Watkins Family Hour’s Sean and Sara Watkins on 20 Years of Communal Residency at Largo in L.A. and Their New Album, ‘Vol. II’

·19-min read

If you live in Los Angeles and you sometimes feel the heat, congestion or cost of living making you wonder about greener pastures, you may keep a running checklist in the back of your mind of Reasons Never to Move Away. If you live in L.A. and you’re a fan of roots or Americana music, you may keep the monthly Watkins Family Hour shows at Largo on that checklist of reasons not to check out— because in what other city are you going to find such a reliable monthly gathering of the contemporary folk-rock tribe?

For 20 years now (maybe 21 — no one thought to start a count in the early 2000s), Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins have been convening some of the top musicians in Southern California, especially those with an acoustic bent, to join them at Largo for (mostly) monthly shows that bring a sense of community to a town where that’s not always easy to find. The extent to which the small, clubby theater enforces its no-phones policy means that potential fans definitely hear about the shows through word-of-mouth, not word-of-video.

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But that doesn’t mean the vibe has gone completely unrecorded. A third Watkins Family Hour record, “Vol. II,” has just been released, with guests that include once-or-current live regulars such as Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Lucius, Madison Cunningham, Gaby Moreno and Benmont Tench. (Read Variety’s review of the album here.) A national tour will also follow this fall.

The siblings are still best-known for being two-thirds of Nickel Creek, a trio of teen prodigies out of the San Diego area who unexpectedly became stars when the band’s self-titled 2000 studio debut unexpectedly went platinum. With that group still on a long hiatus, the Watkinses have mostly focused on solo careers or backing other artists, like Browne, who has taken them out on tour as both opening act and members of his band. And then there’s the Watkins Family Hour, the ultimate side project, “which we occasionally make our day job. Like now,” says Sara. Variety spoke with them on the back patio of Sean’s new home in northeast L.A.

There aren’t a lot of comparable situations where a city has a artist of some renown has anchored a residency for such a long period of time, or even for very long at all, in recent years. Do you know of other situations that exist like this in, say, New York or Nashville?

Sara Watson: I’m sure there are other things, and that they probably have no idea that the Family Hour happens. It’s largely a local kind of thing to know about, right? I know our friend Michael Daves has had a long time residency in New York at Rockwood, and there’s the Time Jumpers in Nashville. But, also, we grew up watching residencies. Like the band that we grew up watching [in Carlsbad, Calif.] — Bluegrass Etc. — they played every week at a pizza parlor for seven years. So it’s oddly normal for us to do it.

Sean Watson: I think what we do in bringing people together and trying to cultivate this little scene here is not that special. The thing that’s special about our situation is that we’ve had this venue and (Mark) Flanagan, who runs it, has provided this place for us to do it. If we were looking for venues like most people who want to start something like this, it’s tough to find a venue that will support you doing it — or that stays open that long. So Flanagan’s a real anomaly in that way. His whole desire is to create community and bring people together and provide a really beautiful place for that all to happen. And the older I get, the more I realize how rare it is. There’s also a comedy side to the scene that’s very, very family-oriented at Largo, where they’re all guesting with each other and working together and growing in their careers. So we’re just like one little part of the Venn diagram of Largo. Sarah Silverman’s probably had one for longer than we have.

Sara: Part of the benefit is just how much it forces you to develop, because you have to do new things; otherwise you’re just repeating yourself to a same audience. There have been so many times over the course of these 20 years where Sean and I won’t see each other much — we’ll be involved in different projects or touring separately — and then we’ll realize, “Oh, shoot, we’ve got a Family Hour in three days. What are we doing?” And it forces us to reconnect, and there’s a scattershot text to friends to see who’s around and what ideas they have that they bring down. And we rely a lot on our friends, like Gaby Moreno and David Garza, to bring people down. “Who are you playing with? Who are you excited about?”

Sean: It’s great for us because we get to meet new people that our regulars bring, which is incredibly nourishing. A few months ago, Taylor Goldsmith [of Dawes], who was gonna be a guest, was texting in the morning about what songs we were gonna do. And he said, “Hey, Marcus Mumford wants to come down,” because they were pals and Marcus was in town working on his album. And Taylor brought Chris Sullivan, who was one of the actors on “This Is Us,” a really great singer-songwriter. We love that, when people are being brought in and it’s not because of us.

At the point of origin in 2001 or 2002, was the kickoff to it your idea or Flanagan’s?

Sean: He made it up. [During Nickel Creek days] we were just showing up to shows and loving it, driving up from San Diego, occasionally sitting in an opening for people. He just said, “Hey, why don’t you guys do a monthly show called Watkins Family Hour? You can do covers. You can try out new songs. I don’t care if 10 people show up or if it’s full.” The people that had regular shows there, like Jon Brion, were like heroes. So it was an honor from day one, but I never thought about it going on for this long.

Has it been 20 years that you’ve been doing the residency at Largo now? Is this an actual anniversary year?

Sean: We really don’t know! A conservative estimate was that we started in 2002, but it may have been 2001. We’ve talked to Flanny at Largo about this and we can’t really pin it. I could probably log into an old AOL email account and search for the people I knew were guests.

So if you didn’t keep track of the starting date, you don’t have a log somewhere to know actually know how many Largo residency shows you’ve done.

Sara: We could estimate it, but there was a while when, for one year, almost for 10 months, it was almost every Thursday. We actually made a poster that said “Most Thursdays: Watkins Family Hour.” But that was too much… If it’s 20 years and we did a show a month for 10 months over 20 years, it would’ve been 200 shows. But that doesn’t seem like enough. To me 200 sounds low; it feels like we’ve done like 700 shows.

Sean: It feels like 1500 to me. But I mean, it probably has been 1500 if you count all the sit-ins that Sara and I do with other people or opening for people, but that’s different.

The two of you work together outside of this, of course, when Nickel Creek is together, or backing up Jackson Browne on a tour, or supporting each other on solo projects or playing in bands at benefit shows. Sibling musicians are supposed to be combustible and come apart eventually — or maybe that’s just a brother thing — but you two seem like you aren’t sick of each other, that you still get off on it.

Sean: Well, we’re really good at pretending.

Sara: We’re very good actors. We moved to Los Angeles…

Sean: …to take acting lessons, exactly. No, we do. We do love playing with each other.

Sara: I think that the side projects make it healthier, though. Because there’s not hostility here, but in any band, it can get tense if you’re just anchored to this one way of doing things and you feel trapped. The thing about the Family Hour is, aside from the records that we’ve made, it’s not for documentation. It’s for the night and then it’s done. And that’s freeing, because whatever happens on the stage happens. Whatever you sound like, whatever you play like, whatever you say, happens, and then it’s done. And then next month is totally different. And there’s something really freeing about that.

Sean and Sara Watkins backstage at Largo
Sean and Sara Watkins backstage at Largo

Sean: I remember so many nights at the old Largo [when it was in a smaller nightclub setting on Fairfax Ave.], but the new Largo too [“new” being a move that happened 14 years ago]… I remember leaving specifically the old Largo, because it was such a small place, and just seeing some incredible music that I could not believe, and then just thinking: That just disappeared in the ether. It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s gone. It happened. I was there and now it’s gone. Because there’s no documentation. Now you can watch [excerpts] of the show that Largo posts on Instagram, but you’re not gonna find a bunch of YouTube clips.

Because Largo has the strictest no-recording, no-phones policy in the world.

Sean: And that’s just such a beautiful, beautiful thing., It’s freeing. We’re so in this mindset of we gotta record, we gotta document this, we gotta preserve it. But that’s not how life is, though, all the time.

Sometimes it’s hard not to have the impulse to think, “If I pulled out my phone right now to record this, how much could I get before they toss me out on my ear? Twenty seconds? A minute?”

Sean: I know, I know! I feel that too when it’s like, I can’t believe what I’m seeing right now. But it’s a great exercise to force you to just be in the moment and not be thinking about “Oh, I really wanna show this to another person.” You’re just enjoying it in the moment. Because as soon as you take that phone out, you’re not enjoying it — not to the fullest.

Meanwhile, you have documented the Family Hour, albeit in the studio, with this new album. Can you explain why it’s the third Watkins Family Hour record but you call it “Vol. II”?

Sean: Our last album [in 2018] was “Brother Sister,” and it was more focused on just the two of us — we wrote and arranged these songs in a way that we could go and tour them as just the two of us. So this is kind of a coming back. The reason we called the album “Vol. II” is it’s sort of building off the first album, which was the band that we were playing with a lot at that time: Don Heffington, Sebastian Steinberg, Greg Leisz, Benmont Tench, Fiona Apple. When we made that record in 2015, that was to chronicle what had sort of accidentally become a band. We had developed arrangements for the first time in Family Hour history that were like fairly consistent, a huge repertoire of songs we could draw from.

Bands expand and contract, and following that tour, we shrank the band down quite a bit and focused on the duo stuff… It’s like pruning. But the arc of 20 years has been coming around again, and we tried in every way that we could to make this album represent at least some of the people that we met and who were influential to us during the course of these 20 years. There are a lot of people who are still regulars, like Benmont Tench. He’s been on tour with Stevie Nicks all this year, and so there’s times when he’s not there, but he’s one of the people who has been playing with us since almost the beginning. Greg Leisz has been playing with us for a long time, although not so much lately. There’s this pool of people that we’ve been pulling from, and it changes, it grows, it evolves…

We didn’t want the to be like, here’s a group of great musicians from Los Angeles playing some random songs. The songs were all very purposefully chosen to represent songs we’ve played over the years, or newer songs, and also songs written by people who have been involved with us, like Glen Phillips, who is the reason why we do Largo. He invited us there for the first time in 2000 or 2001, and so we did a really beautiful song of his called “Grief and Praise” to end the record. We just wanted to keep it very Largo-centric and representative, in that everyone that’s on the record has played with us at least a few times, and sometimes a lot of times. It feels very coherent in that way for us, and we hope that it does to other people.

Sara: The opening track is one we do Jess and Holly from Lucius, and we’re singing this Zombies song, “The Way I Feel Inside,” which Benmont turned us onto very early on in the residency, specifically to do at the Family Hour. But we started from scratch from it, rather than do it the way we’ve done it for the last two decades.

Lucius is a harmonizing duo and you’re a harmonizing duo, so that’s a unique matchup. They’re not sisters, although they dress the part. Besides figuring out how to get four strong voices in harmony, did you ever talk about blood harmony vs. near-blood harmony?

Sean: They’re as close to blood harmonies as you can get without being actual siblings. But, yeah, that is a conversation. We went over to Jess’s house, and we just kind of started from scratch and decided that we would start off singing as a duo and then they would sing another verse as a duo, and then there’s moments where we’re singing all together. But yeah, when you’ve got four people, typically you’ll have a couple double-vocals because usually there’s just three parts in a harmony. It’s like call and answer — a duet of duets..

Sara: Which we’d never done before. A lot of this album came together in the room when we were recording at East West Studio. We knew the musicians we’d have in the room and we had an idea of the arrangements, but a lot of it comes together when you actually have the people playing the parts.

Sean: It’s such a privilege these days to get to record in a studio like East West that has that kind of history. Because recording budgets are a lot smaller, so most of the time nowadays everyone’s in their own garage. I have one. And so to step into that room, which is the “Pet Sounds” room, it just feels like it’s got these amazing musical ghosts that help you.

Sara: I had a moment. I feel like we talked about this when we were in the studio, Sean. This is not to draw equivalency in relevancy…

Sean: Are you gonna say that we’re the new Beach Boys?

Sara: No! A foundational record when I was a kid was the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” records that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did. I remember driving around as a family on road trips, listening to those tapes, and looking at the pictures on like the tiny little cassette – was jewel cases what they were called? The cassette jacket, where the font is so little, you can’t even read the names. But on that record, the thing that I loved the most about it was the conversations that happened between songs.

Sean: The second one? [The original, seminal “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album came out in 1972, and then there was a sequel in 1989, both with all-star casts of influences or contemporaries from the country and singer-songwriter worlds.]

Sara: Both of ‘em, but the second one is the one we listened to the most. They have conversations with Grandpa Jones and Mother Maybelle (Carter) and John Prine and John Hiatt and Emmylou Harris,  even if it’s just starts with a group of people laughing in a room and then they have a false start. It’s just this moment where you kind of get a feeling for what the room might have looked like or how this music was made. This was way before we were musicians. This was like when I was 6 or something! But you’re getting a picture. You’re like, oh my gosh, they’re all right there. We saw bands play. We knew what it looked like when people make music. But I’d never thought about a recording studio, and so it felt like radio drama or something.

I had a moment in the studio when we were making “Standing on a Mountain” [a cover of an old bluegrass song]. Willie (Watson, formerly of Old Crow Madison Show), Sean, Gaby and I were all in a line, Greg Leisz was there in the corner, and Sebastian and Griffin (Goldsmith, Dawes’ drummer) and Benmont, and maybe Tyler Chester (the album’s co-producer)… It was a full room, and I was just standing there with these legends, who are my friends, and who we’ve spent so much life with. We have shared a lot of personal stories together and been on tour together in various capacities, and I feel like they’ve each known me in slightly different eras. It was just a really special moment to be able to be in this historical room with these legendary musicians, singing these old songs together — it just felt like a “circle be unbroken” moment. Not in respect to like, oh, we’re doing the same thing as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but just like: Will my circle be unbroken?

At the end of the album, you capture the feeling of the end of one of your live shows, where everyone who was a guest might come out one last time, by having most of the people who were on the record sing Glen Phillips’ “Grief and Praise.” It’s a song that touches in a big way on mortality. And maybe there is no inappropriate time to do a song like that, in life. But did coming out of the pandemic make it feel especially like a good time to do it?

Sean: Absolutely. I mean, in the middle of it, we lost Don Heffington, who was our drummer for so long — I mean, hundreds of shows we played over the course of probably 10 years. Everyone lost people, within the musical community, just the same as everywhere else. But it’s a sobering situation that makes you appreciate who’s  still around.

Sara: Also, over the course of these two years, we’ve all realized how much life has happened. Oh my gosh, these kids are growing up, and people look older, and health is changing, and so much has changed with us losing track of the calendar. But that is also true for what’s all happened during the course of the 20 years that we’ve been doing this. Parents have passed on. People have moved away; new people have moved to town. Families — there are separations. There are so many huge changes that have happened, things to be grateful for, and things to grieve.

Sean: This album is full of gratitude for what we’ve had all these years. But also, we really didn’t want to lean on the nostalgia of it. I mean, that’s certainly part of it, but we don’t ever wanna do anything because it was fun, or try to recreate things, unless there’s an equal amount of exciting new stuff happening, which is the balance that’s kept us doing this show. Because there’s new people and new songs, we’re continuously challenged, and that’s fun, because I think our guests sometimes feel challenged as well. They like it because it’s a new song. Sometimes it’s people that spend their career playing with somebody on the road, playing specific parts. And this is a place where they can stretch out and solo and there’s no rules.

More tour information can be found here. A list of fall dates:

Sept. 16 – Cincinnati, OH – Longworth-Anderson Series at Memorial Hall

Sept. 17 – Nashville, TN – Americana Fest

Sept. 18 – Indianapolis, IN – The Toby Theatre

Sept. 20 – Ann Arbor, MI – The Ark

Sept. 21 – Kent, OH – The Kent Stage

Sept. 22 – Fort Wayne, IN – Clyde Theatre

Sept. 23 – Bay Harbor, MI – Great Lakes Center for the Arts

Sept. 24 – Chicago, IL – Old Town School of Folk Music

Sept. 25 – Chicago, IL – Old Town School of Folk Music

Oct. 23 – Alexandria, VA – The Birchmere

Oct. 25 – New York, NY – Le Poisson Rouge

Oct. 27 – Albany, NY – The Egg

Oct. 28 – Barre, VT – Barre Opera House

Oct. 29 – Groton, MA – Meadow Hall at Groton Hill Music Center

Oct. 30 – Brownfield, ME – Stone Mountain Arts Center

Nov. 13 – Beaverton, OR – The Reser

Nov. 14 – Eugene, OR – Soreng Theater at Hult Center

Nov. 16 – San Luis Obispo, CA – Performing Arts Center San Luis Obispo

Nov. 29 – Santa Barbara, CA – UCSB Campbell Hall

Dec. 1 – Napa, CA – JaM Cellars Ballroom

Dec. 2 – Menlo Park, CA – The Guild Theatre

Dec. 3 – Los Angeles, CA – The Soraya (Holiday show)

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