Mandolinist Chris Thile has had an extensive music career. Along with a prolific solo discography, he’s a member of the Brooklyn based progressive bluegrass act Punch Brothers and he became the host of the syndicated weekly radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion in 2016, which went by the name Live From Here a year later until its conclusion in 2020. He’s a multi-award winning musician, but the band that was his launching pad was Nickel Creek, a bluegrass trio he started back in 1989 with siblings Sara and Sean Watkins on fiddle and guitar.
The band released their fifth major album, Celebrants, in March to widespread acclaim and they will be performing a few songs off of the album at College Street Music Hall in New Haven on Tuesday. Los Angeles singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno will be kicking off the show at 8 p.m.
Thile and I had a chance to talk recently about how the creation process for the new album started, recording the album in a legendary studio, artistic growth and presenting the music from Celebrants in a live setting.
RD: Celebrants is Nickel Creek’s first release in nearly a decade. What was it like heading back into the studio with Sara and Sean after such a long time away?
CT: I think that we were completely taken aback by how long it had been, we had no idea. I liken it to sometimes forgetting to hang out with your best friends because they’re your best friends, you know they’re not going anywhere and you know that you’re not in danger of losing the connection. Life is coming at you from all sides, when you try to make plans you can’t make plans because something comes up and before you know it, it’s been six months since you’ve hung out with your very best friends in the world. That’s how it was this time for Sean, Sean and myself. The first time we took a long break was after our third record, which was Why Should The Fire Die?, and that time we needed to.
We had been in the band together since we were children, Sara was 8 and Sean was 12 when the band started and we had done it instead of growing into adult human beings. By the time we got into our mid-20s, we knew that we really needed to go off and become our own individual people. We called it “Farewell (For Now)”, but I don’t know if we really knew whether we would pick it up again or not. Then we did and we had so much fun with it when we made the record A Dotted Line and after that touring cycle we once again took some time off but we fully planned on getting together to make another record. Then just freakin’ life happened, we started having kids, I took a job hosting a radio show and Sara was playing with I’m With Her while Sean was doing a bunch of scoring.
Both of them were also doing the Watkins Family Hour and I was playing with Punch Brothers, there was so much stuff going on, especially with each of us having children. The next thing you know, it’s lockdown and all of those things went away except the kids. Sara, Sean and I were on a call doing an interview because someone discovered that it was the 20th anniversary of our first record. With it being a conference call, we stayed on the line after the interview was over just talking and realizing that we all had free schedules because we couldn’t perform live. We decided to quarantine and start working on a new record, so there was months and months and months of writing that proceeded going into the studio.
It was cathartic as all hell. We didn’t just get together as the three of us, it was the three of us with our families in a big house in Santa Barbara being quarantined. We did a few livestreams to help pay for it all, my family and I drove across the country in our Mini Cooper with our dog. It was me, my wife, our kid and our dog Splinter, we all survived the trip amazingly and met Sean and Sara out there with their families. I got to see these lifelong friends with their partners and their children and it was so inspiring. Reforging this connection that’s so meaningful to the three of us in the company of our families is sort of what provided the underpainting for the record and the main themes that we mused on throughout.
RD: From the way you described it, it sounds like it was a very enjoyable experience. I can see why it would be very cathartic. The studio you three used to make the album is a pretty legendary one at RCA Studio A in Nashville, which was partly built & founded by country music legend Chet Atkins. How were you able to get into that space to record with Eric Valentine as the producer? Did you just simply rent it out or did one of you utilize a connection you had to use the studio?
CT: We were really lucky. Eric is buddies with this producer Dave Cobb who has worked with Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlisle and all kinds of folks. He had that room sort of on lockdown and right now he’s just sort of permanently working in there, but we caught him in an off period and Eric asked if it would be ok to kind of sublet it from him. He said “Totally”, so we got in there and it’s one of the best sounding rooms I’ve ever been in. My little station was right where Dolly Parton sang the vocal for “Jolene” so you definitely think about that kind of stuff in a room like that.
The sound around the sound is so stunning and with ears like Chet’s having sort of ushered it into being, you would expect nothing less. It is interesting how those spaces acquire personality over time.
RD: Yeah, I totally agree. You mentioned earlier how you, Sara and Sean started Nickel Creek when you were kids and your first ever show was at a spot called That Pizza Place in Carlsbad, California, which actually used to have weekly bluegrass shows that you and your family used to attend. Going from that time to now, how would you describe the growth of yourself, Sara and Sean as both musicians and bandmates?
CT: Well, we were practically babies when we started. We didn’t write much in the very, very early days but there were some we were threatening to create. The main thing that’s changed over the years since we became full-fledged musicians when we made our self-titled album with Alison Krauss, I think Sara and I were 17 and Sean was 21, is that we’re confident enough and secure enough as individual musicians that we let each other in all the way. It’s not that there aren’t occasional disagreements and things like that when we’re putting in the hard work, like anyone does in any sort of committed relationship whether it’s platonic or romantic, but if you trust or respect the person who’ve you let in to that extent you stand to change. You stand to be changed, to evolve, to develop and widen your perspective, which to me is ultimately what all of this is about and why I prioritize collaboration to the extent that I do in my musical life.
Especially with people like Sara and Sean who I respect so much and I have so much shared experience with, it’s really exciting to be able to sit in a writing room with them and tease out an idea. To have an idea, show it to them and immediately gain so much perspective on it, because when you come up with a thing, there’s a sense to where you have the least perspective. You know what you meant and that can get in the way of what’s actually there. You can confuse what you mean with how it’s actually coming out through the idea that’s just not there. Sometimes I might have a thing, show it to Sean and Sara and realize as they’re learning it that this big aspect I thought was important wasn’t at the extent yet.
They’ll start getting their fingerprints on it and I’ll hear a whole other aspect of the idea that I wasn’t aware of. It’s vice versa, one of them will play around with something and the next thing you know it’s fundamentally changed. We are comfortable enough and secure enough at this point that we can allow the other two of us in all the way to get our fingerprints all over an idea when we’re playing or singing something. Everything is open to discussion.
RD: That’s part of the beauty of collaborating, especially when you’ve been working with people for a long time. You also mentioned earlier that you used to host a radio show and that was Live From Here, which was originally called A Prairie Home Companion when it was hosted by Garrison Keillor. How would you describe the experience of hosting the program and do you think you would ever pursue any projects similar to Live from Here in the future?
CT: Yeah, I think so. The experience was amazing, it was also hairraising. It was a lot getting two hours of brand new, audible art and entertainment up for 27 weeks out of the year. I read a quote, I think it was Johnny Carson saying that making an episode of The Tonight Show was like trying to change a tire while driving 80 miles an hour down the freeway and that was definitely how it felt. As a result, it was really fun and you figure it out because you have to. There no choice, you’re going live at 6pm EST on a Saturday so it was really, really fun and I was sad to see it go but I think we really had a good run.
I got to do it for five years including a season where I was being groomed by Garrison and the other four it was me doing it by myself. It was a real joy and honor to be able to do it and I think I would do it again at some point, a subversion of it, so stay tuned.
RD: I will and I used to enjoy listening to it on the radio, I always was a fan of it. For folks who haven’t listened to Celebrants yet but probably will before the show at College Street Music Hall, what do you hope they take from it and how do you, Sara and Sean plan on presenting it in your live performance? How do you plan on intertwining it with the rest of your material?
CT: That’s the fun, new task. Making the record is one thing and this record is easily the most ambitious record we’ve made. It is about something, it is about togetherness and connecting as fellow human beings and embracing the friction inherent in committed human relationships. The record in a way is like one long song and the songs themselves in how they’re comprised are like verses of that singular song. There are themes that they share, not just lyrically but musically as well.
The bridge of one song will end up being the verse of another. A certain song will come from one perspective on a certain aspect of the theme and a different song will have the opposite perspective, so they will almost have opposing perspectives. Things like that happen throughout the course of the record and the record is a world in and of itself, which was our intention. Now when we go to play it live, how do we get that world to coexist with the previous worlds that we’ve made? With those other worlds being constructed in a more haphazard way, although they were really fun those previous records didn’t have a guiding principle necessarily generating all of the material the way that Celebrants did.
You could worry that this album would lend itself less readily to being recontextualized in a set full of music from all the records that we made. We’ve gotten to work on it a little bit already and the way that the material plays ball with the old material is really fun. Particularly with a band that has as much history as Nickel Creek, I think that the stuff that we’re musing about in the new record actually deepens when you hear it as it’s rubbing shoulders with material we’ve made as kids. There’s something powerful about that, the kind of things that we’re observing on Celebrants is almost like a deep flashback sequence in a movie and when they work well they work really well. That’s kind of how it’s feeling to me hearing the old material with the new material.
We’re absolutely going to play that old stuff. In fact, we’re really excited because at this point I’m 42 and I remember writing some of these songs when I was 16 in my childhood bedroom. It’s like they’re someone else’s songs, they don’t even feel like my songs. Maybe six years after our self-titled album came out, we were pretty tired of that material and we didn’t feel connected to it at all, we were even embarrassed about it. If you think about when you were dating someone, you bring them home when you were in your early 20s, they meet your folks, they trot out a photo album and you see pictures of yourself in adolescence and you’re just so, so, so embarrassed.
RD: The baby photo moment.
CT: Yeah, but this is more with adolescence when you’re becoming who you are but it’s so awkward. The chemistry is going crazy, we all go through an awkward stage and your parents are trotting it out. For us, some of the old material felt like that for years and years and years but now when you reach your 40s you see that you look just as cute in adolescence as you did in baby pictures. Now there’s this affinity for it and it’s because of the detachment that comes with age, so when we perform something like “The Lighthouse’s Tale” or “When You Come Back Down” from our first record I really enjoy performing it now because I feel like I’m getting to role play or that I’m being transported back to the person that I was, which I’m just not anymore. That actually enables a far more sincere and committed performance now than I experienced during my teenage years when I wrote those songs.
It’s fun and I think that Sara and Sean feel the same way about the various material that they spearheaded during those early records. Going from “The Lighthouse’s Tale” and then launching into something like “Goddamned Saint” is really interesting to me. It’s like an aging experiment with what happens as we grow older and no longer share any cells with the person that we used to be, but it’s preserved in these various little artworks. I think it’ll be really fun, and speaking of artworks, when we come to New Haven, I just discovered the Yale University Art Gallery and it’s freaking amazing. There’s a room with works by Picasso and Pollock, it’s this wonderful concentration of brilliance so you can bet that I’m going to get a quick hit of that before I step on stage.
with Gaby Morneo
8 p.m. @ College Street Music Hall
238 College Street, New Haven