I decided to be family.”
“People always sing about the beginning and end of relationships,” Sean observes. “It was our M.O. to write about the middle parts of relationships, the middle part of life. As Chris says, the ‘beautiful slog.’
“We started touring heavily in 2000, and we’ve watched our audience grow up with us,” he continues. “From town to town, you see people that you saw as teenagers or when they were still in their early 20s—not individual faces so much as a general feel. So there’s a lot of parents in the crowd now. We are seeing a lot of people that are married and in the middle of life stuff, which is a subject that’s all over the album.”
“One reason there aren’t many songs about the middle of relationships is that their would-be writers are afraid of hurting the people they’re with,” Thile says. “It becomes a lot easier when you’re doing it with co-writers who you’ve known your whole life, who are going through similar things and whose partners you’re having dinner conversations with about those things during the writing process. It ends up feeling like those songs are written in those relationships as opposed to about them.”
The members of Nickel Creek began writing Celebrants in February 2021, while the bandmates and their families were in Santa Barbara, Calif., celebrating Chris and Sean’s birthdays. Once their partners and children had gone to bed, the three musicians stayed up late and began to lay the foundation for what would become their new album.
“We were getting to know each other again, as parents and as adult humans, after having spent so much time apart,” Sara says. “We’d grown into much stronger individuals, and we were finding the commonalities of what themes we were all feeling moved by in our own lives, which invariably made their way into the songs. We find ourselves in a similar place in life; we all have young families now.
“We have this huge foundation, this common history since our families spent so much time together when we were kids. We felt like we were one big blob for the first 20 years of our lives,” she continues. “Then, after moving in separate directions, we were able to come back and revisit a lot of things with an understanding and a trust—this deep love and friendship— but we were also able to respect the individuality of each person in a way that I don’t think we were capable of on previous records, especially when we were touring so much in the early 2000s.”
From the start, the reacquainted friends shared some lofty creative ambitions for their new material, especially given the extra time allotted to them due to the pandemic. (Sean notes that they spent up to 70 days just writing together.)
“Often, the schedule dictates how daring you can be in the writing room,” Thile says. “This time, it was only our collective appetite for creative risk, which turned out to be healthy.”
The trio found inspiration for that expansive approach in The Smile Sessions, a compilation that presents the components of Brian Wilson’s unfinished follow-up to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
“We’ve loved [that collection] for a long time, and we’ve always admired how big of a swing he was taking and what he was reaching for,” Sean says. “So that was one of the references—not necessarily sonically, although we love the harmonies on it. It was more about how he used these themes that reoccur and how it was one solid concept that could be taken apart and looked at in smaller chunks.”
“We didn’t want to run away from the idea of repeating lyrical or melodical themes,” Sara adds. “We wanted to dig into that in a way that we had not done before, which was exciting for all of us.”
According to Sara, that deliberate, agreed-upon approach is what allowed for such a highly collaborative songwriting process—another relatively new experience for three musicians who had traditionally adapted each other’s already written songs. Perhaps unexpectedly, that collaborative spirit produced lyrics that strike the trio as especially straightforward and specific. Sean likens at least one song to “a well-thought-out diary entry.”
“When you’re writing a song by yourself, you know what any vague metaphor might mean to you, and you don’t have to spell it out for the audience,” Sara reflects. “But when you’re co-writing, you have to explain what you mean all the time and ask, ‘What are we really getting at?’
“We’re also just better writers,” she continues. “When you’re learning to write, it’s very tempting to think, ‘Oh, I can be vague and it’s cool—Jeff Tweedy does it so it’s fine.’ But you also don’t have everything else that Jeff Tweedy is contributing. Just because it’s vague doesn’t mean it’s good. Young writers often hide behind the idea of poetry and hidden meaning, even if it’s also hidden to the writer themselves. There’s a place for that, but young writers often do that in a way that’s not effective—we definitely did.”
All three members of Nickel Creek see Celebrants as a story being told song by song, with themes, lyrics, melodies and even characters recurring throughout. The LP’s opening tracks focus on a few acquaintances who haven’t seen each other in a while—bouncing between the benefits (“Celebrants”) and potential drawbacks (“Strangers”) of such encounters. Sara admits that the scenes playing out in her mind during those particular songs concern two old friends bumping into each other at a wedding or high-school reunion while “Water Under the Bridge, Part 1” serves as a gateway to the personal stories that follow: “The darker the secret the more enlightening the story/ The more life in these eddies in our water under the bridge.”
“‘My God, it’s good to see you’ is something you say to an old friend, to a family member, but you can also say it to yourself as a way of remembering who you are as a person and what you want,” Sara muses, referring back to the opening lines of the album. “Invariably, soon after, there comes a little bit of friction. And if you choose to stay in those relationships—with yourself, with your friends and family, with your town—it’s going to be hard. But no change or growth happens without friction. It’s just the nature of the world, and it’s hard.”
A key theme running through Celebrants is centered around the friction that can arise between—and inside of—individuals who have strong and/ or differing idealogies. Specifically, the discussion of religion—a topic close to the hearts of all three bandmates, who were raised in a devoutly Christian community—pops up in several songs. “Thinnest Wall” ends with the words “You’ve burned down the hellfire honey/ Cursed the halos chasing eternity/ Now tell me you don’t notice heaven missing,” and “New Blood”—with its beautiful juxtaposition of haunting verses and a foot-stomping, earworm chorus—pits two speakers with opposing views against each other: “We’ve prayed and we’ve prayed but we’re no less afraid” versus “We’ve thought and we’ve thought but we’re no better off.”
But the real crux of that theme comes in the form of “Goddamned Saint”—one of the record’s strongest tracks—which uses a soaring melody from Thile and interposed thick-harmony sections to tell the story of a young person who is lost in the strict belief system that they were taught to adhere to, until they meet someone who encourages them to explore other interpretations of the world: “I said, ‘What the hell’ and went poking around,” Thile sings, “Like a goddamned saint/ Who lives to seek/ And seeks to test what they believe.”
However, the speaker eventually allows their idealogical pendulum to swing too far to the other side: “I find my choir has ceased to think/ And my thoughts have ceased to sing/ ‘Cause I won’t even have a drink/ With anyone who disagrees… We can only change someone as much/ As we’re willing to be changed.”
Thile explains that, per his frequent lyric-writing strategy, the words for the song sprung from the feeling he got from the initial melodic idea. “Something existential seemed appropriate,” he recalls. “And I thought of how much Sara, Sean and my respective worldviews were changed by a particular mutual friend of ours—and, simultaneously, how that new worldview has calcified, not necessarily for the best.”
“I would say that everyone I know goes through some kind of deconstruction of their upbringing, and that’s totally normal and healthy,” Sara says, adding that the “particular flavor of Evangelical” that pervaded their community followed some “purity-culture” trends in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I have so many friends who were afraid to mention their religious past, and now there’s this huge movement to parse through it, like a Marie Kondo kind of spiritual [decluttering]: ‘Thank you for your service. Goodbye.’ It is like they are saying, ‘I never needed you. Goodbye.’”
“And if you’re not doing that in life, then what are you doing?” Sean explains, after his sister notes that it took them years to sift through what elements of their own religious upbringing were worth keeping and what needed to go. “You’re just sitting there stale. The problem is that if a religion has the idea that questioning it is going to send you to hell baked into it, then your goose is cooked. All you do is follow rules because you’re afraid. There’s no room for growth, and you’re basically in a prison of theology.”
That sort of self-reflection is at the heart of Celebrants and part of what makes it such an impressive step for Nickel Creek. These aren’t easy songs— thematically or musically.
“When a band hasn’t made an album for a long time, there can be a tendency to fall into old patterns and do something nostalgic,” Sean says. “But we all felt very contrary to that and wanted to dig deep and do something new—something that was hard but worth it. And the process was not easy. I think that’s something that we craved and what brought us back together again—that particular mixture of joy, familiarity and challenge that we all feel with this band.”
“I can’t see us ever making a Nickel Creek record that doesn’t stretch us in a unique way,” Sara adds. “With every new record that anyone makes, ideally, you are following your curiosity to new places that are exciting. And, particularly in this band—because of the history and the combined creative power—something about it really works. It’s different from every other project, by a long shot.”