Window Into Other People

As Nickel Creek grows older, their music is starting to evolve

Preconceptions and assumptions will bury you every time.

Used to be, I figured Nickel Creek was simply a junior-varsity bluegrass band--you know, teens aping the age-old styles born of the high and lonesome sound. But that was before I actually heard the group's recordings.

As for their youth, yes, the three members have played together since they were grade-school age, but their first album was released when they were in their late teens. What's so unusual about that?

When U2's first album, Boy, came out in 1980, those four Irish lads were all in their teens, as was I, so I never really thought of U2 as a teen band. They were just a good band. But those of us in our 30s and 40s or older have tended to observe Nickel Creek only in terms of their ages.

Even when we hear the sophistication and depth of this Northern California-based trio's music--especially its recent, third CD, Why Should the Fire Die?--we think patronizing things such as "wise beyond their years."

But Nickel Creek--or at least its 24-year-old mandolin player and singer, Chris Thile--feel flattered by such praise and welcome the focus on their youth.

"I try and embrace what little youth I have left. You can't run from it," Thile said last week on the phone from his hotel room in Orlando. "I don't want to grow up too fast, and I think one of the fundamental strengths of this band is our perspective, and our age is part of that."

Thile spoke with a mid-morning rasp as he rested up for a concert that evening for a Hard Rock Live gig at Universal Studios. After a break for Thanksgiving, the band will continue its tour in Tucson on Tuesday night, Nov. 29, with a gig at the Rialto Theatre.

With his band mates--Sara Watkins, 24, on fiddle and vocals; and her brother Sean Watkins, 28, on guitar and vocals--Thile has been on the road pretty consistently since he was 18, when Nickel Creek released their first album. "But the first time I left home to go play music somewhere to make money, I think I was 8 years old."

Each of the members writes and sings, and with the latest album, they've begun to redefine the band's collective sound, leaving behind some of the tropes and devices of bluegrass. The effect is not unlike that of a progressive indie rock band's approach to playing traditional folk music.

This description delighted Thile, as he is as interested in the music of Wilco, Radiohead, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Calexico, Solas, Planxty, Bach and Debussy as he is in Béla Fleck.

Nickel Creek also takes risks in terms of narrative and lyrical structure on its new effort, such as in Thile's "Helena," with its breathless run-on thoughts, as well as "Best of Luck" with its unconventional meter and strangely hypnotic melody, sung with a combination of sweet and sour by Sara Watkins.

Thile addressed the new approach.

"We realized somewhere after the last album that part of our songwriting was false. We were trying to write using forms that weren't part of our genetic makeup. We'd be using formulas to create bluegrass or Celtic traditional or story song narratives. We had to break out of that and explore other possibilities.

"For me, the most interesting thing is to not only develop a character, but for that character to evolve over the course of the song."

Change is inevitable, and you either accept it or fight it. Credible songwriting needs to express that, he said.

"Most of my life is about trying to change. I want to become a better person all the time."

The three years between 2002's Grammy-winning This Side and the latest album helped the trio evolve--together and apart. All have played on other musicians' projects. Thile and Sean Watkins both have released solo albums. And as a band, they have performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

Considering Thile's thoughtful, outgoing nature, it's no surprise to learn he was home-schooled from the second grade on. "It was great for me. I think an introverted child might have a hard time with home-schooling. It might make them more introverted, but it was the best thing for me."

Sean and Sara, too, studied at home when they hit their teens, after Nickel Creek's touring schedule made attending conventional school impractical, he said.

Supportive families allowed the members of Nickel Creek to pursue their musical careers early. "As long as it came at no cost to the health of the families," Thile said. "They were never pushy tennis parents by any means, and they were as interested in the music as we were."

An attractive melancholy also is evident on Why Should the Fire Die? Which is in direct contrast the nature of the band members themselves, Thile said.

He acknowledges this, however noting that there are attempts to inject some kind of levity into the proceedings, especially with "Stumptown," a lively bluegrass breakdown, and "Anthony," Sara Watkins' whimsical nod to innocent 1920s novelty songs.

"But, yeah, there's some of that lonesome all up in our music. We're fairly upbeat people overall, I think. But we use songwriting to--not make it the psychologist's couch--but to deal with some of the issues we face in life, to explore emotions."

Thile noted he endured a rough emotional spot earlier this year when he divorced his wife. "And the only song on the album that deals with that directly is the title track, but all of a sudden, I felt like I could write about that sort of journey with a little more authority."

Here, Thile recalled something that friend and colleague Alison Krauss told him. "She said 'Life sounds good, and the more experiences you have behind you, the better your music is.'"

Not all of the songs on Why Should the Fire Die? are autobiographical, especially the wrenching catharsis of "Can't Complain" and the stony-hearted kiss-off that is "Helena."

"'Can't Complain' is a story of a friend I was privy to. And 'Helena' is a character study, I guess. It's what I feel it would be like to let out all my inhibitions, should I allow myself to feel that way."

The process of songwriting allows Thile to be able to put himself in the heads of his characters, he said.

"It becomes a window into other people's experiences. For whatever reason, songwriting seems to propel me into a state where I can feel what it would be like to be that person."

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